Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Solar Micro-businesses in Haiti

This May, Engineers with a Mission (EM), Baylor Missions, and Justice and Mercy Engineering Society, (JAMES) brought solar energy-based businesses to Ferrier, Haiti, one of the poorest areas of the Western Hemisphere. Mission Waco, the parent organization for JAMES, has had a presence in Ferrier for over 30 years and this was the third annual trip to the area. The longstanding relationships between Mission Waco and the Haitians there are the backbone for the development work done in north-east Haiti.

This year’s solar project was unique in that we had not one, but five installation sites in the areas surrounding Ferrier. We placed five 250 Watt solar panels in the care of carefully selected impoverished families to operate as cell phone charging businesses. These bless the families with a source of income and stimulate the local economy.  Although there is intermittent electricity access in the larger town of Ferrier, the outlying towns of Meillac, Filibert, Merande, Latasse, and La Garene have virtually zero access.  Cell phone owners must pay and often travel to recharge their phone battery.

Financial sustainability is an important goal for all our projects, even if we don't always achieve it. For this reason, we carefully chose to operate the solar systems as microbusinesses. An association was formed between JAMES and the five families, and a contract was signed. As part of their contract the families must pay 45 Haitian Gourdes from their daily earnings (approximately 1 dollar U.S.) as a rental fee. This fee is placed into a savings account to be used to cover future repairs and battery replacements. Borrowing an idea from the micro credit industry, the families have group liability for these rental fees – if someone can’t pay, the others are responsible for covering the fees. Ten weeks after launching these businesses, the rental fees have been 100% paid and about 3200 cell phones have been charged!  Another part of their contract requires that they use the energy they harvest to host gatherings for the community, whether it be setting out a light for children to do school work, hosting church activities, or simply letting the locals play dominoes at night.

[the indoor unit: charge controllers, switches, fuses, inverters, batteries, and a handy table top for holding phones while they charge]

[each family business also has a 250 Watt solar panel mounted near their home]

[part of the team, and seemingly most of the village, commissioning another system]

[while most of the solar panels were ground mounted, this home had a nice flat section of roof that was more secure]

These families were not selected at random. Our friend Zenas, a local pastor with a passion for serving the poor, chose these families because they are Christian leaders in their community. These solar panels are a tool for our Christian brothers and sisters to continue to bless their community.

This year we took a team of 16, 3 professors and 13 engineering students, forming our largest mission group yet. But our team was even larger than this! Our Baylor students worked right alongside local handymen, pastors, carpenters, guides, translators, and community members eager to help.

[Watching everyone do their part reminded us of the body of Christ;
everyone is different but each plays a part.]

We intentionally seek out locals to be a part of our team because it helps our team remain relationally grounded and helps further develop the community.  Hiring out Haitians is a way to provide a source of income to families as well as affirm their talents. One sweet example of this was when our guide and friend, Julio, came to the aid of one of our electrical engineering students who was struggling to eat a fresh coconut. He said, “Sarah, you may know electricity, but I know coconuts,” and then began to prepare the coconut. This story illustrates the interdependent relationships we want to cultivate. It is important that when we go into communities to tend to the physical ailments of poverty, that we do so in a spirit of humility, by understanding our own limitations and respecting the abilities of others.

[Coconut Sarah, myself, and most of the rest of the team]

Our work in Haiti is about more than creating clean energy, boosting the local economy, improving a family’s income, or exposing Baylor students to poverty - all of these are good and part of our trip. But it's also about God’s love for justice, restoration, and transformation in our hearts and the environment around us.  I am thrilled to be a part of it!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Story of JAMES

I laid in bed after midnight rearranging words in my mind, experimenting with the acronyms they formed like Thomas Edison and a thousand failed light bulbs. Then suddenly, one name made sense: the "Justice and Mercy Engineering Society" which had the acronym - can you believe it? - JAMES!  You had to use the "and" to make the acronym work, which was a little bit of a stretch, but I knew it wasn't going to get any better. So I literally sprung out of bed and wrote it down, proving its existence to myself like snapshot of a Sasquatch before it disappeared back into the woods of my cluttered, sleepy mind.

