Olympians Balance Parenthood With Chasing Career Goals

After finishing her fourth Winter Games in Sochi, Kikkan Randall decided: It was time to have a baby. But the cross-country skiing champion wasn’t ready to give up her Olympic goals.


So, at 32, she looked at the calendar and plotted her window: 2016, a gap year. No World Cup circuit and no Olympics. If things worked out as planned, Randall could get pregnant, give birth and be back in competition and qualify for Pyeongchang.


It’s the kind of calculation many ambitious career women are forced to make. For the three-time World Cup Sprint Champion regarded as a pioneer of American women’s skiing, there was one more challenge ahead before retirement: Pushing herself to a fifth and final Olympics after having a child.


“I’d worked really hard to get the pinnacle of skiing … I knew I couldn’t wait another four years to start a family,” said Randall, now 35, whose record-setting resume has earned her the nickname “Kikkanimal.”


“I’d had an amazing career up to that point,” Randall said. “I just felt like, in a sport like cross-country, where it takes so many years to develop to your top potential, I didn’t want to have to make the choice of career or family. I had a feeling I would be able to come back to skiing stronger, but it was definitely an unknown. If I had to pick one season to miss, it was a good one.”


Randall did get pregnant in 2015. Her son, Breck, was born the following spring . She is the only mother on the U.S. Olympic Team, which also has 20 fathers this year.


When Randall returned to competition in 2016, she wasn’t the only new mom on skis. Randall and her friend and competitor, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, gave birth within two weeks of each other. Marit Bjoergen of Norway — regarded as the best woman in the sport — had her child four months earlier. French skiers Aurora Jean, Anouk Faivre-Picon and Caroline Hugue, and Slovenia’s Katja Visnar had new babies, too.


Most are competing in Pyeongchang, and have had to balance the challenges of parenthood and career with the help of fellow athletes, friends and family — and not always with the support of their workplace.


“It’s a sport that requires so much time,” said Randall’s husband, former Canadian race skier Jeff Ellis . “It’s impressive what they’ve done as moms.”


For Randall, skiing has often come first. When she married in 2008, there was training season to consider — along with the Alaska spring. She and Ellis wed at the beginning of May, shortly after both seasons began. One of her coaches officiated the ceremony.


After a couple of tries, Randall conceived in August 2015. She trained throughout her pregnancy, sticking to a shortened version of her twice-a-day routine, including running through her seventh month, interval training to keep her heart rate up, and weight training — which got her some funny looks in the gym as her belly grew.


Randall delivered Breck in April and , like many moms, was back at work after six weeks, missing only a month of the training season. She would pump breast milk between workouts, time feedings around her training, and bring Breck along in a baby jogger for hikes and runs. Easing the transition was a supportive husband, who works only in the winter, and Randall’s parents, who live close by in Anchorage.


“In today’s world it’s kind of the only way you can do it,” said her father, Ronn Randall, 68. “This is just a little bit on steroids here. But when she discussed it with us, I thought it was a completely natural thing to do. I knew it could have an impact on her career, but you don’t want a career to have an impact on your life, either.”


When Randall returned to the World Cup circuit in 2016, Breck was also in tow, along with both sets of grandparents. With several moms competing, race organizers set up a baby room at venues for breastfeeding or changing diapers. Extra credentials were made available for caretakers, who were also able to take advantage of the team rate for accommodations.


“It was the first time they’d ever done something like that,” Randall said.


There was also a new camaraderie among the ski moms, who set up a Facebook group for support and updates.


Randall had hoped to bring Breck to Pyeongchang for her final Games, but the cost of family housing proved too expensive. The 22-month old is with her husband’s parents in Canada.


Randall said she sees an opportunity for the International Olympic Committee to do more to support athletes who are also parents.


“I haven’t experienced it from the men’s side, but there are unique challenges when you’re a mother,” she said. “We’re not talking about 500 athletes here; we’re talking about maybe 10 mothers, more if we include fathers, and not everyone’s going to take advantage of it. It allows families to be close.”


IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said assistance for athletes is typically provided by their national Olympic committees.


