Energy as a Compounding Agent: InterIntel and the Democratization of Sustainability Stampa E-mail
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in italiano

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by Justin Dargin and Dan Schnitzer- InterIntel-Renewab

The old, but well known, proverb states, Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for life. This sums up in its entirety the fact that despite the best efforts of the World’s numerous aid agencies and NGOs, and despite the billions of aid dollars spent on the world’s poorest communities, poverty has seemingly become more entrenched. However, as shall be discussed subsequently, poverty can be broken, but only if the poor are viewed as creators of their own destinies, and given the tools to attack the problems that beset them. Preventative solutions that preemptively attack the root causes of deeply entrenched problems, and not merely symptoms, can generate spillover effects in all sectors of poverty mitigation That the world’s poor are in a desperate situation is undeniable. Scenes of pestilence, violence, flooding, massive climatic changes, and other horrors confront the viewer daily. The impact of Hurricane Katrina shocked the world, and seemingly heralded the image of the climate refugee. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that 150 million climate refugees could exist by 2050 with the Islanders on Papua New Carteret Atoll among the first people to undergo forced displacement as they flee rising sea levels. However much the West wants to help, it is often beset by a sense of hopelessness; the problems seem so intractable that no one person or group can radically change the status quo. In September 2000, World leaders met at the United Nations Millennium Summit, and promulgated a series of time tables for meeting the Worlds most persistent challenges. These objectives, framed as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), sought to overcome the almost ubiquitous Pandora’s Box of impediments that confront the “typical” developing countries: hunger, illiteracy, gender inequality, disease, and environmental degradation. While energy was not explicitly listed by the UN as such an impediment, it was recognized for its role as both an aggravator and ameliorator of inequity.
The UN defines energy poverty as lack of access to clean and efficient energy systems. With insufficient energy, the other MDGs are beyond the pale (See figure 1).

The quality and the quantity of the energy available to the World’s poor are not only critical, but essential, to meeting the MDGs. The importance of energy was recognized at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. As stated by the UN, “urgent action is needed to move beyond the business-as-usual approach to energy. It is no longer sufficient to think of energy usage as being driven by economic development”. (Source: UNDP Energizing the Millennium Development Goals – 2005). Indeed, energy services are required to drive economic development, and enhance all spheres of poverty reduction.
The global politics and economics of July 2008 centered on the “energy crisis” that erupted when the price of oil peaked at $147 per barrel. However, a chronic “energy crisis” has crippled communities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, for decades, if not hundreds of years. The hard numbers of the world’s energy crisis are utterly staggering. Globally, 2.4 billion people utilize traditional biomass – basically energy from the sun captured in organic material derived from plants or animals, such as dung, wood, crops or garbage – as their primary source of energy. Another 1.6 billion do not have access to even the most basic electricity. These population figures do not even include the soaring social costs: traditional biomass utilized as energy is not only inefficient and expensive, but deadly. Worldwide, this form of indoor air pollution kills some 1.6 million people per year. Of these, 800,000 deaths afflict children less than five years of age, and more than 500,000 occur among women (WHO, 2006). Yet, the energy cleavage between the haves and the have nots has widened and deepened in the first part of the twenty-first century. Further, energy poverty impacts such hydrocarbon rich nations such as Venezuela, Nigeria and Bolivia, to name a few, which have seen armed violence due to protests over inequitable distribution of public goods.
One of the more chilling, if not Orwellian ironies, is that most of the World’s poor pay extraordinarily high prices for poor-quality substitutes, and the fact that they are ready and willing to pay is relatively unaccounted for in most poverty alleviation programs. The lack of energy access in poor and developing areas result from the dual factors of governmental and market failure. Developing nations have frequently been caught in a proverbial “Catch 22”, in which national governments routinely fail to embrace their portion of the social contract, and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has failed to integrate into marketplace dynamics the real, but barely visible, wealth potential of the bottom third. P.K. Prahalad’s groundbreaking book, the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (2004), shows through extensive research the wealth creation potential in that economic stratum (See figure 2).

