Vanilla and Turmeric – Job Creation in Nicaragua

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First turmeric harvest of 2019!

Smallholder livelihoods across Central America are threatened by extreme weather, warmer average temperatures, and a longer dry season related to climate change.

Many of the smallholder farmers we work with in Central America depend on coffee for a major share of their income, but with prices at 15-year lows, coffee is currently being harvested at a loss and rural incomes have plummeted. That is why Trees, Water & People is happy to introduce our partnership with ‚ÄúDoselva‚ÄĚ, a Nicaraguan social enterprise that grows, processes, and markets spices organically grown in diverse agroforestry systems.

 

Our collaboration with Doselva primarily focuses on helping farmers transition away from low-paying cash crops by diversifying into turmeric, ginger, and vanilla. These spices are currently in high demand and serve as ‚Äúa useful diversification strategy that can both improve incomes and also maintain or enhance a biodiverse and forested farming landscape‚ÄĚ (Doselva). Vanilla‚Äôs origins are in Mesoamerica, and it grows in similar conditions to shade-grown coffee, but currently, less than 2% of the world‚Äôs supply comes from the region. As it takes 3-4 years to produce in earnest, turmeric, ginger, and other ground-cover crops help farmers buffer their income as they diversify their farms.

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Laying out the harvest before packaging it

So far, Doselva has collected 5,186 hundredweight sacks of turmeric from 49 farmers from various regions in Nicaragua, and thousands of vanilla flowers have already bloomed with hopes of a full harvest being available in 2020-2021. In a year when Nicaragua saw the loss of over 200,000 jobs and the closure of hundreds of businesses and nonprofit organizations due to civil conflict, we are proud to say that we are helping farmers thrive with innovative partnerships that build sustainable rural economies.

If you’re interested in learning more about social enterprise projects like Doselva, please visit our website or contact our Executive Director at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org

Community Voices: Roman Rios

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Don Roman Rios stands near his bread oven at his home in La Gloria, Guatemala. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

Over 500,000 homes in Guatemala are without electricity, leaving millions of people in the dark once the sun sets. Adults are unable to work at night and children struggle to study by dim candle lights, which also emit toxic fumes into the home. Candles are expensive too, costing families up to $20 per month, money that could be spent on food, medicine, or small business expenses.

Trees, Water & People’s social enterprise, Luci√©rnaga, is working throughout Central America to solve this energy poverty problem. Luci√©rnaga imports solar products, like lights, phone chargers, and solar household systems, into Central America, providing local entrepreneurs¬†with access to products in bulk, at an affordable price. With knowledge of their community’s needs, these solar entrepreneurs can distribute solar lights to families at a price they can afford.

Don Roman Rios lives in the community of La Gloria in Guatemala’s La Zona Reyna, a very rural area in the department of El Quiche. His purchase of a solar home system¬†has allowed he and his wife to expand their small bakery, which they run out of their home kitchen. ‚ÄúNow, we are able to bake bread starting at 6am until 10pm or 11pm.‚ÄĚ said Don Roman. The purchase of solar¬†lighting has allowed them to expand their business and production, and save on the purchase of candles.

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Don Roman’s house is now lit by a solar home system, which includes four LED lights and a battery storage system for charging electronics. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

‚ÄúBefore we had to use candles to light the room,‚ÄĚ said Don Roman. ‚ÄúWhich could get really expensive.‚ÄĚ Prior they were paying one quetzal per candle, and having to purchase five or six to light the room. In order to charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous throughout Central America, Don Roman and his wife had to pay a neighbor or use the cigarette lighter in the car. ‚ÄúNow that we have solar light, we just have to plug our phones in here [USB charger on the battery]¬†and we can charge.‚ÄĚ

Overall, Don Ramon and his family¬†have greatly benefited from the purchase of a¬†solar household system, though Don Roman wishes he could have the chance to purchase larger solar panels in order to collect more light. Don Ramon and his family are¬†one of over 4,300 families who have purchased solar products from Luci√©rnaga’s vendors. ¬†These life-changing products offer an affordable way for rural Central Americans to gain access to clean energy that improves the environment and their livelihoods. To learn more please visit www.luciernagasolar.com.

