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!

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