Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.
But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.
The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.
But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future
What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.
Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.
VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.
Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.
Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.
This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project
This May, I traveled to Madagascar for the Vort Port International Biodigester project (BioD). My mission was to meet our on-the-ground partners, visit potential pilot locations, gather information on future manufacturing and supply chain possibilities, and gain feedback from and discuss next steps with our partners. The BioD Project has been going on for over two years now, and the team has been working around the U.S. designing, testing, and improving various components of the biodigester technology. The finished product will provide a more environmentally-sustainable alternative source of cooking fuel to communities who are currently using charcoal and firewood.
The BioD project was inspired by my previous visit to Madagascar in November 2009. During this trip, I saw how charcoal-making and charcoal-use was devastating to the many people who live off of the land. This practice involves cutting down large areas of trees and letting these trees dry before they’re piled together, covered with dirt, and burned down anaerobically to produce charcoal.
Charcoal is sold and used directly, or combined with firewood, as energy sources for cooking. On average a single family uses one to two large bags full of charcoal per month. Price ranges based on the region where they are purchased, but the one consistent trend is that prices have been steadily increasing over time, as forestland has become less and less available.
After the trees are deforested, the area undergoes desertification, and the people livng there are forced to push their land line back and walk further each day to gather wood and food. Charcoal-making and firewood use also decrease the available land for the already endangered unique species in Madagascar. Cooking with firewood and charcoal is not only an environmental threat, but is also detrimental to human health. According to the World Health Organization, two million people die prematurely from illness attributed to poor indoor air pollution and household solid fuel use. This problem is not specific to Madagascar – over three billion people use biomass and coal for cooking. However, Madagascar is unique because of the sheer amount of biodiversity (over 150,000 endemic species), the growing population (3% annually), and the island-nature of the country. Limited options for energy sources, a largely rural population, and high deforestation rate all make Madagascar the perfect place for the BioD project to work.
My first stop was the capital city of Antananarivo. Immediately after deplaning, I was greeted by a several eager and energetic members of the Rotaract Club AVANA who picked me up at the airport. I still remember coming out of baggage check and getting swarmed by all these people planting wonderful kisses on each cheek. They then whisked me off to an amazing lunch, and we made plans to meet the entire Rotaract Club AVANA team the next day.
We woke up early and made our way out to Iavoambony, a village about one hour from the capital. The grandparents of the Rotaract Club AVANA president grew up in this village in a house they built. The village was quaint, with 1,200 residents, and taking only ten minutes to walk from end to end. There I met with some local villagers who kindly showed me into their homes. The first thing I noticed was the fact that pigs were kept in the homes, just a couple feet away from the fire pit/stove where meals were made, and approximately five feet away from their beds. I was told that people keep their pigs in their homes to prevent thieves from stealing the thing that defined most Malagasy’s wealth and social standing. It was logical, but left me worrying for their health. In addition to the pigs’ waste around the floor, the walls were black, coated from the charcoal and wood soot. We then walked down to meet with the village’s chief, where we met and discussed the virtues of the project. He’d been living there in the same house the entire 52 years of his life. Upon learning about the goals of the BioD project, he smiled widely and remarked how he has noticed how much further his family has had to walk to gather wood, and how water patterns have shifted dramatically due to reduced forest density.
I spent the next several days in Antananarivo visiting various offices in the capital to determine how best to establish a Malagasy branch of our organization, and the legal requirements to starting this project. Everyone I met with was thrilled for this project, and receptive to help it start.
Next, I traveled three hours west to Ampefy, a larger but more remote village of 3,000 people. Ampefy is in the highlands region of Madagascar. The lands are vast and rolling, with rice paddies of varying shapes, old mountains, and blue skies. Malagasy cows, or zebu, created the only traffic jams, children peered shyly at me, and roosters woke me up daily at 3 a.m. Being there made me feel at peace.
I met with Emma, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Ampefy who is part of the partnership between VPI and Peace Corps, Madagascar. She is working on several economic development projects with a local nonprofit called Prosperer, and took an interest in our initiative. Emma had set up a meeting at the town hall with several intrigued local residents. Here, I presented the project to the town mayor and the townspeople, with Emma as my translator. It was nice to have the presentation turn into more of a discussion, with the townspeople asking meaningful and thoughtful questions. By the end of the meeting, a few of the villagers wanted to be on-ground volunteers and offered to build a demonstration site for people in the area, set up, and run the pilot unit.