Still, Ellis said after watching his wife over the past two years, it’s doable.


“You don’t have to choose one or the other,” he said. “If anything, she’s a more balanced athlete than she was prior to [having Breck].”


While she is hopeful for her Olympic prospects this year, as she heads into retirement, Randall said she already considers her decision “a really successful experiment.” She wants to encourage other women athletes who may also find themselves at this point.


“I’m blending the two most important things in my life: My family and my skiing,” Randall said. “It’s great to have another thing turn out so well.”


From: MeNeedIt

Rights Group Sounds Alarm Over Chechnya’s Role in Soccer World Cup

Human Rights Watch has said world soccer’s governing body must tackle rights abuses in Russia’s Chechnya region now that one of the teams in this year’s World Cup in Russia has chosen Chechnya as the location for its base camp.

Rights groups and Western governments allege that the authorities in Chechnya repress their political opponents, discriminate against women and persecute sexual minorities, all allegations that Chechnya’s leaders deny.

The region is not hosting any World Cup matches, but the world governing body, FIFA, said that the Egyptian national team will use the Chechen capital, Grozny, as their base between matches.

“This suddenly makes Chechnya, which was not on the list of Russia’s World Cup regions, one of the World Cup sites,” Tatyana Lokshina, Russia Program Director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters Television.

“Chechnya has been run by Ramzan Kadyrov, a ruthless strongman who with the blessing of the Kremlin has been ruling it with an iron fist through brutal repression for over a decade,” said Lokshina.

“FIFA must understand that the situation with human rights in Chechnya is indeed so dire that unless something gets done without delay it’s going to cast an ominous shadow on the World Cup,” she said.

Contacted by Reuters on Wednesday, a spokesman for Kadyrov said the stance adopted by Human Rights Watch was unfounded.

“These conclusions are not based on anything, they are not grounded in the real situation in the Chechen Republic,” said the spokesman, Alvi Karimov.

“I can state with full responsibility that the Chechen Republic is a more worthy location than all the places where World Cups have been conducted up to his point.”

FIFA said in an emailed statement to Reuters that “there should be no doubt that in line with its Human Rights Policy, FIFA condemns discrimination of any form.”

“When FIFA was confronted with the incidents in Chechnya last year, we strongly condemned them,” it added. FIFA confirmed it had received a letter from Human Rights Watch over the matter and said it would respond shortly.

The Egyptian team manager, Ihab Leheta, said that the choice of Grozny was endorsed by FIFA, and that the city had the right facilities for the squad.

He told Reuters any reservations about Chechnya as a venue should be addressed to FIFA and not to the Egyptian team. “For us the place is good and calm, the people are welcoming us,” Leheta said of the Chechen capital.

According to FIFA, the Egypt squad will stay in a newly built hotel in Grozny and train at the nearby stadium, Akhmat Arena. It is named after Chechnya’s former leader, and Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a 2004 bomb attack.

From: MeNeedIt

Uber’s Net Loss Widens to $4.5B for Tumultuous 2017

Ride-hailing giant Uber’s full-year net loss widened to $4.5 billion in 2017 as the company endured a tumultuous year that included multiple scandals, a lawsuit alleging the theft of trade secrets and the replacement of its CEO.

The results also showed that Uber cut its fourth-quarter net loss by 25 percent from the third quarter as new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi moves to make the company profitable ahead of a planned initial public stock offering sometime next year.

The full-year loss grew from $2.8 billion in 2016, a year with results skewed by a gain from the sale of Uber’s unprofitable business in China. Uber also said its U.S. ride-hailing market share fell from 82 percent at the start of last year to 70 percent in the fourth quarter. Uber said the share has now stabilized.

Gross revenue for the year rose 85 percent over 2016, to $37 billion.

For the fourth quarter, Uber’s net loss was $1.1 billion, down from $1.46 billion it lost in the third quarter. Bookings from fares rose 14 percent to just over $11 billion for the quarter.

While the losses are significant, the results still are positive for Uber with revenue rising and losses falling in three of four quarters in 2017, said Rohit Kulkarni, managing director of SharesPost, a research group focused on privately held companies.

