Saturday, December 17, 2016

Haitian Businesses Update

This week I had the opportunity to revisit the solar powered cell phone charging businesses we helped to start back in the Summer of 2015.  For the back story, see my older post.

If you recall, or even if you don't, we launched a network of five family businesses in small villages around the area of Ferrier, in north east Haiti.  See the map below.  Of the four I was able to visit, all were in good working order but have had different levels of financial success. Read on to find out why!

[this is what it looked like out the window of my plane]

Business #1: Merande
The first business we visited was the closest to Ferrier: Merande.  It's at the home of a man called Lele, like a ukelele without the uke.  He is a gregarious man about my age. Talking to him tends to put me in a good mood because he's so welcoming and charming.When he saw me he said "mwen kontan we ou!" which literally means "I content see you".  I told him I was happy to see him too and he just laughed!  I guess he thinks it's funny that I try to speak Kreyol.

Lele had painted a sign outside his door advertising his business.  He references Psalm 23 in French which I believe says "The Lord is my burger" or something like that.  I don't speak French.

[marketing by Lele, store operated by Lele's son, cell phone charging for 5 Gourde or about a dime]

[The solar panel we put up on top of a frame was in good shape 
and was helping to provide support for a clothes line, #multitasking]

Despite the good working order of the equipment and the compelling signage advertising the business, he isn't making much money. Since our installation 18 months ago, the national electric grid has been extended to parts of Merande. Some homes have been officially connected to the grid, and many others have made unofficial (illegal) connections to it!  It's hard to sell something everyone is getting for free!  

Business #2: Latasse
Next, we drove on to Latasse. The roads were very muddy so we had to park and walk the last 20 minutes or so.  Once we arrived we found a similar situation.  Pierre was happy to see me, the equipment was working well, but business had slowed.  The grid hadn't been extended out that far, however, so what was the source of the competition?  

[Pierre and his storefront]

[pole-mounted solar panel, and two smaller solar panels from another Mission Waco program, see red circles]

Pierre had raised the solar panel on a pole to get it up out of the shade. That seemed to be working well although it makes rain the only source of cleaning.  But a more significant problem were the smaller solar panels such as those shown on the right.  Through another project with Mission Waco, a large number of these panels had been made available in Ferrier.  Apparently, some of them have found their way to Latasse and are now providing a new form of competition for the cell phone charging businesses.  They are not as powerful, but they are capable of charging one phone at a time. This is a second type of competition that didn't exist when we installed these systems!

Business #3: Filibert
Moving on to Filibert, we found the same thing.  Happy people, functioning equipment, and new competition.  Although they were making good income from the business (about $1/day) they said it was down some.  They said something about the Digicel tower further down the road, but I didn't understand.


[A new fence and a watermelon plant now keep company with the solar panel. The watermelon is another type of solar powered device.  It converts light to food.]

[I'm not sure if the kids that lived there were happy because I was taking their picture or because they thought it was time to eat watermelon.]

Driving a bit further down the road, however, we came to a new cellular antenna tower.  Digicel is a major cellular telephone company in the Caribbean and Central America and their new tower had its own large array of solar panels since there isn't any other source of electricity out there.  To keep people from stealing the solar panels they surrounded them with a concrete wall topped with razor wire and hired a security guard. We spoke with a woman nearby who told us the security guard was running his own cell phone charging business with the electricity from the tower!  Unbelievable. She also had a power cord stretched through the razor wire to power her house. Not immediately understanding why there was a power cord, I asked my translator, Guy, to inquire about it. He understood she was stealing power and didn't want to cause trouble by asking about it. He wisely put me off until such time that he could explain it to me discretely.  Maybe he was afraid the woman would beat me up if she thought I was from Digicel corporate headquarters or something.

[Laundry drying on the bushes near the base of the Digicel antenna tower]

[Digicel's large and expensive array of solar panels - and the source of both
 the neighbor's electricity and the security guard's side business!]

