Transforming lives in rural Peru: a REEEP diary

31-07-2013, Lima, Peru

In July, REEEP’s Programme Director Eva Oberender made a journey to South America to visit communities that are serviced by newly REEEP-funded projects, each bringing clean energy solutions to people in remote areas of Peru.

Her experience was both physically challenging and exhilarating, but most importantly was clear proof of how REEEP-funded work goes the last mile and really transforms lives with clean energy. With many thanks for the organisation and hospitality of the teams of MicroEnergy International, PowerMundo and their local partners, here are some excerpts from her diary . . .

Arrival in Peru

Whenever I go to South America, I’m reminded of just how much I love the life there.  It could seem like chaos but no - it’s actually just that people love to talk!  My first destination is Arequipa.  Peru’s second city is located in a spectacular valley in the Andes, surrounded by three snow-covered volcanoes over 5000m, and one of them is still active.

Landing in Arequipa reminds me of landing on a Pacific island – a small but welcoming airport where you walk off the plane, cross the runway and grab your bags off the lone conveyor belt.  The Arequipaños feel somewhat separate from the rest of Peru.  Even the electricity grid is different from the national grid here and runs on 50Hz , rather than the 60Hz usual in rest of the country.
 
Even so, grid-related questions don’t seem central to the two initiatives I’m here in Peru to visit.  Around 6 million Peruvians don’t have access to electricity, and I’m here to see two different businesses who are benefiting from REEEP funding; each of them addressing this issue in a different way.

Fondesurco: clean energy lending in action

I’m in Arequipa to meet with Fondesurco, a microfinance organisation who are partnering with MicroEnergy International, implementer of the Energy Inclusion Initiative.  Fondesurco operate specifically in the Areqiupa area, with around 2000 agricultural, commercial and tourism clients.  About 300 of them have small loans for energy products: efficient cookstoves (or improved cooking ovens - ICOs) and solar water heaters (SWHs), most of them off-grid.

Local couple with an improved cooking oven.
 
Though energy is not the bank's primary segment, they have had significant success with lending for clean energy products over the last two years, and are adjusting their long-term strategy to expand their energy product loans.  A Swiss-funded REEEP project is currently helping them to to do this, so I am very interested in seeing how this is working out.

The next day, I don my winter coat for the frigid and hair-raising drive over several mountain passes to the community of Chivay.  Ascending to 5500m within 18 hours of arriving in Peru isn’t the smartest thing: soon the infamous mal de altura is upon me . . .   not a pretty sight.

Fast forward to some villages about 30km outside Chivay, where my kind Fondesurco hosts have arranged for me to meet with five different clients.  Most of them are microentrepreneurs with small shops or B&Bs along the beautiful Colca Valley (forget the Grand Canyon, this is the place to see).  Here, I’m able to meet with customers who’ve taken out loans to buy improved cookstoves and/or SWH systems.

Solar water heaters bring new quality of life.
 
I quiz them all with pretty much the same questions – how long have you had it, are you happy with it, how difficult is it to pay it back, how and why did you decide to buy it, is the product big enough?
 
And this is where I really start to understand just what a difference these loans are having in people’s lives. For a small B&B operator, a SWH system means being able to offer hot showers to guests.  For some families, it has radically changed their habits: now everyone in the family can shower every day.  And ironically, this means that many of them are already starting to find their SWH systems too small!

Another thing is also interesting: when I ask what other clean energy products they wish they could afford,.  They say they’d be interested but first they need to know what products that would be. Clearly these people have the means to have more, have the appetite to have more but don’t know where to turn and how to make it happen.  Definitely a marketing opportunity for Fondesurco!
 
My time with my Fondescuro hosts Alberto, Jonathan and the ever-obliging translator Gonazalo  comes to an end after another five hour-drive back over the treacherous mountain roads back to Arequipa.  They’ve been amazing hosts for my first few days in Peru, I am deeply grateful to both of them for organising my itinerary and for putting up with my endless questions!

PowerMundo: off-grid lighting solutions

One day later and I’m back in Lima, and met by Paul Winkel and his colleagues from PowerMundo, a company that develops, distributes and sells clean energy products in emerging markets; mainly portable solar lighting systems.  Over the past five years they’ve been developing their network in isolated regions of Peru, and REEEP funding is helping them to expand there.

Over the next several days they plan to take me on a visit to a remote community in the Amazon region populated by cocoa and coffee farmers - where Paul will do a demonstration of a range of his products.