The next day Emma and I traveled to the home of the on-ground volunteers, which is also the potential pilot site, to meet the family that would be operating the biodigester unit. Surprisingly, getting there by local transportation, which consisted of waiting on the side of the road for a bus, was easy and almost enjoyable. We sat under a shade tree sipping on Malagasy coffee (espresso). After an hour or so, we arrived at the family’s house. They had acres of land and rolling hills, zebu, pigs, and roosters roaming their property.
We met in the kitchen/eating area for the family — a place that could easily hold 20 people. In Madagascar, people live with their extended family and eating together is a way of social bonding (something I can definitely get behind!) After explaining the project and fielding their questions, they were so eager to start the project that they almost ran off to buy the components and start building. I had to contain them a bit, explaining that, unless properly built and checked, the nature of gas can be dangerous. The excitement and hospitality they showed me blew me away.
Leaving the beautiful and peaceful Ampefy was difficult, but I was eager to meet the University of Antananarivo students that the BioD Project team is working with three graduate students have built and tested the biodigester design in-country, providing important feedback and data for the US-based team to make design improvements and changes. Working with them has been a pleasure, and my visit there was nothing short of motivating. The students showed me their unit, how they loaded it, and tested the flame to demonstrate how it worked. I literally felt the effectiveness when I accidentally got too close to the flame, and felt the intensity of the heat billowing out of the biodigester. After the site visit, we explored the city, dropping into various stores to determine where best to source parts for future biodigester units. As expected, the main portion of the biodigester was extremely expensive, and its quality was unreliable due to spotty supply chain. To deal with this problem, the team and I are working on establishing contacts to be able to provide a direct supply to Madagascar for this project as it continues to scale.
The day after seeing the biodigester in action, I went with the University students and their professor to investigate other potential pilot locations. The first location we stopped at was Manjakandriana, a 3.5 hour drive from Antananarivo toward the forest-dense east coast. There we met with the mayor of the region. During the interview, she provided survey responses for basic questions such as population, but also described the region’s environmental history. Manjakandriana was previously home to several endemic species of lemurs that lived in the area’s forests. Because these lemurs could only survive on a diet consisting of the endemic plants, they followed the endemic forest as the line retreated, which was due to people replacing the natural forest with eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus trees grow large enough for charcoal production in 2-3 years, much faster than the growth rate of endemic trees. Because of the high reliance on charcoal around Madagascar, the endemic forest has been reduced to the small, protected forests, while eucalyptus spans all non-agricultural fields as far as the eyes can see. It’s both beautiful and frightening the sheer quantity of forest that has been converted to this imported and invasive plant species. The mayor of Manjakandriana stated that she has noticed how the water levels have been decreasing, and soil quality has been severely depleted because of this. The eucalyptus doesn’t retain the soil quality as well as the endemic plants, and soil erosion is prevalent in these regions. Even though these problems are occurring, few efforts are being made to diversify the plant make-up, or reduce deforestation rates.
I later had an opportunity to visit Andasibe-Mantadia National Forest, a dense but small protected forest. Over 85 endemic plant species and 11 lemur species exist in this 155 km2 area. Being there was bittersweet, as I saw how the land was and could be, but I knew few options existed to restore the land to anything even close to what it was just a couple decades ago. A couple of close encounters with lemurs crossing our path put us face-to-face with a type of animal that’s being squeezed out without anywhere to go. Biodiversity in Madagascar doesn’t just mean protecting our furry friends. In the late 1950’s, scientists discovered the Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant endemic to Madagascar. The leaves of this plant produce an anti-cancer agent, and increased the survival rate of childhood leukemia from 20% to above 90%. And this is just one plant out of thousands. Scientists have yet to discover or even identify many of the endemic plant species; it’s sad to think how many possible cures exist in those lands, and will be lost forever to human practices.
These are the potential human impacts that preserving biodiversity has, and one thing our team is working to achieve. We are also dedicated towards creating a direct and immediate impact of using biodigesters as an alternative for cooking, reducing the time spent collecting firewood and charcoal and ultimately providing a healthier living environment. I’m proud to be working on such an effort with a devoted team, and am excited to see the impact the project has as it continues through to implementation.
This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International
Two weeks in Uganda was a short amount of time to try to accomplish so much. Time takes on a different shape there, moving with the flow of the natural day. Even though the days flew by, the overall pace of life was slower. Everything is on African time – about two hours late on average – and people operate in a more relaxed manner. They speak gently and thoughtfully, unless they’re arguing, in which case all bets are off. They saunter rather than speed-walk, and take the time to formally greet one other before jumping into business. It’s a lifestyle that inherently counters my typical behavior, and has taught me patience and the art of enjoying life in the present.
