Access to Clean Energy: From Pilot Project to Sustainable Enterprise

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In 2011, armed with a grant awarded under the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), nonprofit organization Trees, Water & People launched an initiative to increase the use of clean technologies in several Latin American countries. That pilot project has since spawned a social enterprise that is making solar lighting products accessible to customers in rural areas of Central America.

It all began with a three-year, $1.2 million ECPA grant awarded by the U.S. State Department to Colorado-based Trees, Water & People (TWP) for an initiative called “Improving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America.” The goal was to develop effective ways to reach off-grid markets with climate-friendly products such as clean cookstoves, solar lanterns, and small solar home systems.

While such products provide tangible benefits—cleaner indoor air, reduced expenditures on conventional energy, and higher-quality lighting and cooking—a major challenge is how to create a sustainable supply chain to reach markets with the greatest need. Last-mile distribution is complex, unpredictable, and expensive. Roads are sometimes impassable, mobile communications are often unreliable, and many rural households have no access to financing.

TWP worked hand in hand with a social enterprise called PowerMundo—which had tackled some of these problems in Peru—and with partners in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to develop a sustainable commercial model for hard-to-reach areas in Central America.

After trying several different approaches, TWP found that existing rural institutions such as agricultural cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations, and rural savings and loans groups could be effective distributors and retailers of the clean-technology products. Since such groups often already have a credit relationship with small-scale farmers for agricultural investments, they can provide these same farmers with the payment terms they need to invest in products that have a true impact on their lives.

solar light Honduras

Last year, TWP took a step toward making the initiative sustainable by establishing a social enterprise called Luciérnaga LLC (the name means “firefly”) to serve Central America with solar lighting products. “We wanted to create a vehicle through which the project could continue to grow,” explained TWP International Director Sebastián Africano.

Luciérnaga fills a business niche by providing a link between manufacturers and small local distributors. It imports solar lighting products in bulk to a central location in El Salvador, handling logistical details and ordering in large enough quantities to keep the price per unit low. The items can then be distributed over land to partners and clients throughout the region, in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Any profits would be reinvested in the company.

The growth of this business model and the birth of Luciérnaga as an independent company with an international presence show how short-term grant funding can be leveraged toward longer-term sustainable development objectives, according to Africano.

Today, TWP is working to standardize its methods in each country and implement a mobile phone-based monitoring system where distributors can keep track of their sales, collections, and warranty processes through a common online database. The goal is to keep costs low and provide a new source of income for rural individuals and institutions while potentially reaching millions of households in Central America that don’t have access to electricity.

Since launching this program, Luciérnaga and PowerMundo have sold close to 10,000 solar lighting products through their networks, providing illumination, device-charging capabilities, healthier households, and over $200 in cash savings per year, per product, to more than 50,000 people in Latin America.

This post was originally published by the Energy and Climate Partnership of Americas. To view the original blog post click here.

Partnership with Peace Corps and ECPA Increases Access to Clean Energy in El Salvador

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Peace Corps Volunteer, Ismaldi Cueto, helped build clean cookstoves in the community of Las Pillas, El Salvador with training from TWP.

Since 2012, we have been working with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala as part of their “Improving Access to Clean Energy” initiative.

As implementing partners for the ECPA, we are working to:

  • Increase low carbon economic growth and development
  • Accelerate the uptake and deployment of renewable, energy-efficient technologies, including solar energy products such as solar lighting and phone chargers
  • Advance countries’ abilities to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation
  • Promote regional cooperation and integration

Ambitious? Yes! But we have had great success with this program, and a huge part of that success is due to strong partnerships. Peace Corps has been one of these strong partners.

In El Salvador, our local partners have worked to train Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to build clean cookstoves. PCVs, in turn, teach local people in their communities about the benefits of our cookstoves and help them build them in their homes. This training model empowers local people with the knowledge to build and maintain cookstoves long after the PCV has left the community. Knowledge is passed along, deforestation is reduced, and homes are healthier as more and more families switch from traditional open fire stoves to clean cookstoves.