The  Sun King Pro solar-powered light is versatile. It can be hung, carried or used as a table lamp.
 
We fly north to Tarapoto, a regional centre in San Martin province, up in what’s called the “high jungle”, and the gateway to the Amazon forest.   There we meet up with Rafael, PowerMundo’s newly appointed regional manager, before driving on for several hours to the town of Juanjui on the Huallaga River.
 
From there, we hire a boat and ride upriver for several hours to a regional centre, where we take the Mayor of the area on board, and then continue our voyage upstream to our destination. Or so we think.
 
The boat drive is fantastic – high jungle left and right around us, a fair amount of traffic on the river; people floating on wooden rafts downstream transporting people, cars, food.  I’m assured they get home by paddling very hard.

When we finally get out of the boat, the riverbank looms 6m above us.  Scrambling up is easy enough for me with an overnight bag, but poor Paul is loaded down with suitcases and backpacks full of lighting products to sell.  At the top of the bank we’re greeted by local representatives and also two horses, but I politely decline and continue on foot. A grassy walk leads right to a village centre with a school, a few community centres, a football field and about 40 houses.  It’s not really that remote, I think.

Then seeing how Paul is re-packing his gear, it suddenly it dawns on me – we aren’t there yet!  I’m urged to reconsider and climb onto one of the horses.  And from this riverside village we spend the darkening afternoon making our way along a mountain “road”; more of a slippery boulder-strewn path with 50cm of mud leading us through the high jungle.
 
As the shadows lengthen, Paul pulls out a Sun King Pro light.  The transformation was incredible. We go from groping our way in the pitch dark to bright beam of light that shows us the way. This is how the product gets used in real-life conditions – and for me, on top of the horse, in the mud, what seems a life & death situation ;-).

At long last, mud-soaked and tired, we reach our destination – a lovely village beside a small brook in the mountain jungle.
 
Our visit begins with a meeting with the village chief.  With benches arranged in a square, our courtyard meeting is perfectly illuminated by several SolarKing lanterns hanging from the rafters – showing just how versatile the product is.

After that get-acquainted meeting, I witness an entrancing spectacle: gathered outside are some 90 people. They have trekked from their remote farms to this tiny village to meet us, to hear speeches from the district Mayor and the village chief, and to see the PowerMundo products for themselves.  In the darkness, the presentation is literally dazzling.

Against a pitch-dark evening, the brightness of the Barefoot Power FireFly light is dazzling.

Paul patiently and kindly explains each feature, charming all of the kids and answering hard-nosed questions from the adults:  Can a child be hurt playing with the light, and are there any heavy metals inside?  How much does a solar light cost and what can I save? (US$30 upfront cost for a light that can easily last 3-5 years and eliminates approximately $15/month in fuel cost)
 
As the evening proceeds, these savvy, hard-nosed farmers are completely won over. By the end of the night, every single light that Paul had lugged up here has been sold. And a prominent local farmer has bought a large Barefoot Power PowaPack system.

It’s really inspiring to see that these people came with determination to learn, to ask as many questions they possibly can, to bank on this unique opportunity of having an expert in lighting system with them and to make a commitment to something totally new. But then again, Paul is immensely patient and very skilled at explaining details, and the product is perfectly tailored for them: portable, usable as flashlight, table lamp or hanging light, and durable, all-in-one.

The conversation turns to the recent announcement that the Peruvian government intends to provide solar PV systems to all off-grid consumers in the country.  Yet the consensus from nearly everyone present is that - quite apart from transport, delivery and servicing logistics - that this solar light is far better tuned to what remote farmers actually need: something durable, portable and versatile.
 
Looking back on this trip, my main impressions seem to be about

  • How difficult/important logistics can be - it was driven home very powerfully by that walk through mud and slopes that people have to make every time they send kids to school or buy something new.
  • How important light and energy for light is in these kinds of contexts. Without portable devices, the  life of a farmer would be very difficult.
  • How well established some of the local government networks are and how effective they can be in helping people improve their lives.

As the evening draws to a close in this remote village I am filled with a feeling of optimism and hope, seeing how lives are literally lit up with innovations that we have helped to fund.  Wishing our partners in Peru best of luck in scaling up their operations, I hope to see you all before long.  
 

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Eva Kelly Oberender

Consultant, PFAN Strategy