The electrical grid has yet to reach rural areas of Guatemala, where millions live without light once the sun sets.
The electrical grid has yet to reach rural areas of Guatemala, where millions live without light once the sun sets. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

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 ‚ÄúImproving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America.‚ÄĚ 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‚ÄĒcleaner indoor air, reduced expenditures on conventional energy, and higher-quality lighting and cooking‚ÄĒa 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‚ÄĒwhich had tackled some of these problems in Peru‚ÄĒand 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.

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Last year, TWP took a step toward making the initiative sustainable by establishing a social enterprise called¬†Luci√©rnaga¬†LLC (the name means ‚Äúfirefly‚ÄĚ) to serve Central America with solar lighting products. ‚ÄúWe wanted to create a vehicle through which the project could continue to grow,‚ÄĚ explained TWP International Director Sebasti√°n 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.

Donate your used Android smart phones!

Photo by Dimagi
Photo by Dimagi

Trees, Water & People (TWP) is collecting functional Android phones in good condition for our programs in Central America. We are training field staff working in rural areas to collect important data on our Solar Energy Program using customized, multiple choice surveys. Data is collected on a specially designed app for Android phones.

Last October, TWP¬†created Luci√©rnaga ‚Äď a social enterprise that creates markets for small-scale solar energy products in off-grid areas of Central America.¬† Since we launched operations, we have sold¬†more than 4,000 solar lighting products that both illuminate homes and charge cell-phones in communities¬†that do not have access to electricity. We are now distributing product in three countries, and are working to improve our training and customer service via mobile data collection.

Android_robot.svgWe have recently earned the opportunity to pilot a new service called CommSell, designed by social impact technology company Dimagi. By using an Android specific mobile app, our field staff will be able to collect important data into an online database that keeps track of warranty information, tracks inventory and payments, and supports customer relationship management. This is critical for us to be able to provide appropriate and timely support, and also gives us a powerful way to communicate the impact of our work to the outside world.

If you have a surplus of working Android phones, or know people and businesses that do, please consider donating them to Trees, Water & People before Friday August 8, 2014.  We are happy to pick them up, or they can be dropped off or sent to 633 Remington Street, Fort Collins, CO 80524.  Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) and all phone donations are 100% tax-deductible. Thank you for your support!

Corporate Partner Spotlight: Project 7

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Project 7 donations support our reforestation efforts throughout Central America and Haiti, including the El Porvenir tree nursery (pictured) in El Salvador.

We love working with innovative and socially responsible companies that are committed to conserving the Earth’s natural resources. Project 7 is one of these unique businesses with a clear mission to “Save the Earth” and a long history of generosity in support of that mission.

Project 7 and Trees, Water & People (TWP) have been partnering to “Save the Earth” since 2011. As a reforestation¬†partner, TWP works with Project 7 to plant hundreds of thousands of trees each year. With their continued support, TWP plants over 50 species of trees in 5 different countries throughout Latin America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti). These trees help restore local watersheds, improve soil health, and increase biodiversity in ares that have been threatened by deforestation.

Project 7Project 7 is dedicated to bringing great flavor back into your day while at the same time giving back to 7 areas of need.¬†Little purchases when added up can pull many people together and make life changing impacts every day of the week. As¬†Tyler Merrick, founder of Project 7 says,¬†“If people are going to buy things – lots of things – then let’s use those things they purchase to help change the world around us. Let’s make everyday products for everyday people to solve everyday problems around the globe.”

The 7 causes chosen by Project 7 are the areas they see the most need in this world. These include: Feeding the Hungry, Healing the Sick, supporting those who Hope for Peace, Housing the Homeless, Quenching Those who Thirst, Teaching them Well, and Saving the Earth.

Every time you purchase a product from Project 7’s Save the Earth¬†line, you are directly supporting our efforts¬†to plant trees and improve the environment. For a list of retail locations click here.

Thanks for helping the Earth when you shop and thank you Project 7 for your continued support!

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About Project 7:

Founded in 2008, Project 7 has been a leader in the social entrepreneur movement by realizing the opportunity to make a difference in the world by selling everyday products that we’re already consuming and giving back on the sales of those products.

TWP Launches For-Profit Subsidiary to Distribute Solar Energy in Latin America

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We are excited to announce the launch of our new for-profit subsidiary, Luciérnaga, a social enterprise that brings clean energy solutions to rural Central America. Luciérnaga distributes small (<15W) solar lighting technologies that affordably meet lighting and device charging needs for energy poor populations.