[most people don't know that SASQUATCH is, itself, an acronym]

JAMES is the progression of my personal mission to equip service-minded engineers and to use what I have learned to serve the poor. I think it is my calling.  (See this post about callings, Iron Man, and Xanax.) This mission has been evolved over the years, and has been embodied through extra-curricular, curricular, and now post-curricular organizations which educate engineers in various capacities.

The extra-curricular organization is Engineers with a Mission (EM) at Baylor University which I co-founded with students in 2004. EM helps students discover how their technical education and interests can be used for the Kingdom of God through annual service-learning trips to places like Kenya, Honduras, Rwanda, and Haiti. There have been plenty of posts on this blog about our trips and projects.  EM has grown steadily over the years but remains an extra-curricular program. 

[our biggest EM meeting ever in the history of EM meetings]

I happen to really like the millennial generation.  As generations go, their sense of community, relationship, and service gives me a glimmer of hope for our collective futures.  Sensing this growing interest in global, service-based engineering over the last ten years, I spearheaded the creation of a Humanitarian Engineering concentration at Baylor. This program provides a curricular outlet for students to develop their interests in development or missions into a full-blown career. It becomes official this fall, and we'll have our first graduates by May 2016. Students with this concentration will be well-suited for serving in a non-profit organization, supporting Christian missions, or working in the international development sector.  But unlike students starting at Exxon, or Apple, or Boeing, students with vocations in this non-traditional field of Humanitarian Engineering may need some help finding a job!  

So almost three years ago, I gratefully accepted an offer from the local non-profit Mission Waco Mission World (MWMW) to form "6:8 technologies" (which I later renamed JAMES) as a program under their non-profit umbrella.  Here's an earlier post about that.

So what do we do?  JAMES is a post-curricular effort to:
     1. Train engineers, technicians, and tinkerers to do solar projects as ministry within their own spheres of influence
     2. Help Humanitarian Engineers (degreed or not) to find employment through networking and other resources
     3. Use technology to advocate for biblical justice like Enik the sleestack philosopher.

Even as a new organization, JAMES has a strong infrastructure thanks to our parent organization MWMW. They have over 20 years of experience operating as a well-respected non-profit and are recognized as a Four Star Charity by Charity Navigator for maintaining the highest standards of financial responsibility.  Doing this four years in a row puts them in the top 7% of non-profit organizations!

But our partnership with MWMW is about more than just sound accounting and advice, it is about our complementary missions. MWMW’s mission statement is to “Mobilize middle-class Americans to become more compassionately involved among the poor [and to] seek ways to overcome the systemic issues of social injustice which oppress the poor and marginalized.” JAMES is an expression of this mission. We aim to “mobilize” those in the engineering and related professions “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 ESV) by designing and implementing tangible renewable energy and water projects.

On our website you can find a series of video lessons detailing how to design, size, and install a solar electricity system. The videos are taught by me and use a high-speed animation of me drawing pictures on a whiteboard, low budget style.  The website also has job-finding tools and other great content. Visit us at We also tweet about job openings in the field, issues of justice, and ministries that could use help @Waco_JAMES and on our facebook.

[example of YouTube-hosted whiteboard talks on solar electricity, they go fast 
but you can pause and rewind over the parts you need help with]

In support of these goals, we also offer consulting services. Let's say your group is supporting an orphanage in Guatemala that needs help with solar panels. We could do any of the following:
a) train your personnel to design and install themselves, with online and/or hands-on training
b) do feasibility studies, design the system, provide cost estimates, etc.
c) send an engineering student or myself to do the installation with your team
d) any combination of the above.

Keep us in mind when you or your group is doing any energy-related work abroad, we would love to work with you!  Together let's work for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.