The numbers show that Uber under Khosrowshahi is on a path toward profitability and a sustainable economic model, Kulkarni said. “If you draw that out further, a year from now, this could be a significant IPO waiting to happen,” he said.

Uber considers adjusted earnings before taxes as a better indicator of its financial performance rather than net earnings based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which include losses for accounting purposes. On an adjusted basis, excluding stock-based compensation, legal costs, taxes and depreciation, the company lost $2.2 billion for the full year. The fourth-quarter adjusted loss was $475 million, down from $606 million to in the third quarter.

San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc.’s results are difficult to report because only pieces are released. Khosrowshahi detailed them on a conference call with investors Tuesday, and the company made some results public by giving them to a website called The Information.

A person briefed on the results provided some numbers and confirmed the accuracy of The Information’s story to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The person didn’t want to be identified because Uber remains a private company.

Last year was a particularly bad one for Uber with its reputation tarnished by the company’s acknowledgement of rampant sexual harassment within its ranks, a yearlong cover-up of a major computer break-in, and the use of duplicitous software to thwart government regulators.

CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted in June and replaced by Khosrowshahi in August.

Earlier this month Uber ended the autonomous vehicle trade secrets lawsuit filed by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo for a payment of Uber stock valued by Waymo at $245 million.

From: MeNeedIt

How Best to Treat Opioids’ Youngest Sufferers? No One Knows

Two babies, born 15 months apart to the same young woman overcoming opioid addiction. Two very different treatments.


Sarah Sherbert’s first child was whisked away to a hospital special-care nursery for two weeks of treatment for withdrawal from doctor-prescribed methadone that her mother continued to use during her pregnancy. Nurses hesitated to let Sherbert hold the girl and hovered nervously when she visited to breast-feed.


Born just 15 months later and 30 miles away at a different South Carolina hospital, Sherbert’s second child was started on medicine even before he showed any withdrawal symptoms and she was allowed to keep him in her room to encourage breast-feeding and bonding. His hospital stay was just a week.


“It was like night and day,” Sherbert said.


The different approaches highlight a sobering fact: The surge has outpaced the science, and no one knows the best way to treat the opioid epidemic’s youngest patients.


Trying to cope with the rising numbers of affected infants, hospitals around the United States are taking a scattershot approach to treating the tremors, hard-to-soothe crying, diarrhea and other hallmark symptoms of newborn abstinence syndrome.


“It’s a national problem,” said Dr. Lori Devlin, a University of Louisville newborn specialist. “There’s no gold-standard treatment.”


With help from $1 million in National Institutes of Health funding, researchers are seeking to change that by identifying the practices that could lead to a national standard for evidence-based treatment. A rigorous multi-center study comparing treatments and outcomes in hard-hit areas could start by the end of this year, said Dr. Matthew Gillman, who is helping lead the effort.


“When there’s so much variability in practice, not everyone can be doing the very best thing,” Gillman said.


Once the umbilical cord is cut, babies born to opioid users are at risk for developing withdrawal symptoms. By some estimates, one infant is born with the condition in the U.S. every 25 minutes. The numbers have tripled since 2008 at a rate that has solid medical research comparing treatments and outcomes struggling to keep pace.


Not all opioid-exposed babies develop the syndrome, but drug use late in a pregnancy increases the chances and can cause dependence in fetuses and newborns. These infants are not born with addiction, which experts consider a disease involving compulsive, harmful drug-seeking behavior. But the sudden withdrawal of opioids from their mothers may cause increased production of neurotransmitters, which can disrupt the nervous system and overstimulate bodily functions. Symptoms can last for months.


The condition can result from a mother’s use of illicit drugs, but it also can stem from mothers being prescribed methadone or other anti-addiction medicine. Doctors believe the benefits of that treatment for the mothers outweigh any risks to their infants.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t routinely track the condition, but the agency’s most recent data — from 2014 — indicates that the syndrome affects nearly 11 in every 1,000 U.S. births. The CDC said it is working with the March of Dimes and several states to get a better picture of the number of affected infants and how they fare developmentally and academically into childhood.


