Monday, July 12, 2010

Green tech lights the way in Haiti

This week, an unexpected store opened in rural Haiti. Inside, the items for sale include solar panels, solar-powered lamps, and ultra-efficient stoves. In a country where nearly 70 percent of the people lived without reliable electricity before the earthquake struck, a little sustainable technology can go a long way. American social entrepreneur Dan Schnitzer is determined to make this tech a realistic alternative to kerosene, candles and darkness.

His path to Haiti started when he was a senior at the University of Chicago in 2007. Schnitzer and his friends got a $1,000 grant to build a wind turbine from scratch. They chronicled the project online and one day in early 2008, Schnitzer got an email from a Haitian man living in the United States who asked whether their turbine could power streetlights in his hometown, Les Anglais, a town on the southern peninsula that's several hundred miles from Port-au-Prince.

The turbine was too small for the job, but Schnitzer learned that turbine size wasn't the problem. The town didn't have streetlights, and after doing some research, Schnitzer found that installing them would cost millions. He wondered if the town even wanted streetlights, thinking they might have more pressing technological needs, so he set out to ask them.

Working with the local Haitian organization COREA, he completed 260 surveys by the end of 2008. What he learned became the impetus for EarthSpark International, the nonprofit he co-founded that year.

Schnitzer discovered that, when given a long list of different kinds of energy to choose from, the locals most wanted solar-powered lighting, which they could carry around or use their homes. The more time he spent in the country, the more he realized that he wasn't seeing a technology problem. He was seeing a business problem.

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Schnitzer had just returned to the United States from an extended stay in Haiti when the earthquake struck.

"It was devastating," he says. "Soon after the earthquake, someone brought to our attention the impact on women. There was a rise in violence against women, and rape in the camps in some of these communities."

Lighting and security in the washing areas women used was nearly nonexistent. Compounding matters, gangs had horded aid and were demanding high prices for it.

EarthSpark raised funds and used its knowledge of solar lighting technology to get solar flashlights to women. As a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, the nonprofit worked with Haitian research initiative INURED, Paul Farmer's Partners In Health, and the Haitian government's ministry of women's affairs to get 3,000 SunNight Solar BoGo flashlights distributed.

"Women weren't just using them to light their tents, or as a flashlight. They were clipping them outside of the tents to provide public lighting. They created patrols at night," Schnitzer says. "They were using them as public goods."

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