By Caitlyn Peake, GE’s Latin America Regional Director
More than 1.3 million people in Nicaragua still lack access to electricity, primarily those living in rural communities. This energy poverty adversely affects livelihoods, productivity, quality of life, and above all, health. Without electricity for lighting, rural families in much of the developing world must rely on smoky kerosene lamps, which emit toxic fumes that cause serious respiratory illness and a host of other health issues.
A Unique Partnership
To help tackle this problem in Northern Nicaragua, Green Empowerment (GE) partnered with local coffee cooperative El Gorrión to undertake a bottom-up rural electrification effort, using renewable energy to transform the lives of families in need. El Gorrión is a cooperative of small-scale coffee producers that supports over 600 members in the municipality of Yali, Jinotega, Nicaragua. Established in 1998, El Gorrión provides its members with technical assistance, financing, post-harvest processing and commercialization and exportation services.
Together, Green Empowerment and El Gorrión established a revolving loan fund to provide 150 coffee-farming families affordable, low-interest microcredit to purchase 100-watt solar systems over the next three years. The systems provide enough energy to power six LED lights, or enough to illuminate an entire home in most rural communities. The beneficiary families are all members of the cooperative, so repayment installments are easily deducted from cooperative earnings. The innovative twist of this fund, as opposed to a more traditional microcredit model, is that it “revolves” – as families pay back their loans, incoming funds are used to supply other families with microcredit loans to purchase their own systems. Our objective is for this fund to become self-sustaining, while helping more and more households gain access to electricity via clean, renewable energy.
To establish the revolving fund, EKOenergy, a nonprofit initiative of the EKOenergy Network, provided a €20,000 grant that was matched one-to-one by financing from El Gorrión. Beyond the transformative impact of clean, reliable, high quality lighting, local technicians from beneficiary communities participate in the installation of the solar panel systems with training and direction from Nicaraguan solar business Suni Solar, thus creating local employment opportunities in the solar industry.
As of March 2018, fifty household solar systems were installed, and GE and its partners are now preparing for the next cycle of installations. Families who received the loans and solar electrical systems are enthusiastically embracing the program and the benefits that electricity brings.
Cooperative member Yoyner Cordero Espinoza explained, “Without the credit we wouldn’t be able to afford to buy the solar systems. We wouldn’t have enough cash to buy, but when [installments] are accepted it helps, we can afford them. These renewable energy systems have changed the way we live, we don’t have access to the electrical grid and are far off and these systems have helped us.”
Joselyn Gonzalez, a member from the community of La Lagunita, noted that the access to in-home power has made a difference to his whole family. “We feel better with light, living in darkness is good for nothing… There are changes [since we installed a solar system], now we have light, we go to bed later, it is much better for my son, there are not kerosene lamps or light from a flashlight.”
The staff at El Gorrión also noted the program’s impact on the wellbeing and productivity of the cooperative’s members. Oswaldo Garcia, a technical support staff member, remarked that, “It’s a big impact; it changes the way people live. From using polluting kerosene lamps for lighting, to having clean energy. On top, the self-esteem of the cooperative’s members is higher, they feel better about themselves, more worthwhile. They are no longer ashamed of inviting you to their home, inviting you to share and stay in their place – before that didn’t happen. There is a change in way of life too, before they had to go to bed early, they lived in the dark, and now they can use some of the evening time to do some tasks or work, allowing them to get up later, not that early. Before they had to get up very early and more when they had to help the workers in the family to go to work.”
According to Garcia, the revolving fund is also beneficial for the cooperative itself: “The advantage of the cooperative offering multiple services is to have plenty of capital, but also many members; but the capital is already allocated and you have a lot of financial demands. The great opportunity for credits like this one allows us to continue the installation of new demand without taking it from our capital and we can offer favorable interest rates. The co-op will always need financing credits for expansion, allowing us to continue our work.”
Ultimately, the greatest benefit of programs like this is improved quality of life for families and communities in need, empowering them to succeed and thrive. Merlene Hernandez, another El Gorrión staff member, expressed gratitude to GE and EKOenergy for their partnership in this initiative: “I just want to thank you [for] the support; by working with us, we can provide more solar panels, electricity to our members, and working together we improve the quality of life of our members, because these improvements make their lives much better, we want to continue seeing the improvement in their quality of life. They feel better, happier and we want to see them improving themselves.”
Many thanks to EKOenergy for supporting this work. Stay tuned for future updates!