By Rebecca Busse
A large spider crawled up the side of the solar charge controller while Enrique explained how the solar panel system worked. Unaffected, Enrique continued to explain wattage, switches and the maintenance of the panels to the assembled group of MBA students, extended family members and the occasional chicken or dog that would get shooed out of the house. The spider climbing on the high-tech controller just fit – here in rural Nicaragua, miles from paved roads or the national electrical grid, development is being done differently.
Enrique was trained in a program with AsoFénix, a Nicaraguan rural development non-profit that initiates projects involving renewable energy, potable water and community-centered development. Not only trained in skills such as installing and maintaining residential solar arrays, Enrique’s participation in the training obligates him to pass along his knowledge to other community members, which means technology and knowledge transfer to those who need it most: rural villagers. Some of the trainees are women, and some are motivated teenagers. AsoFénix partners with local governments, international nonprofits and the beneficiary communities to buy solar panels, solar-powered water pumps and micro-hydroelectric equipment. Families in the communities pay into a revolving fund every month to get access to electricity, and AsoFénix is working on community-based models in which several families act as renewable electricity providers to their village, bypassing the national electric grid, which is expensive and inaccessible for many rural communities.
Our “Service Learning Trip” had led us to remote mountain villages like Enrique’s with a US-based NGO called Green Empowerment. Green Empowerment takes students like us on trips around the world to view and participate in the international development work they are doing in partnership with local NGOs, one of which is AsoFénix. You could call it a “volunteer vacation” with a twist. In our case, we were there to immerse ourselves in local culture while learning about renewable energy projects and how we could help. Little did we know that we would be exposed to groundbreaking community-centered development projects that “leapfrogged” over common international development setbacks.
The concept of “leapfrog development” means that developing countries can learn from our mistakes. Instead of the huge capital investment in equipment for phone lines and the hassle and environmental degradation of installing them deep in the country, put in some cell towers and make cell phones affordable and widely available. Or in this case, subvert the Nicaraguan grid by investing in solar, micro-hydro and wind turbine technologies. This is exactly what AsoFénix is doing in many rural villages like Enrique’s village Corozo. With support from Green Empowerment, the Nicaraguan Department of Energy, the Natural Resource Department and the communities that benefit from the projects, AsoFénix is changing the face of development in rural Nicaragua. This is good news for Enrique, whose family can now do things that we take for granted: read at night, eat dinner without inhaling kerosene fumes and revel in Enrique’s pride in helping his community develop in a sustainable way.
Rebecca Busse is a current MBA student at Presidio Graduate School, where she serves as Co-Chair of the International Sustainability Club and also the PresidioSocial Committee. She is particularly passionate about how international development and poverty alleviation can be good for the environment. For a video interpretation of her Green Empowerment trip to Nicaragua, click here.