[Guy is keeping me from getting into trouble with this lady who only responded to the pseudonym "Heisenberg"]

Business #4: Meillac
Moving on to Meillac and our most successful business, we came to Sonja's house.  From the beginning of this project she seemed to be the most aggressive businessperson, the most sure she could make a profit, and the most remote.  These attributes are working well for her.

As we pulled up to her house, another woman was just leaving with her newly charged cell phone. Sonja invited us in and told us that she was making $2 or $3 a day with her business - easily double what we had hoped and budgeted!  

As she was 18 months ago, she still avoided eye contact and seemed to be uncomfortable talking to me (I have that gift with women) but she answered our questions.  In the pictures you can see that she is charging some of the batteries directly. That is, she has taken the battery out of the phone, presumably because she didn't have the correct adapters for the various types of phones, and has modified chargers by cutting off the phone connector and attaching the wires directly to the battery terminals. Ingenuity!

 [phones and phone batteries being charged, some by direct connection of wires without plugs!]

[Sonja's house with a roof-mounted solar panel]


[uncomfortable but important video interview with entrepreneur Sonja of Meillac, Haiti!]

Business #5: La Garene
We didn't have time to make the circuitous trip to La Garene. It takes 30 minutes to walk there from Ferrier (on footpaths) but nearer to an hour to drive there (on rough roads).  Because of its proximity to Latasse, my guess is that they would be in a similar condition.

So where are we?
What did we learn from this visit?  We learned that our engineering was pretty good: the electronics, panels, batteries, etc., have held up well.  We also learned that the owners still seem to like them and use them.  We also saw examples of how much ingenuity can be found among people in severe poverty. 

But most importantly, we learned why some of the businesses aren't making as much money as we expected. There are three new types of competition that did not exist when we installed the systems in May 2015:
1) extensions of the national grid which brought electricity to more homes through both legal and illegal connections - we can't really complain about this since any type of electrification diminishes poverty in a multitude of ways
2) small solar panels flooding the region from another, different poverty abatement project are also taking away business in some areas - while this is good for the region as a whole, it's not so good for our businesses
3) unsanctioned businesses operated by the security guard of another power source (Digicel).

And where do we go from here?
So what we need to do is identify new revenue streams (that's fancy business speak for ways to make money) that our businesses can harness in ways the competition cannot. If the small solar panels can't produce as much power, what services could we provide that use more power than that competition can provide? How about a "cinema" that shows movies on a television?  How about a barber shop that uses electric trimmers? How about a refrigerator that makes ice or cools soft drinks? Help us think of other businesses - leave it in the comments!


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Get pumped!

Those of you that read my blog regularly (ahem, Mom) know that I have had the personal delight and professional privilege of taking engineering students abroad for the last decade.  Most of the service-learning projects we have worked on have been small scale renewable energy projects that involved solar- or hydro-generated electricity.  But in addition to electricity, these trips have allowed me to get a taste - pun intended - of working on water projects too. Ba dump bump!

So over the last year or two, I have read a few books on water well drilling, aquifers, water treatment techniques, and even the issues of justice associated with water access. I began raising money to buy a water well drilling rig, and was grateful to receive a Baylor University Missions Research Grant to bring my coffers up to the $20,000 required. I couple of months ago I ordered one, and today I was able to bring this new drilling rig out to a friend's house to drill a practice well.  Five students and I spent the morning and afternoon assembling the rig, leveling the ground, and drinking coffee - not necessarily in that order. 

[Righty tighty lefty loosey]

 My goal is to learn the process of using it to drill boreholes in areas with water access problems. This practice well is for a buddy's large garden, but the next one will be for a colonia outside of Laredo, Texas.  A group of engineering students and faculty are planning to go there this July to drill a well for a community garden. At present, the colonia has to bring in water with trucks.  Because water is harder to access, gardening isn't being done, and other sources of food are far away; it's a true food desert.  We hope this well will help the community grow more fresh vegetables and brew more coffee - not necessarily in that order.