Some studies have suggested possible increased risks for developmental delays and behavior problems, but no research has been able to determine if that’s due to mothers’ drug use during pregnancy, infants’ treatment after birth or something completely unrelated. And there’s no definitive evidence that these children fare worse than unexposed youngsters.


“It’s very, very frustrating” not knowing those answers, Devlin said. “It’s such a difficult population to go back and do research on. They’re people who often don’t trust the system, often people who have had lots of trauma in their lives.”


Treatment aims to reduce or even prevent symptoms. Some hospitals use morphine drops, while others use methadone and sometimes sedatives. Some send the babies straight to newborn intensive care units and some focus on comfort care from moms, allowing them to room-in with their infants. A recently published Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center analysis linked rooming-in with less medication use and shorter hospital stays for infants, but it can be difficult if mothers are still in the throes of addiction.


A Florida hospital is even testing tiny acupuncture needles on affected infants.


Many hospitals use a 40-year-old scoring system to measure 21 symptoms and frame diagnosis and treatment length, but some have created their own scales.


The Government Accountability Office’s health care team has called for federal action to address the issue, saying the current recommendations from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department amount to a half-baked strategy lacking priorities and a timeline for implementation.


The department’s recommendations include education for doctors and nurses to teach them how to manage affected infants, along with an emphasis on non-drug treatment.


Katherine Iritani, director of the GAO’s health care team, said government officials have since indicated that they are convening experts to develop and finalize a plan by March 15.


“We’ll review it and make sure it’s responsive to our recommendations,” she said.


A separate GAO report released last week recommended beefed-up government guidance to help states implement programs that ensure safe care for opioid-affected infants and treatment for parents still struggling with drug use.


Medicaid pays for more than 80 percent of costs for treating affected babies, totaling about $1 billion in 2012, the GAO has found.


At Greenville Memorial Hospital, where Sarah Sherbert’s son was delivered two years ago, babies born to methadone users are given that drug before symptoms start and are sent home with a supply to continue treatment.


Clemson University research has showed that approach could reduce hospital stays by nearly half, to an average of eight days costing $11,000 compared with the state average of 15 days at a cost of $45,000.


“The baby has already been exposed to methadone for nine months so adding four to five weeks and making weaning gentle instead of quitting cold turkey we think won’t have any additional effect on babies’ brain development,” said Dr. Jennifer Hudson, who developed the treatment approach.


Sherbert, 31, said her drug use began eight years ago after she was prescribed opioid painkillers for injuries from a car accident. She was on methadone prescribed by her doctor when her daughter, now 3, was born.


She later lost custody after relapsing and her parents are caring for the children. Sherbert said she has been sober for a year and recently was promoted to supervisor at her job. She said she’s determined to get them back.


“I’ve worked so hard and come such a long way,” she said. “Seeing their little faces — that’s worth every bit of it.”




From: MeNeedIt

Fries, Not Flowers: Fast-Food Chains Try to Lure Valentines

Is that love in the air or french fries? White Castle, KFC and other fast-food restaurants are trying to lure sweethearts for Valentine’s Day.

It’s an attempt to capture a bit of the $3.7 billion that the National Retail Federation expects Americans to spend on a night out for the holiday. Restaurant analyst John Gordon at Pacific Management Consulting Group says it appeals to people who don’t want to splurge on a pricier restaurant. And some customers enjoy it ironically.

White Castle, which has been offering Valentine’s Day reservations for nearly 30 years, expects to surpass the 28,000 people it served last year. Diners at the chain known for its sliders get tableside service and can sip on its limited chocolate and strawberry smoothie. KFC is handing out scratch-and-sniff Valentine’s Day cards that give off a fried chicken aroma to diners who buy its $10 Chicken Share meals or a bucket full of Popcorn Nuggets.

Panera Bread wants couples to get engaged at its cafes; those who do can win food for their weddings from the soup and bread chain. And Wingstop sold out of its $25 Valentine’s Day kit, which came with a gift card and a heart-shaped box to fill with chicken wings. The company says 1,000 of the kits were gone in 72 hours.