1.6 billion people, roughly 1/4 of the global population, lack access to electricity, and millions more have only expensive and unreliable access. In Central America alone, 7.4 million people are without electricity. Families rely on kerosene, candles, and ocote (a local pine used like a candle) for light. These energy sources are both expensive and have a negative impact on both human health and the natural environment.

solar light hondurasWith support from the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), our Solar Energy Program was launched in January 2012 with a shipment of 450 Sun King Pro lamps to Honduras. In March of 2012, we made our first large order of household lighting systems from Barefoot Power. By September 2013, over 4,000 lights had been imported, expanding the program to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. By the end of this year, we will have more than 6,000 lights in Central America.

As demand for our products grows, we have incorporated Luciérnaga LLC as a subsidiary of Trees, Water & People in order to more efficiently manage our supply chain, reducing the cost of lights for our many customers.

We are excited to grow this social enterprise so we can bring clean energy to families throughout Central America. You can support our work! Please visit our new crowdfunding campaign to see how you can help.

For more info please visit the new Luciérnaga website or email Sebastian Africano at sebastian@luciernagasolar.com.

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Notes from the Field: Illuminating Opportunities for Energy Poor Communities

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Cooking by the light of a new solar lamp (Photo by Darren Mahuron).

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Over the past year, our Solar Energy Program has grown considerably, and we are now importing product for distribution in four countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.  Funding from Catapult.org has enabled us to make a bulk purchase of 1,000 household solar lighting systems, the Barefoot Power Connect 600, both for commercial resale and as samples to our growing network of distributors throughout Central America.  Of the 1,000 units, 600 were sent to Honduras where we have 125 individual vendors and 20 institutional distributors representing our product line in rural communities.  This product arrives perfectly timed for promotion during the holiday season, which also corresponds with the yearly agricultural harvest.

Meeting with community members is an important part of project implementation.
Meeting with community members helps us to implement successful projects.

I recently spent four weeks touring the regions of Honduras in which we have distributed product since January 2012, and had the opportunity to interview dozens of customers who are benefiting from the clean renewable energy that we’ve made available to them.¬† There are tailors that can work longer hours, rural shops that can stay open later, students that can study long after dark, kids who don’t have to be afraid of going to the outdoor latrine in the dark, and hundreds of women who don’t have to breathe the toxic smoke from kerosene or wood splinter¬†ocote¬†candles when they rise before dawn to begin their daily routine.¬† By all indications, we saw that this was a project that needed to be expanded aggressively.

Risks and Challenges

Every ambitious project has its unique set of challenges and lessons to be learned.  We have seen manufacturers increase their prices as they bring new products on line, we have expanded our geographic reach to serve four countries instead of just one, and we have re-routed our supply chain to import in bulk through a central location (in this case through a free-trade zone in El Salvador). We have learned lessons every step of the way.

Next Steps

Currently, we have formalized our approach even further by registering a wholly owned subsidiary of Trees, Water & People, called Luci√©rnaga (‘firefly’ in Spanish), that will manage all of the supply chain related parts of the business.¬† Our goal is to be able to purchase larger quantities of product and to make our supply chain more efficient, providing our customers with the best value possible.¬† We are generating employment, new income streams, and clean energy for Central American families, and we plan on continuing to grow our operation to the benefit of tens of thousands of families.

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To learn more please visit our website or email Sebastian Africano at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.

A Social Enterprise Approach

by Lindsay Saperstone, International Communications Coordinator

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Connecting rural communities to clean energy resources like solar lighting requires innovative approaches to development.

Social entrepreneurship is a pretty hot buzzword these days, often referring to the intersection between business and charity, in which innovative market solutions are used to address global challenges such as poverty, hunger, and climate change. The field itself arose from an understanding that business and charity as usual are not always enough to address the world’s most challenging problems. Classic examples of social enterprise solutions include smart phone apps that allow farmers in rural Africa to check real market prices on their crops, urban gardens that provide low-cost healthy food to low-income residents and microfinance institutions that have brought financial services to millions of the worlds‚Äô unbanked. A social enterprise innovation can be a physical product, such as a clean burning cookstove or a service innovation, such as the use of the ‚ÄúAvon ladies‚ÄĚ door-to-door sales model to sell health products.