[It looks smaller and lighter in photos, as do I.  See the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes blooming in the background?  Ahh, springtime in Texas.]

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Living Among the Students

I have been taking undergraduate engineering students abroad for a decade.  Together, we have traveled to Kenya, Honduras, and Haiti doing renewable energy projects of various kinds, and I have spent over six months of my life living alongside students on these trips. I love it. We are together 24/7, we eat all our meals together, we work together, we sing and pray together, and we share our lives with each other. Sometimes we have emergencies together - and I take them to hospitals, hold their vomit bags, or remove snakes from the premises!  We talk about global poverty, the meaning of justice, and how to come to grips with our own wealth. These times together help us grow close, and the relationships I form with students on these trips keep me coming back year after year. 

These experiences living alongside students have been rewarding, but now, I am taking it to the next level. I am grateful and humbled to announce that I have been selected to be the next Faculty Master of Teal Residential College at Baylor University! I am beside myself with excitement.  What does this mean?  It means I'm so excited I have split in two.

No, it means that Martha and I are moving into the dorms, baby! Teal Residential College is home to about 350 undergraduates, most of whom are engineering, computer science, or nursing majors. It has a large apartment for the Faculty Master that we will move into this summer. We will be involved in all kinds of student activities and will host students in our apartment frequently.

[Teal Residential College at night]

We're not supposed to use the word "dorm" anymore. Instead, Teal is a Residential College. The Teal FAQ webpage says:
"Residential Colleges are designed to provide a culture that fosters academic excellence, intensive faculty-student interaction and a rich culture steeped in Baylor tradition. Life in a Residential College is led by the Faculty Master, a faculty member who resides on campus, living among the students."

Interestingly, the title "Faculty Master" is a traditional title that goes back to the Oxford-Cambridge models for residential colleges, but has been criticized lately in the United States because of the association of the word "master" with slavery.  In fact, Harvard University recently changed the title of their "House Masters" to "Faculty Deans" because of this association.  I have to say, one thing I am genuinely uncomfortable with is the title.  "Faculty Master" not only has slavery connotations, it has dominance and control connotations that make me cringe a little.  I have been thinking about alternative titles: Faculty Mascot, Redneck-in-Residence, Only A Master of Evil Darth - which is your favorite?

One of my favorite titles for Christ is Emmanuel.  It means "God with us".  To me, it conveys love and compassion and initiative on God's part. The incarnation: God choosing to become like us in order to relate to us, reconcile with us, love us.  That's what I want to do at Teal. Maybe a good title would be Faculty With Us.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dad's Eulogy

My dad grew up in the small town of Ralls, Texas – a farming town near Lubbock. At the age of three his parents brought home his baby sister, Francine.  Dad “celebrated” by gathering the chicken’s eggs and smashing them against the concrete cattle trough. At a very young age he decided to do some “work” on the family car. He loosened the lug nuts on one of the wheels – which later came off!  He liked to play with his bow and arrow, shooting arrows straight up in the air and running to get out of the way!  Once day he and Francine were playing in the sandbox. There was a wooden shade above the sand and dad was on top of it with his bow and arrow. He yelled down through a knothole in the wood “Francine, watch out, I’m going to shoot an arrow through the hole”.  She looked up through the hole and said “what?” just as he let the arrow loose. She was not seriously injured.

As a child he developed polio. Though it was a non-paralyzing form of the disease, he still lost the ability to walk for a season and had to learn all over again, starting by crawling like a baby.  I wonder, sometimes, if his childhood polio predisposed him to another neuromuscular disease, Parkinson’s, that eventually took his life.

In high school he raised pigs with 4H Club.  His mama pig’s name was Eudora.  I’m glad he got that out of his system before he named me.  He worked as a janitor at the post office and on the farm during summers – moving 30 foot lengths of irrigation pipe in the mud to water the cotton.  He managed to make enough money to buy a new car that he took to college.

