In the midst of Haiti’s cell phone revolution, Baylor computer engineering professor Brian Thomas has found a practical way to help distribute the advantages of the world’s new technology more fairly. With Baylor engineering students, he has been helping Haitians establish businesses to recharge cell phones, using solar panels as the power source.
In Haiti, 40% of the population (eleven million) still depends on subsistence agriculture. But cell phones allow them to leapfrog many traditional stages of technological development. For example, mobile banking empowers many previously unbanked people. Lonely Planet tells us that cell phones are now so prevalent in Haiti that “Most businesses list several numbers on their cards and many people carry two cell phones on different networks.”
One problem is that, in areas with no electricity, users may need to travel long distances to recharge. In those areas, families could supplement their income by offering a recharging service. In 2015, Thomas’s team of three professors and 13 engineering students helped local residents build five solar power stations for charging cell phone batteries in areas without electricity. Working with local leaders, they identified five families who showed leadership in the church and community. In addition to setting up a recharging station for each one, they also helped organize a group liability association to ensure that money is set aside for future maintenance and repairs.
Thomas has a longstanding interest in the fair distribution of technology in the majority world. He has been a faculty advisor for Baylor student organization Engineers with a Mission since its founding in 2004 (“to motivate and train engineering students by creating opportunities for them to discover and develop their vocations as ministers of reconciliation in a world of poverty, injustice, and suffering.”). He has also spearheaded Humanitarian Engineering, aimed at students in the discipline: “The humanitarian engineering concentration prepares graduates to serve in a variety of international relief, development, and/or missions organizations.”
The project was an initiative of Engineers with a Mission (EM), Baylor Missions, and Justice and Mercy Energy Society, (JAMES) to bring solar energy-based businesses to Ferrier, Haiti, one of the poorest areas of the Western Hemisphere. Mission Waco, the parent organization for JAMES, has a longstanding relationship with the Ferrier area.
In 2015, Thomas explained,
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. (August 12, 2015)Brian Thomas, “Life Observations of a Middle-Aged Fat Guy” at ORANGEHOUSE
At the end of 2016, Thomas was able to visit four of the five small business projects to see how things had fared.
In the intervening months, the national electric grid had been extended to Ferrier, which made solar power is less immediately vital. And, as Thomas puts it, “ Some homes have been officially connected to the grid, and many others have made unofficial (illegal) connections to it! It’s hard to sell something everyone is getting for free!”
Some residents had also begun to use smaller solar panels that charge one cell phone at a time, lessening the need. At Filbert and elsewhere, however, the solar recharging business was doing well. Indeed, it came out that others are adopting the idea. The regional phone company, Digicel, uses its own large array of solar panels in the area and at least one person was tapping that power illicitly to offer a cell phone recharging service.
So what did joining the world’s development stream teach the team?
There are three new types of competition that did not exist when we installed the systems in May 2015:
1) extensions of the national grid which brought electricity to more homes through both legal and illegal connections – we can’t really complain about this since any type of electrification diminishes poverty in a multitude of ways
2) small solar panels flooding the region from another, different poverty abatement project are also taking away business in some areas – while this is good for the region as a whole, it’s not so good for our businesses
3) unsanctioned businesses operated by the security guard of another power source (Digicel). (December 17. 2016)Brian Thomas, “Haitian businesses update” at ORANGEHOUSE
Thomas thinks that the best opportunity for small home-based businesses in the area at present is to focus on other unmet needs, for example, small solar panels that power refrigerator units.
Human beings are creative by nature and perhaps the big change is simply “seeing” all the power available to be harnessed in nature.
See also: Can the newest technology liberate the poorest communities? In Haiti, new technology bypasses many development pitfalls
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