From: MeNeedIt

US Inflation Increases Most in a Year

The U.S. on Wednesday reported its biggest increase in consumer prices in a year, pushing stocks lower in early trading.

The consumer price index, which follows the costs of household goods and services, advanced by a half percentage point in January, up from two-tenths of a point in December.

The January increase pushed the year-over-year inflation rate up by 2.1 percent. It was the same 12-month rate recorded in December, increasing fears among investors that firming inflation, along with increasing wages paid to American workers, could lead policymakers at the country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, to boost interest rates at a faster pace.

The Labor Department said consumer prices, minus the volatile changes in food and energy costs, rose three-tenths of a percentage point in January, the largest increase since January 2017. Analysts had been expecting an increase of 0.2 percent.

Stock indexes were lower at the start of Wednesday, with the key Dow Jones industrial average falling about a third of a percentage point after a string of recent days with massive swings between losses and gains.

From: MeNeedIt

‘Can You Dig It?’ Africa Reality Show Draws Youth to Farming

As a student, Leah Wangari imagined a glamorous life as a globe-trotting flight attendant, not toiling in dirt and manure.


Born and raised in Kenya’s skyscraper-filled capital, Nairobi, the 28-year-old said farming had been the last thing on her mind. The decision to drop agriculture classes haunted her later, when her efforts in agribusiness investing while running a fashion venture failed.


Clueless, she made her way to an unusual new reality TV show, the first of its kind in Africa. “Don’t Lose the Plot,” backed by the U.S. government, trains contestants from Kenya and neighboring Tanzania and gives them plots to cultivate, with a $10,000 prize for the most productive. The goal: Prove to young people that agriculture can be fun and profitable.


“Being in reality TV was like the best feeling ever, like a dream come true for me,” Wangari said. But she found it exhausting. As callouses built up on her hands, her friends made bets that she wouldn’t succeed.


“Don’t Lose the Plot” is aimed at inspiring youth in East Africa to pursue agribusiness entrepreneurship. Producers said the show wants to demystify the barriers to starting a small business and challenge the prejudices against farming-related careers, even as many youths flee rural areas for urban ones.

“What we hope to achieve … is first to show people that you can make money out of farming, to change the age profile of farmers in Africa from 60 to the youth. And the next thing we want to do is to show farmers, young farmers, that they can use their mobile and technology in order to farm and achieve their goals,” producer Patricia Gichinga said. The show also offers training via online platforms and text message.


Attracting people to agriculture is no small challenge in Africa, where a booming young population is often put off by the image of punishing work and poor, weather-beaten farmers.


“Most young Africans think of farming as back-breaking labor that pays peanuts,” former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the committee chair for the $100,000 annual Africa Food Prize and a farmer himself, wrote in the New African magazine last year. “This view, though largely inaccurate, is to some extent understandable.”


If Africa’s youth, who make up about 65 percent of the population, don’t venture into agribusiness, “then there is little chance that agriculture will have a transformative impact on the continent’s fortunes,” Obasanjo wrote.


Most experts agree that farming growth can boost African economies by increasing trade, creating more jobs and improving food self-sufficiency on a continent with the highest occurrence of food insecurity in the world.


But much of the potential remains untapped. Africa has over 60 percent of the world’s fertile but uncultivated land while importing $35 billion to $50 billion in food per year, the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa says . Weak or corrupt land governance is a challenge, as well as conflict.


Yields for major crops remain low compared to other regions of the world. Change must come by empowering the smallholder farmers who produce 80 percent of the food consumed on the continent, the organization says.

Now Wangari is one of them. After placing second in “Don’t Lose the Plot,” she became a full-time mushroom farmer.


In a damp structure of mud and clay on the outskirts of Nairobi, she has harvested her first crop and is preparing for her second. She had expected to make a $2,500 profit but took in $1,000 instead after mites from a nearby chicken house invaded and lowered her yield.


“When I see young men in the village now sitting idle I feel disappointed because there is a lot of idle land and they can use it to make ends meet,” she said. “They don’t require a lot of capital but they don’t have the information.”