Prahalad, in fact, illustrates that a lack of resources is not merely a negative, but can be articulated as a positive factor, because it creates the potential to supply services and creates a feeling of entrepreneurial activity. Prahalad astutely explains that the poor are not victims, even though they may easily be victimized. If the poor are recognized as innovative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a provider can alter the fifty or more years of entrenched orthodoxy exhibited by the World Bank, donor nations, aid agencies and NGOs, which found themselves unable to structurally challenge the persistence of poverty. Simplistically, poverty alleviation orthodoxy holds that aid or loans are to be distributed to government on a top-down approach, and that government thereby has the responsibility to redistribute it to the poor in the form of direct handouts or infrastructure projects.
But when the state failed to undertake its duty – due to corruption, mismanagement, or inability – there was little thought given to direct engagement to the citizenry, and thus, we have seen since the end of the 1980s, the rise of third sector, nongovernmental organizations seeking to work from the bottom-up. A lack of energy access creates a vicious poverty-enhancing cycle that is difficult, if not impossible to escape, without outside guidance. Poverty assistance ought to be retooled, since the over-riding objective is to generate viable marketplace participation. As will be discussed later, InterIntel, a nonprofit began in 2008, takes a holistic approach to overall poverty alleviation and sustainability, with the revolutionary idea that energy requirements and generation be viewed in the context of the sum total of environmental challenges, education and the inequities so prevalent in the least developed countries. Further, InterIntel’s basic premise is that its clients are empowered; trained and taught to utilize different heuristics, as vehicles to shape their own economic destinies.

