All over the world, the goal of bringing development to impoverished communities and nations – but in ways that won’t cause additional harm to the natural environment – remains problematic. As the cases of China and India demonstrate, the world’s fastest growing economies in the 21st century, rapid industrialization may bring economic development, but it comes with a slew of consequences.
These include urban sprawl, more emissions from cars and public transit, and the poisoning of waterways through toxic runoff, chemicals and fertilizers. With seven billion people living in the world today, the majority of which live in major cities and are dependent on fossil fuels, it is important to find ways to encourage growth that won’t make a bad situation worse.
But to paraphrase an old saying, crisis is the mother of creative solutions. And amongst forward-looking economist and developers, a possible solution is take the latest advancements in solar, wind, tidal power and biofuels, and tailor them to meet the needs of local communities. In so doing, it is hoped that the developing world could skip over the industrial phase, reaping the benefits of modernization without all the dirty, unhealthy consequences.
Two such men are Juan Rodriguez – a young man who was studying for his business administration at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in and cut his teeth working for major multinationals like Pampers, Pepto Bismol and Pantene – and his childhood friend Manuel Aguilar, a Harvard graduate with a degree in astrophysics who had gone on to manage a global hedge fund.
Three years ago, the two agreed that they were looking for something else and began investigating renewable energy. The result was Quetsol, a company that uses solar energy to improve the quality of life of poor communities living off the electrical grid. In Rodriguez’s and Aguilar’s native Guatemala, such poverty is widespread, with close to 20% of the population living without electricity and relying primarily on candles for light.
This picture of poverty is not exactly news. But after spending a year visiting close to 100 such communities, Rodriguez and Aguilar began to get a clear picture of why solar hadn’t yet succeeded. As Rodriguez put it:
Going to a community and talking about solar power isn’t like going into a community and talking about space travel. It is something that people have already seen, because NGOs have donated solar systems to these communities for decades. In many cases, the systems worked perfectly, but eventually the batteries died, and nobody was there to service them.
There solution was to start from the bottom up, using the free-market principle of adapting their approach to meet local needs. This would involve identifying communities before visiting them, taking into account how many people were living without electricity, and what the housing situation was like. When they then visited these communities, they sought out community leaders and held public meetings to learn about them and present their ideas.
Buildings relationships with local communities was a challenge, but so was creating a product for a market whose needs ranged from basic lighting and cell phone charging to powering a refrigerator all day. What they found was that unelectrified communities were relying on terribly inefficient means, ranging from diesel generators to walking to the nearest electrified community to plug in a phone.
What was resulted was a Solar Kit, consisting of a 10W Solar Panel, a control box with 7 Amp Battery, 2 LED Bulbs (and a third optional bulb), and a universal cell phone charger. This kit has the ability to provide five hours of electricity to a house made up of two rooms that measure roughly 25 square meters (225 square feet) each. This is the typical design of homes in rural Guatemala, with one room serving as the bedroom and the other as the kitchen.
With that done, they began working on their sales strategy. Initially, this consisted of working with microfinance credit institutions to help families and communities purchase their solar kits. But after watching too many credit applications get rejected, they took a page from the telecom companies that have made cell phones ubiquitous in Guatemala, Basically, they switched to a pay-as-you-go plan.
Today, Quetsol employs a staff of 20 people and boasts board members like Google’s Tom Chi. There product line has also expanded, with the Q1 Solar Kit being supplemented by the Q3, a heavier model that boasts a 75W solar panel, an 85 Amp Battery, and five LED bulbs. The Q2 Kit – a middle of the road model with a 30W panel, 34 amp battery and 3 bulbs – is soon to be released.
But most importantly of all, they have electrified more than 3,500 homes in Guatemala thus far. But that is just a drop in the bucket compared to their long-term goal. Basically, the organization is viewing Guatemala as a stepping stone to all of Latin America as well as Africa by 2015. By 2016, they’d like to tackle the nearly 700 million off-the-grid homes in Asia.
Might sound ambitious, but Rodriguez and Marroquin feel they have the business acumen and social entrepreneurial savvy to pull it off. And given their background and business model, I’d say they are about right. Combined with other technologies that merge local needs with clean, efficient, and renewable means, development in the developing world might actually be an eco-friendly possibility.