From: MeNeedIt

Land Fight Simmers Over Brasilia’s Shrine of Shamans

Brasilia – It is one of the most expensive areas in the Brazilian capital – and one of the most sacred.

A plot in downtown Brasilia – known as Santuário dos Pajés or Shrine of the Shamans – is at the center of a conflict between indigenous people hoping to preserve their traditional way of life and developers eager to build an upmarket neighborhood.

While property is often contested in Brazil, it is usually waged over remote jungles or distant mountains – vast swaths of land that can be mined or farmed for profit.

This conflict centers on Brasilia’s urban power base. Just minutes from the National Congress, the Shrine of the Shamans – with its unpaved roads, forest and small houses – sits surrounded by lavish high rises.

Indigenous residents say they feel cornered by the encroaching developers, with multiple interests fighting over the last undeveloped plot in Brasilia, a planned city known for its futuristic buildings designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

“The sanctuary has been an indigenous land for more than 40 years. We have been fighting for its demarcation,” indigenous leader Márcia Guajajara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside the Shrine.

“When the developers arrived, we were already here. They think that money always wins,” she said.

It is one of many such conflicts in Brazil, rich in land to be exploited and low on deeds and property records.

For land demarcation is controversial in Brazil, despite safeguards in both the constitution and United Nations guidelines that are supposed to enshrine rights for indigenous people.

About a third of almost a million indigenous people live in Brazil’s cities, according to government statistics.

There are several land battles wending their way through the courts, many of them pit native people against powerful business interests.

But it is the prime downtown location that makes the fight over the Shrine stand out in the capital city, declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations for its modernist architecture and artistic planning.

Conflicting Claims

Conflict began a decade ago when the local government claimed it owned the Brasilia plot, prompting indigenous groups to counterclaim, saying the Fulni-Ô Tapuya had lived and performed religious ceremonies there for decades.

To further complicate matters, the federal government said it took ownership of the area in 2008 and a year later sold it on to building firms to create a green and sustainable neighborhood called Noroeste (Northwest).

Since then, high-rise buildings have sprung up all around the sacred soil, making the Shrine one of the few areas in the city that is free of new buildings.

Forty-year-old Guajajara has been living in Santuário dos Pajés since 1996, after marrying shaman Santxiê Tapuya, considered the founder of the sacred land. She is one of 180 indigenous people who live in the area.

According to court documents, a receipt from 1980 shows Santxiê bought an area of about 4 hectares (9.8 acres), the size of almost six football pitches.

Indigenous locals say pressure to displace them from the area has steadily increased over the years.

One November afternoon last year, Guajajara said about 10 men – some armed – and three tractors invaded the Santuário dos Pajés area, knocking down trees in the hope of clearing the land sufficiently to pave an avenue down its middle.

Her 18-year-old son Fetxa said he tried and failed to stop them by blocking their path. “I did not get out of the front.

They pushed me forward, along with the soil, twice. I was shocked.”

According to Guajajara, she and her son – the only ones in the area when the tractors arrived – screamed they could not enter the indigenous land because it is protected by a court decision.

But the men said they had an order “to run it over.”

The local government’s development arm, Terracap, said its staff were doing some infrastructure works in the neighborhood close to the indigenous area but denied they were armed.

“We are removing garbage in various locations and they understood this as an affront,” Júlio César Reis, the head of Terracap, said by phone.

In an emailed statement, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, said it would not comment.

Federal prosecutors are investigating the case.

The indigenous residents were quick to fence in the area, though it is no barrier to any possible future encroachment.

How Much Land?

In 2013, a court recognized the indigenous land ownership rights over the area of about four hectares bought by Santxiê but Funai, Terracap and federal prosecutors appealed.

Terracap said it has not been proven the indigenous people lived in the sacred area before their registered their claim.

The matter was further complicated when in October 2017 federal prosecutors, who act on behalf of indigenous people in Brazil, made a request in court to allocate a further 28 hectares to  Santxiê’s family and the ethnic group Fulni-Ô Tapuya.