Dad went to Texas Tech University and took all the classes in computers that they offered. He learned how to program with punch cards, played coronet in the marching band, and worked in the chow hall. He graduated in 1965 with a math degree and moved to Houston to work for Texaco as a FORTRAN programmer.  He worked his entire career at Texaco – 38 years – in various computer-oriented roles.

I was born in 1967. Although my mom and dad divorced and both remarried, they remained friends – living only two blocks from each other.  After my step father’s death in 2008, Dad, Loretta, and my mom would occasionally go eat Mexican food together and enjoy each other’s company.

Memories that stand out to me from my childhood are going camping with him and spending a lot of time playing Monopoly. Dad had an antique Monopoly board and had played games against himself as a kid. He memorized the rents for the various properties – he always won.  He loved camping and saw the fingerprints of God in creation.  We had a pop-up camper. Once it fell off the trailer hitch and dad instinctively hit the breaks – but then the camper rolled into the back of the car!

He was the Cubmaster of my Cub Scout Pack, and the leader of our Webelos group. He helped me build a large wooden fence for a Boy Scout project.  He taught me to drive a stick shift in a Toyota Supra with louvers on the hatchback. In high school I got my first speeding ticket in that car – though I’m not sure I ever told him about that.

In the early 80s he bought an Apple IIe home computer. He and I spent a lot of time with it. He taught me how to write computer programs and we created a simple game that allowed you to drive a tank and shoot a little cannon.  I remember having a conversation with him about binary and hexadecimal number systems. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that not every kid had these types of experiences.

Sometimes I tell my own students a story about my dad.  I tell them how I made a D in 9th grade Algebra, and that I had to sit down with him every night to do my Algebra homework so that I could bring up my grade. He realized that one of my problems was trying to skip too many steps and he told me not to be lazy, but to write out every step of the equations we were solving. And of course, it worked. I coach my own students the same way today.

[This is my favorite picture of my dad and I. It was taken around 2001.]

Dad was always open and honest with me about his faith. He wasn’t afraid to say that he didn’t know the answer to a question, though he usually did. He had had a faith struggle of his own as a teenager that was born out of a doctrinal split in his family: his father attended the Church of Christ, but his mother attended First United Methodist. He later embraced the Baptist tradition, and he and I were both baptized by emersion on the same day in this room, in fact.

Dad took part in Bible Study Fellowship for many years, and because of his enthusiasm about the things he was learning, I also did BSF as a young adult.  He was also a long time member of a Men’s Bible Study that met at 6:00 AM – some of his best friendships were made with that group.  He participated in Evangelism Explosion training here at FBC, and then he really seemed to find his ministerial calling in Stephen Ministries.

For about 10 years, starting in 2002, he and Loretta both served in this way. For those of you who don’t know much about Stephen Ministries, it’s a one-on-one ministry that pairs folks like my dad with people who are struggling in one way or another – maybe in their health, or with grief, or because of divorce, or a loss of a job – it can be anything. Stephen Ministers don’t have to be an expert in all these ways that people can suffer, because their main job is to listen.  Dad met weekly with men and just listened to them, offering encouragement without agenda or bias.  He became their true friend and confidant. 

This ministry was a great fit for his gifts and talents, because dad was always a slow talker anyway. People with faster mouths might actually be less well suited for this type of ministry.

I know he would want to encourage you all to find a way to use your own gifts and talents to love your neighbor as yourself.

I would like to end with a quote from C.S. Lewis. In recent years, every time I have read it I thought of dad and his struggle with Parkinson’s – and I usually wept.

"But if you are a poor creature--poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels--saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion--nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends--do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all - not least yourself."


