Electricity for rural Nicaragua

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Correspondent Eliza Barclay reports from Nicaragua how two American brothers tried a technological fix to alleviate poverty in that Central American country, and our Science Forum invites you discuss aid projects online with environmental engineer Anu Ramaswami of the University of Colorado in Denver.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Many Americans spend time volunteering abroad. They bring their talents and their good intentions to impoverished communities, with the goal of improving the lives of the poor. But those who work abroad often learn the hard way that good deeds can produce unintended consequences. Consider the tale of two American brothers who tried a technological fix to poverty in Central America. Reporter Eliza Barclay has that story from Nicaragua.

ELIZA BARCLAY: Mathias Craig is an engineer and social entrepreneur. He's obsessed with windmills.

MATHIAS CRAIG: To me they seem a perfect mix of an opportunity to do something that has sort of a social good and an environmental good.

BARCLAY: As a child, Craig spent a lot of time in Nicaragua, visiting impoverished villages that had no electricity. Later, as an adult, he got an idea: why not bring windmills to these villages? The windmills could provide clean power and help people escape poverty by lighting schools and health clinics and creating jobs. Craig explored this idea as a graduate student at MIT.

MATHIAS CRAIG: I took a class called "Entrepreneurship in the developing world." So I combined that with my interest in Nicaragua from my childhood, and came up with BlueEnergy.

BARCLAY: BlueEnergy is a company Craig founded in 2004. He started it with his brother, Guillaume. Guillaume Craig now oversees the company's headquarters in the town of Bluefields, on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

GUILLAUME CRAIG: We started here in this workshop. It's about 30 feet by 40 feet deep. So that was our space for the first couple years.

BARCLAY: Guillaume Craig walks around the cavernous building where BlueEnergy's technicians build wind turbines. He points to a turbine inside.

GUILLAUME CRAIG: It's got the magnets and the copper coils and it's got a little-- some lights that light up.

BARCLAY: When the brothers arrived here, they had their work cut out for them: 80 percent of the coastal population lacked electricity. The Craigs installed their first wind turbine in 2005, and since then they've added 11 more. Gradually, they're reaching the forgotten outposts of the Nicaraguan coast, places like Monkey Point. In this tiny community, a spindly white windmill towers above the mango trees and fishing boats. Last year, BlueEnergy installed the wind turbine and a handful of small solar panels. Together, they produce about half the energy consumed by a typical American home. But here it's enough to power 27 households, a school and a health clinic, at least for part of the day. Locals appreciate the electricity. Georgina Marque is a young mother of two.

GEORGINA MARQUE: [speaking Spanish] Before we were using candles. Everyone did. Now it's better that we have light. I use it to cook and to make the beds in the evening.

BARCLAY: But the arrival of electric power has not transformed this community in quite the way the Craig brothers had hoped. The town is still poor and jobs are scarce. And if you talk to locals, and ask them, "What's the best thing about having electricity?" here's what they'll tell you: television.

MATHIAS CRAIG: We've had a lot of debates internally about that.

BARCLAY: Mathias Craig says promoting TV was not why he and his partners started their venture.

MATHIAS CRAIG: Definitely some people within the organization, within BlueEnergy, were a bit frustrated, you know, a little bit disappointed that they had worked so hard to bring development and opportunity to the community and here they were using it on television.

BARCLAY: Some volunteers who came from America complained about locals frittering away the electricity on TV. In fact, many residents emptied their small savings to buy televisions to watch soap operas. The Craigs learned a lesson: they can't dictate how people use the energy they bring. Now, Monkey Point residents contend television is educational. Wayne MacClean, who manages the windmill, says TV helps kids develop their language skills.

WAYNE MACCLEAN: The children then could come and watch TV and develop their minds even with the one word or one letter of the alphabet.

BARCLAY: But whether or not television is an ideal use of the electricity BlueEnergy provides, the Craig brothers say they've learned another, deeper lesson. People in places like Monkey Point need many things: good roads, clean water, education. And these may be more important than electricity. Guillaume Craig conceded this point over beers at a bar in Bluefields.

GUILLAUME CRAIG: Their priorities are not always energy. Sometimes they're drinking water because they're getting sick and the children are dying from diarrhea. But we don't impose now energy as the "what we do."

BARCLAY: The "what we do" of BlueEnergy is now much broader. The Craig brothers have turned their energy company into an organization that takes a holistic approach to poverty. Mathias Craig says he now understands that alleviating poverty is more complex than installing windmills.

MATHIAS CRAIG: When you come at it from a technology perspective, you think your end goal is you build the system, you install it, and it delivers energy. And you do that, and then you get to the end of the path, and then you realize that that's not actually the end of the path. That's somewhere near the beginning of the path.

BARCLAY: The new beginning of the path is asking people what they need before deciding what to give them. And that's something the Craigs are just learning to do. For The World, I'm Eliza Barclay, Bluefields, Nicaragua.

WERMAN: Okay, seems straightforward enough. Don't impose a technology on people without first asking them what they want. But even that can be trickier than you'd think. The World's science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee is here to explain.

RHITU CHATTERJEE: Hi, Marco.

WERMAN: Rhitu, you host The World's science podcast. And in this week's podcast, you explore the sorts of projects we just heard about from the Craig Brothers, efforts by engineers to provide technological fixes to the world's ills.

CHATTERJEE: Right. Well, there's a growing awareness among engineers that technological fixes often fail, and that's because the promoters don't consider the technologies in its cultural

context, which means you really need to understand what people want and need, and how that technology is going to be used.

WERMAN: Well, that makes sense, but how do you find out what people need? Do you take a poll, do you get a vote, do you have a meeting?

CHATTERJEE: Well, you do have to talk to people, but question is, which people and how? I spoke at length about this with Anu Ramaswami. She's an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado in Denver, and she told me an interesting story. Her students were going to India a few years ago to help in some villages, and she had taught them that, make sure the men don't dominate the conversation. Find a way to talk to the women alone. And here's what happened in one village.

ANU RAMASWAMI: There was this big community meeting with women and children and men and the hamlet leaders, who are all men. And when they asked them, "What do you want?" it seems word had spread that we were good at making wind turbines. And so they immediately said, "We want wind generators." And fortunately my student was really gung-ho on having the separate meeting, so he insisted. And after four days, he and another student had a meeting with women and they expressed entirely different needs. They said water was their biggest need, and it was interesting that after that we had a dialog with the men and they came around and they said, "Oh well, we just thought this is what you did well, and this is what you wanted to hear."

WERMAN: That's Environmental engineer Anu Ramaswami, speaking with The World's Rhitu Chatterjee. So Rhitu, you'll be talking a lot more about this subject on your podcast and online.

CHATTERJEE: Right. You can hear my full interview with Anu Ramaswami on this week's science podcast. And listeners will have a chance to ask Anu their own questions, and share

their own ideas about technology and how it does and doesn't work. That's in our online science forum, beginning today.

WERMAN: And remind us, Rhitu, how to participate.

CHATTERJEE: It's easy. To download the podcast and to join the online discussion, just go to The World dot org slash science.

WERMAN: That URL again is The World dot org slash science. The World's science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee, thank you.

CHATTERJEE: Thanks, Marco.

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