Federal prosecutor Felipe Fritz Braga said the sanctuary is crucial to ensure the Fulni-Ô Tapuya’s future in the area.

An anthropological report used in the suit found evidence that indigenous tribes have been living in the area since 1956, during the construction process of Brasília, he said.

Santuário dos Pajés has been targeted by almost 30 lawsuits over the last 10 years.

“This number of lawsuits reflects the complexity of the problem,” Braga said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From: MeNeedIt

Solar Power Push Lights Up Options for India’s Rural Women

In her village of Komalia, the fog swirls so thick at 7 a.m. that Akansha Singh can see no more than 15 meters ahead. But the 20-year-old is already cycling to her workplace, nine kilometers away.

Halfway there she stops for two hours at a computer training center, where she’s learning internet skills. Then she’s off again, and by 10 a.m. reaches the small garment manufacturing plant where she stitches women’s clothing for high-end brands on state-of-the-art electric sewing machines.

Solar energy powers most of her day — the computer training center and the 25-woman garment factory run on solar mini-grid electricity — and clean power has given her personal choice as well, she said.

If the mini-grid system had not been put in place, Singh — a recent college graduate without funds to pursue training as a teacher, the only job open to women in her village — would have had no alternative but to marry, she said.

In fact, “I would already be married off,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Today, however, she earns 4,500 rupees ($70) a month working on solar-powered sewing machines. She uses part of that to pay 300 rupees ($4.70) a month for her computer education class — and is planning to start a computer training center closer to home.

Like her, most of the women at the factory earn between 2,500 and 4,500 rupees ($39- $70) a month, which has helped their families eat better, get children to school and pay for healthcare, they said.

“With a month’s earning alone we can buy new bicycles for ourselves and our school-going children,” Bandana Devi, a mother of four, told the Thomson Reuter Foundation, as she looked up from her sewing.

She bought one for her 12-year-old daughter, she said, and her 6-year-old rides pillion with her to the school, 2 km away.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a $2.5 billion plan to electrify every Indian household by 2019 — a huge task in a country where close to 240 million people still have no access to electrical power.

Solar power — including the use of small local grids — is likely to be a big part of the push, with 60 percent of new connections expected to be to renewable power, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

Stable Power, More Contracts

In a clearing in an acacia plantation, the more than 140 solar panels that make up the Kamlapur mini-grid are being cleaned early in the morning.

The 36-kilowatt plant, set up by the for-profit OMC Power Private Ltd.(formerly Omnigrid Micropower Company) in 2015, distributes solar energy over 2.4 kilometers of power lines to 70 households, two telecommunications towers, the clothing manufacturing unit and several other small businesses.

Solar mini-grids usually rely on one or two large users of power — often mobile phone towers — to provide a stable base revenue for the system. But as solar electricity becomes available in areas beyond the traditional grid, power-hungry small businesses are emerging that could become anchor users.

Kamlapur’s garment factory, for instance, consumes 10 kilowatts of power each day — the same as the telecom towers, said Ketan Bhatt, an OMC official in Uttar Pradesh state.

The state in 2016 became India’s first to put in place a mini-grid policy, recognizing private solar companies as legitimate players in India’s push to get power to all.

Company owners, in turn, say solar mini-grids — which can be more reliable than the unstable grid power their competitors rely on — is giving them a business advantage.

“Because the power supply is steady, we are regularly able to deliver on contract deadlines, which in turn enhances our reputation to bag more contracts,” said Mohammad Riyaz, who set up the Kamlapur garment unit in 2016.

Rohit Chandra, a co-founder of OMC, said he was seeing many solar power users moving beyond simply buying power for home lighting and appliances. Now, he said, they are harnessing solar energy for profit.

“We see barbers installing televisions and fans in their shops to attract more customers. Carpenters buy electric saws and wood polishers, fruit sellers are adding electric juicers. Health centers and dispensaries are coming up in underserved villages too,” Chandra said in a telephone interview.

“People are now continuously climbing,” he said.

Sangeeta Singh, of the Uttar Pradesh New and Renewable Energy Development Agency, said rural villagers “are willing to pay for assured, customized hours of supply, even at a higher price.”