To date, this innovative partnership has built nearly 500 clean cookstoves with ECPA funds and the help of dedicated PCVs.

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Don Jorge Garcia trains community resident Osmi Rameriz in cookstove construction in the town of Caserio Las Minas.

TWP’s Regional Coordinator Graduates from Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas

SEI workshop

Benjamin Osorto, TWP’s Regional Coordinator in Central America, recently completed the Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas (APSA) program, where he was part of the first graduating class. Congrats Benjamin! 

This innovative program, designed and managed by Solar Energy International with support from the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, teaches Latin American students how to design, install and maintain solar PV systems and to successfully launch and administer businesses in this critically important industry.

Matthew Harris, Director of Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas, wrote, “A new chapter has begun in the Americas and after graduating this first group of people in to the APSA program I am humbled to know that the world is blessed with 50 champions linked by a strong passion to do good for their countries and the world.” 

To learn more about this program please visit the Solar Energy International Website.

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Photo of the Week: Innovation at its finest!

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About this photo

Local genius, Santos Rodrigo Opalaca, from western La Paz, Honduras, shows us how he reconfigured his radio to charge off one of our solar panels using two cell phone batteries. Innovation at its finest!

Learn more about how we are bringing solar energy to communities in Latin America at our website.

Photo of the Week: Partnership Brings Clean Cookstoves to Families in Central America

clean cookstove El Salvador

About this photo

Our partnership with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) is helping thousands of families in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras gain access to clean cookstoves, which replace dangerous and polluting open fire stoves. Since becoming an implementing partner with ECPA on the “Improving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America” project, 1,350 cookstoves have been built.  Often times, families will decorate the stoves with tile, turning them into a beautiful centerpiece within the kitchen.

Learn more about our work with ECPA at our website!

Notes from the Field: Lighting Homes in “Last Mile” Communities

by Richard Fox, Executive Director

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I recently returned from visiting our friends at PowerMundo in Peru. What a great trip!  PowerMundo and TWP are currently partnering on a project with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA).  Together, we are distributing Cleantech solar products, primarily to “last mile” communities in rural areas of Central America and Peru, as part of our State Department funded project Improving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America.

Cleantech solar products are a high quality, low-cost solution to energy poverty – illuminating homes and providing mobile phone charging at the household level. These innovative products reduce daily energy expenses and indoor air pollution associated with current alternatives for home lighting (such as kerosene), and they pay for themselves within 6 – 18 months.

I am constantly inspired by the collaborations we have formed to help increase the deployment of these renewable, energy efficient technologies. This work is helping to reduce emissions in Latin America while increasing low carbon economic growth. A win-win-win for people, the environment, and local economies.

TWP’s International Director, Sebastian Africano, joined me with our Honduras partners, Ben Osorto and Ivan Caballero, to facilitate South-South collaboration between Central America and Peru while providing some project review and fiscal oversight duties.  On top of meeting our business obligations, we were particularly glad to get up in the high mountainous Quechua towns in the Cusco area.

Richard Fox and Lisa Kubiske (center) visit with clean cookstove beneficiaries in Honduras.
Richard Fox and Lisa Kubiske (center) visit with clean cookstove beneficiaries in Honduras.

On this same trip, I also made my way to Central America, where I spent the afternoon with Lisa Kubiske, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras.  After a delightful lunch, we visited with Tim Longworth at Zamarano University,  located in the valley of the Yeguare River in Honduras. Here, we saw the Stove Testing Facility at the university and demonstrated some of our Cleantech products to the Ambassador. While in the area, we also had the opportunity to visit some of our clean cookstove recipients and received valuable feedback about how the stoves performed in the most important facility – people’s homes!

Today, billions of people around the world are still without access to electricity in their homes, and billions more are still cooking over an open fire to cook every single meal. Regional cooperation and collaborations like this are helping to light homes around the world and bring safe cooking solutions to families. Stay tuned for more updates!

To learn more please visit our website.

Photo of the Week: Clean Cookstoves Saving Lives in Honduras

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Our partnership with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) supported the construction of 600 clean cookstoves in Honduras and El Salvador in 2012. Thank you ECPA!