Central to the field of social entrepreneurship has been the emphasis on the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP), or the four billion global citizens that live on less than two dollars and fifty cents a day. The argument made famous by C.K. Prahalad in his 2004 book,¬†The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, is that companies should treat the BoP as a potential profitable customer base and not just as charity cases. Others in this field have focused less on the potential ‚Äúfortune‚ÄĚ in this population, but still the importance of treating beneficiaries of aid programs in the same way any retail or service businesses would treat their customers. This means taking the time to do the market research to figure out what people in developing countries want, what messaging or marketing will appeal to them and how much they are willing to spend on it. This attitude greatly enhances adoption rates and the overall sustainability of any program designed to make a difference.

There are indeed, unique challenges to conducting business at the bottom of the pyramid. Poor infrastructure, corruption, and unpredictable communications can make distribution and supply chain management tricky. Moreover, because customers might be extremely price sensitive, it’s imperative to find creative ways to make the products affordable.

Risks aside, social enterprises are rapidly growing and rapidly creating significant impact in the developing world. They are also notably growing in the non-profit world. According to a recent report conducted by Harvests, Inc. & Community Resource Center, of the 331 non-profits surveyed throughout the state of Colorado alone, more than 40 percent of respondents indicated their organizations currently operate one or more social enterprises and 27 percent of nonprofits without a social enterprise are considering a launch.

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The Ecofogon cookstove is built locally by our partners in Honduras and sold throughout urban areas in the region.

Trees Water & People has long believed that the likelihood of success of any development program is directly related to the degree of community buy-in and financial self-sufficiency. For example, our clean cookstove programs in Guatemala and El Salvador employ a cost-share model. TWP and their donors purchase the stoves‚Äô specialty components such as the griddle, chimney and combustion chamber and the end user puts in the rest of the materials (all locally sourced items) and their time and labor, or ‚Äúsweat equity.‚ÄĚ Another example is TWP‚Äôs partnership with Lakota Solar Enterprise, a 100% Native American-owned and operated renewable energy company that manufactures solar air collectors and supplemental solar heating systems to provide affordable heating to low-income families on tribal lands.

The latest social entrepreneurial activity to come out of TWP is Luciérnaga (meaning firefly in Spanish), a for-profit subsidiary of our Solar Energy Program which distributes solar lighting and cell phone charging solutions to rural Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. TWP’s goal is to make Luciérnaga a self-sufficient entity that covers the cost of business through its product sales. Look for updates in the coming weeks on the details of the Luciérnaga business model and how we are using this model to create a bigger impact in the areas where we work.

Notes from the Field: Native American Entrepreneurs Aspire to a Greener Future

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by Lacey Gaechter, National Director

Today was the first day of our Native American Green Business Development Training ‚Äď something that Trees, Water & People and I have been working toward for the last year. While the training is the continuation of a process we started in 2008 – giving Native American students the technical skills they need to enter the green job market – it is only the first step in our new Green Business Development Program. The next will be awarding one “Start-Up Assistance Scholarship” to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) student with the best application, which means we think he or she will have the best chance of succeeding in his or her environmental social enterprise. The fact that this training is only the start of us helping more Native Americans create livelihoods that benefit Mother Earth makes this week extremely special for me.

Yesterday we dove right into the training, going over the basics of a business plan, a mission statement, products and services, and the purpose of market research. It was so inspiring to hear of the students‚Äô different aspirations for renewable energy, green building, and sustainable timber harvest businesses. Every single one of them focuses on the importance helping their people ‚Äď creating jobs and improving lives through their businesses.

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Henry Red Cloud shows students the solar PV system at RCREC.

We ended the day with a special guest lecture from one Mr. Henry Red Cloud, proprietor of Lakota Solar Enterprises. Henry talked to the students about what being a sole proprietor means to him and gave everyone an in-depth tour of the Red Cloud Renewable Energy, where there is plenty of fodder for the imagination, from solar panels to straw-bale houses and organic agriculture. After the tour, our long-time friend and frequent student Leo White Bear, had decided that he was going to build his own Compressed Earth Block machine, water his lawn with a passive-solar water pump, and sell solar water distillers as part of his business, Off the Grid. This is, of course in addition, to the 10 or so other products that Leo was already planning to offer.

One of my favorite moments of the day came when I asked Henry what the hardest part of being a business owner is, and he responded ‚Äúbookkeeping!‚Ä̬† His favorite part about running Lakota Solar Enterprises: ‚ÄúEverything else!‚ÄĚ I think he speaks for most of us!