“The myth that rural consumers will not pay for electricity is now demolished,” added Jaideep Mukherji, the CEO of Smart Power India (SPI). “Over the last two years we’ve discovered not only do rural consumers pay for the electricity, 93 percent pay on time.”

SPI is backed by the the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation’s $75 million Smart Power for Rural Development initiative, which aims to get power the “last mile” to users without it in India, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa.

SPI works with seven private mini-grid operators, including OMC, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand — some of India’s least electrified states — to boost demand for solar mini-grid power and help develop rural economies.

The aim is both to improve life for poor people in power-hungry regions and help make sure solar mini-grid power is financially feasible for its operators, Mukherji said.

Chandra, of OMC, said that, on average, after supplying reliable power for a year, “we see around 30 micro-enterprises come up in each village.”

Though most are expansions of existing businesses, some are new ventures — such as a new water purifying plant in Kamlapur.

Sanskrit language teacher Aparna Mishra has just invested 400,000 rupees ($6,240) to set up a reverse osmosis water purifier.

Starting later this month, 100 customers — including schools, hotels and homes in the area — will begin receiving 20-liter refillable jars of water, dropped off at their doorstep, the entrepreneur said.

Mishra’s two-year target is to produce 3,000 liters of clean water a day, delivered over a 12-km radius from the 5-kilowatt plant.

“If villagers can understand the link between good health and clean drinking water from my plant, that itself is the biggest return on my investment,” the 26-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An assessment of Smart Power India villages at the end of 2016 found that after two years of access to mini-grid power, small businesses using it had increased their monthly income by 13 percent.

A Price Too High?

While Smart Power India is reaching a growing share of communities without electricity, a 2017 study by the International Center for Research on Women found that large numbers of women and poor families still lack access to clean energy, even in areas where it is available.

For some of them, the cost of private mini-grid power is a deterrent to using it.

Riyaz’s clothing factory, for instance, pays 25 rupees (39 cents) for each kilowatt of the 10 kilowatts of power it uses each day — well above the 11 to 17 rupees that rural users of grid power pay.

“The electricity bill pinches,” the 45-year-old tailor said.

Chandra, of OMC, admitted that “on the face of it, our charges for reliable power might look high.”

But grid power users in Uttar Pradesh must pay a minimum monthly fee of 1,000 rupees, he said. With many small solar businesses — such as phone recharging — using less power, and even larger businesses often saving energy by using efficient machines, solar mini-grid power can come out cheaper, he said.

From: MeNeedIt

Colombia: Need International Aid to Cope With Venezuela Crisis

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday the country needs international aid to help cope with the humanitarian crisis caused by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing over the border to escape the economic crisis at home.

“I appreciate the offers of financial and other aid from the international community. We are fully prepared to receive them. We need them because unfortunately this problem gets worse day by day,” Santos said at an event in Bogota.

Last week, Santos tightened border controls and heightened security in frontier towns.

Colombia’s migration authority has said that the number of Venezuelans living in Colombia increased 62 percent to more than 550,000 in the second half of 2017. Colombia has estimated that it costs $5 per day to give each Venezuelan migrant food and lodging.

As the number of Venezuelans crossing the border increases, including unattended children who get free vaccinations and education, Colombia estimates it would need $30 million to build an assistance center to give the migrants a temporary place to stay before deciding their next move.

Venezuela is in the throes of a protracted, severe recession that has cast many people into abject poverty. That, combined with hyperinflation in the oil-rich country, has led to the mass exodus.

Last Thursday, Santos said he would institute stricter migration controls, temporarily suspend new daily entry cards, and deploy 3,000 new security personnel, including 2,120 more soldiers, along the 2,219 km (1,379-mile) shared frontier.

About 1.3 million Venezuelans have registered for the special migration card that allows them to cross the border by day to buy food and other products that are scarce in their own country.

While Venezuelan professionals like doctors and engineers have found work in big cities or in Colombia’s oil industry, most of the poor have settled in Colombian border towns.

From: MeNeedIt