It is estimated that in Haiti, some 30,000,000 trees are cut down every year, primarily for conversion into charcoal. Needless to say, with just 1% of the country’s land under dense forest cover, Haiti is on its way to completely depleting its principal energy resource. Only 30% of households in Haiti are connected to electricity grids, meaning that for the remaining 70%, lighting is produced chiefly from kerosene lamps, wax candles and to a much lesser extent, private diesel or gasoline generators. This energy calculus is by all definitions unsustainable, and is a result of previously discussed governmental and market failure.
Like all countries, Haiti has struggled to balance the consumption of natural resources with economic growth. The challenge is further complicated by the specter of climate change: even if Haiti is able to shift from, for example, kerosene to electric lighting, negative externalities will still arise if diesel – the most common fuel input for the production of electricity – continues to be the principal fuel for additional electrical generation.
Unfortunately, failure continues to be the modus operandi of central planners as they continue to receive funds from the World Bank and others under the false pretenses of stimulating development through large, centralized energy systems, blind to the costly externalities which eclipse their benefits. Community-based energy development, which InterIntel advocates as a more cost-effective and self-sustaining solution, is given no thought at all. This paradoxical behavior is exhibited in Haiti’s Energy Sector Development plan, which incredulously states that one of the barriers to propagation of solar power is “even theft of photovoltaic panels at private and public installations”. This barrier is of course a symptom – not a cause – of energy poverty. If a reliable and plentiful source of solar energy systems were available, panels would not be so rare as to be consistently procured by theft. In addition to an adequate supply of panels, they, and the end-use devices which they power, must be priced to be affordable to anyone who currently pays for some alternative lighting solution. While this may sound unfeasible – it certainly does seem that way to the Bureau of Mines and Energy, Electricity of Haiti and Ministry for Public Works, Transportation and Communications – it has proven to be very successful in experiments and programs around the world.
A form of creative microfinance, known as energy lending, can be employed to unequivocally make solar power and electrically powered devices affordable to even the rural poor. Energy lending is structured such that monthly loan repayments are comparable to traditional energy expenditures. In the case of a residential solar energy system with ceiling lamps, the monthly loan payments would equate to roughly the median monthly community residential kerosene lighting expenditure, normalized to the number of kerosene lamps effectively being replaced by the home solar energy system. This financial structuring ensures extremely low default rates while providing access to better energy services for the vast majority of the community.
In a 2007 survey of energy lending around the world, 8 microfinance institutions were found to have programs which, combined, have provided some 93,000 loans (Source: Morris et al., Using Microfinance to Expand Access to Energy Services – 2007). Some of the projects, enterprises or products which were enabled by these loans include solar home systems, solar lanterns, village grids or infrastructure, and local energy-focused businesses. With the emergence of carbon markets, clean energy solutions or environmental projects such as reforestation can be subsidized or even generate revenue from the sale of carbon emission reduction credits.
InterIntel is presently engaged with the communities of Les Anglais and Coteaux, on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti, to put these ideas into action. Like so many other populations, the vast majority of Haitians are all too familiar with the previously discussed causes and symptoms of energy poverty. Haitians are also, as illustrated in Paul Farmer’s treatise on the historical excoriation of Haiti, The Uses of Haiti, all too familiar with the unkept promises and sometimes disastrous consequences of top-down, government administrated aid.
In reaction to these shortcomings, many different groups, including MIT’s D-lab and Center for Bits and Atoms, the non-profit group AIDG and indeed the concept of microfinance itself, have just begun to tap into the vast potential for self-improvement by nurturing the inherent human qualities of intelligence and ambition. This bottom-up approach espouses the aforementioned “fish” proverb; that is, for a man to feed himself for the rest of his life, you must teach him using locally customized heuristics. Following these principles, InterIntel relied chiefly upon the input of the residents of Les Anglais, solicited through surveys and informal requests for proposals from the public, as inputs to project development. The surveys, which were administered to 265 households in Les Anglais in December 2008, collected socioeconomic data, agricultural data, present energy consumption data, and asked the subject to identify his two most preferred energy solutions from a list of ten discrete choices. This list was accompanied by a visual aid consisting of diagrams and pictures of these energy solutions. Having initially visited the community in August, InterIntel was able to formulate this narrow list from a much larger set of potential energy solutions frequently implemented in least developed countries. We found the greatest demand for solar home systems and portable solar lamps which, for the people of Les Anglais, can provide three-month to two-year payback periods, after which lighting costs go to essentially zero.
As previously identified, the challenge of supply and affordability must be met if the end goal is for every household to have the option of purchasing clean energy. On the supply end, InterIntel is raising funds to build a cooperatively owned clean energy retail store. Fonkoze, Haiti’s premier microfinance institution, will be providing energy loans for systems which cost approximately more than 60US dollars.
As the United States grapples with the loss of “brown” jobs for “green” ones while it tries to shift to a less carbon-intensive energy scheme, we too must consider the impact on employment in least developing countries when implementing projects which reduce the amount of charcoal or kerosene consumed. In Haiti, it is estimated that some 150,000 persons are employed by the production to consumption chain of charcoal. In the community of Les Anglais, some 50 small vendors earn much of their livelihood by selling kerosene to the city’s 20,000 inhabitants. To encourage the transition to clean energy, these vendors can purchase shares in the store, thereby preserving their livelihood even as they sell less kerosene.
Many of the solutions available from the store intrinsically further local development. For example, in conjunction with the availability of solar home systems, InterIntel will provide training on how to install the systems – a skill which local entrepreneurs can seize upon to create value. We provide similar training and procurement for biogas digesters and Jatropha Curcas agriculture. We are also working on other projects with student groups, a University in the city of Les Cayes, a Bakery in Coteaux, a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and many more to engender selfsustaining change. Each of our projects follows from an algorithm which is only valid using local, community parameters. This algorithm includes surveys, environmental impact studies, baseline assessments, grassroots group engagement, and evaluation. By using these tools, we can ensure that we not only teach communities to fish, but that the method of teaching – the heuristics – which guide us and which are passed on to the community are ideally suited to that particular community’s parameters. Please visit to learn about InterIntel’s best practices in democratizing sustainability.

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