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 Collecting data in rural communities

Based in Uttar Pradesh, India, Oorja: Empowering Rural Communities is a social enterprise engaged in using renewable energy as a vector for social, economic and environmental change. Oorja's mission is to provide clean, reliable and affordable energy access to rural communities whilst promoting sustainable local economic development. We see ourselves not merely as energy providers, but rather as catalysts of an eco-system where the poor are empowered and have more equitable access to health, education, clean water, sanitation, and livelihood opportunities.

As a company co-founded and run by a development practitioner and a PhD student, we understand well the importance of robust data for planning, execution and measurement of impact of our interventions. As part of our site selection process for our clean energy plants, we visit remote off-grid and underelectrified villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and record baseline data to understand the demographics and standard of living of these communities as well as estimate the potential energy demand of low-income households, academic and health institutions, and small businesses. This is key to deciding the capacity of the plant to install, the energy price that households and businesses can afford, the payment methods that best fit the community in question, and the community development projects that we can develop and undertake.

Similarly, when we follow up with each community to measure and analyze the impact of our efforts, we implement a series of household and community surveys to measure changes in living standards, utilizing indicators such as health, education, economic participation, food security, happiness, women’s empowerment, and local economic development.

Collecting data in rural communities in developing countries is as daunting as it is rewarding. In this post I will try to share my experiences, joys, trials and tribulations of measurement and evaluation in rural communities.

A road in Bihar that we used to access remote rural communities.

1. Many of the communities we work with are very hard to reach.

Given the challenging infrastructure, public transport is very inefficient and you end up depending on a car and a driver. These drivers, however, don’t use GPS, so you are in charge of finding your way with your non-existent local knowledge or intermittent mobile data connection. A number of obstacles can seemingly materialize out of thin air: the poorly maintained roads can become unsafe very quickly, construction and maintenance work can cut off your route entirely, or traffic and other blockages can force you to turn around or wait for hours. As a rule, it is advisable to double the time that Google Maps recommends so that these delays don’t disrupt your schedule completely.

Tea? Start the "chulha," a traditional cooking stove, 20 minutes beforehand.

2. The concept of time doesn’t exist and everything takes longer than expected.

Amit Saraogi, CEO and Co-founder of Oorja, visiting off-grid rural communities in Uttar Pradesh.

3. Forget about the internet and welcome human and animal interactions.

4. No access to electricity, which means you can’t work after dark. Also make sure you charge all your devices the previous night (including your survey tablets!).

Rose Chaparro, M&E Director at Oorja, collecting data with her tablet on the need for clean energy to power irrigation pumps. Bihar (India)

5. No proper furniture to sit on and write, which make tablet surveys and multiple choice questions a much more convenient option.

6. Local translators think that you are clueless and wonder why you ask the same questions to everyone again and again as you already know the answers!

Data samples normally consist of 50 households. Translators don’t understand why we want to ask exactly the same questions again and again. In this picture, Clementine Chambon, CEO and Co-founder of Oorja, conducts a community interview with the help of a local translator.

7. People laugh at you when you ask questions with answers that are “obvious” to them, like who collects the firewood for cooking?

Sheila, an Aasha worker, collecting wood for cooking meals. Baharbari village, Bihar

8. Women don’t want to participate in the interviews if men are around.

To measure the impact of access to electricity in empowering women, we have to interview them. The task is hard as young women are shy and don’t want to take part in the interviews. Generally older women are more confident in speaking out.

9. Even when women do participate, there is always a man around that feels the need to answer for them.

When we visit households women tend to sit in the back while men want to take the active role. To overcome this, we are starting to conduct women-only community meetings so that they can express themselves freely and feel comfortable.

10. People don’t know their age and give you ballparks with a wide range. With no accounting incomes are also skewed with expenses exceeding them more often than not.

11. You end up having 6 meals a day and an overdose of caffeine and sugar as in every house you are served food and chai. Their generosity is overwhelming so it’s hard to decline. 

12. In some cases there are no toilets, which becomes a bit of a problem after all the spicy food and innumerable chais that you eat and drink.

13. You overcome your fear of spiders, street dogs, cows, goats, and dogs.

14. All the kids in the village enthusiastically follow you and people want to take photos and selfies with you.

Girls in rural Bihar taking photos of our team.

15. You end up carrying cauliflowers and carrots home.

16. You can’t resist the temptation of carrying every baby and baby goat in your arms.

Oorja team in the field collecting data and baby-sitting.

17. Risk to stay forever.  After the overdose of love you are given, you don’t want to leave.

Playing with children in rural Bihar

Written by Rose Chaparro, Communications and M&E Manager

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