Thank you for being here in honor of my dad and in support of our family.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Whales, They Love Me

Three things made today a great day! Three things happened that punctuated my day with excessive exclamation points and weeping-for-joy emojis. Three brief surprises burst forth from the surface of a day, otherwise characterized as "pretty good," like three blue whales breaching the surface of the ocean, showing me their bellies and yelling in whale language, "we love youuuuuuu!"

It all started like this: I got up early (for a Sunday) and met a few hundred other folks for the Mission Waco Walk for the Homeless event at 8:00 AM. It was a walking tour to visit several of the organizations around town that provide services to homeless folks. It was part advocacy, part education, part cardio. As the crowd walked from the shelter to the food bank to the veterans services building and so on, a delightful group of bikers blocked traffic for us like motorcycle cops at a funeral. They did a great job keeping us from being run over by early service Episcopalians.

Then I noticed that one of the bikers was my friend Paul who has a cool beard and a pony tail and plays bass.  Sometimes his band, The 10th Leper, plays music at Church Under the Bridge.  All these things make Paul pretty cool in my book. But to top it all off like the whip on top of my low fat caramel macchiato - today I found out that he rides a Harley!

[This photo taken from Paul's facebook page is credited to Souther Photography]

He agreed to let me ride on the back of his bike for a few blocks and it was fun to ride in the open air on this beautiful morning in downtown Waco. Its engine grumbled "potato potato potato" noises like a panting dragon.  Bucket list.

After rejoining the crowd I had the privilege of walking alongside Judge Ken Starr. He and his wife Alice were also participating in the Walk for the Homeless, though sadly he missed the sight of me on the hog.  He was very interested to hear about what Engineers with a Mission had been doing in Haiti with JAMES and Mission Waco. He was particularly excited to hear about our new Humanitarian Engineering program at Baylor. He and Alice were so attentive and engaged, and their support means a lot to me. Towards the end of our conversation, he told me something very exciting! Unfortunately, I don't feel the liberty to put it on the internet!!  So the second high point of my day will have to be redacted like Hillary's emails released by the State Department.  He said ahey! you think you're clever getting past my redactions   and that kkdk alk kdakkllkja  aklsdfj.  What's that you say?  Anticlimactic? All that buildup just to be redacted?  Yes well, you're right, it is. What can you do?

[Left to right: Jimmy Dorrell, CEO of Mission Waco
Rob Wolaver, President of Texas State Technical College, Waco
Johnette McKown, President of McLennan Community College
Ken Starr, President and Chancellor of Baylor University
Photo courtesy of Dr. Adam Ecklund, and by "courtesy" I mean stolen from his facebook page without permission.]

The third highlight came later that afternoon. For reasons you might not expect, I purchased a handgun. In fact, I bought my first ever firearm, a .357 magnum revolver.  You see, ever since, like, three months ago when I started thinking about doing humanitarian work with water wells along the Texas/Mexico border, I have been thinking about snakes. In my search to buy a snake gun, I had the opportunity to fire a friend's .357 at night. In the darkness, it was easy to see the huge fireball shoot out of the barrel. And the sound was so loud that it literally made my ears ring. This induced in me some kind of testosterone power pose that normally only comes with watching Monday Night Football or using a large chainsaw. I was hooked after one shot like a junkie.  

[My new gun is on order and won't be in for another week or so. In the meantime, please enjoy this likeness of an European American Armory Corp. Windicator .357 Magnum Revolver.]

So there it is: my three awesome things that happened today. I realize, looking back on them, that these things paint a picture of me. I'm afraid they make me look a bit like a redneck. Not that there's anything wrong with that (jk, I think there is) but in my case, it is simply not true. I refuse, in fact, to be defined by political stereotypes or other social expectations. I simultaneously care about social justice but also own a handgun. I frequently have the privilege to converse with both homeless people and university presidents. I like Harley Davidson motorcycles, but never plan to own one. I am pro-immigration, but also pro-rule of law. I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist. I do, however, speak whale.