I was in Uganda representing Vort Port International’s (VPI) Bandha (bamboo in Lugandan) Bicycle Project, which works to train local villagers how to build, maintain, and sell the bamboo bicycles to people in and around Uganda. The team’s project director, Song Nguyen, had performed the first site visit last June, and I was there performing a follow up visit to solidify pilot locations, answer questions for the project, and continue to gain feedback. Bamboo is an abundant, locally-grown, and strong resource that can replace traditional steel bicycle frames. Most of these steel bicycles are secondhand from China or Japan, and are sold at relatively high costs compared to the average Ugandan income. Because of this, the local economy for these bicycles has limited room for growth, and many people, especially the vulnerable and needy, don’t have access to a much-needed form of transportation (for the majority of Ugandans, walking is their sole means of transportation.) Because of the lower material costs associated with frame construction, bamboo bicycles will sell for less than that of steel bikes. This will increase access to the product and, enables children to get to school , families to fetch water more conveniently, and increases commerce to increase by using the bicycles to transport goods, thereby empowering communities to succeed. Additionally, training and hiring Ugandans to build, sell, and grow the project will stimulate the local economy and promote Ugandan-made goods that can be sold and even exported, rather than relying on the costly and unreliable second-hand import market. Being able to talk to villagers, women, and students around Uganda about this project has been exciting and further strengthened my enthusiasm for Bandha Bicycles’ vision.
My first stop in Uganda was the village of Lukaya in the Kalungu District, half way between the capital, Kampala, and the western border of Uganda. There, I met with George, the director of Tree of Life Ministries, and several headmasters of Mustard Seed Academy, an incredible boarding school founded by Elaine and Joe Griswold, two amazing people who VPI is fortunate to be partnering with. This school offers not only education, but also housing to orphans and other students in need. I visited the students and the community, as well as local sites for bamboo sources, and discussed the project with local leaders. Sean, a volunteer contractor for the school, was extremely helpful and hospitable, and shared some of the challenges and rewards of working in this community with me.
Visiting the Mustard School was an amazing experience. I was greeted by the students announcing “you are most welcome,” in unison when I walked into each classroom. They then showed me some of their notes, all written in great detail — because of the lack of textbook availability for the students, their notes essentially were their textbooks. There was a wide age range of students–from 13 year olds learning advanced geometry and trigonometry all the way to three year olds writing short sentences. It was hard to believe that until the school was founded a few years ago, many of these kids were living on the street. They were bright and curious, and their spirits matched their intellect.
I even had the opportunity to teach a mini-course to the secondary (high school) students who will eventually be trained through their vocational and service learning course on how to build the bamboo bicycles. When I asked them if they believed that bamboo could be used as a bicycle frame, they all replied (again in unison), “Yes, Ms. Walker”. One of the main challenges that the team has faced is convincing Ugandans that bamboo can, in fact, be a suitable substitute for steel or other bicycle frame materials. To have the students all agree that they do believe that bamboo could be used was music to my ears. They all seemed eager to learn new skills — in response to the question of who would like to eventually be a bike builder, every single child raised their hand in the room. Perhaps it was just the overall excitement of the day, or the presence of a foreigner, but I genuinely felt that the students wanted to participate. Overall, I was beyond impressed by the caliber of students studying here, as well as the quality of their work.
After leaving Lukaya, I then made my way to Jinja, a beautiful, quaint, and bustling town where I was based for the remainder of the trip. There, I first met with Sharon, the director of VPI’s partner organization Arise and Shine Uganda, to go over the questions I reviewed with all of the Ugandan partner organizations. We then took a day-long journey toward Kibuye, the village where she is from and now works, to discuss the project. We stopped at a bamboo farm and a couple village centers along the way to speak with local communities about the progress of the project, gain feedback, answer questions, and discuss next steps. People had insightful questions and concerns.
Will the bicycles be able to handle the conditions in Uganda? How can I be assured that you’re going to come back? When will you be back? These communities have worked with previous development organizations that came in to do some work, or make false promises, and then deserted them. While people were excited, they seemed skeptical of development in general. Still, I sensed that they trusted us more than other organizations, because when we said that we’d come back, we kept our word.
The following day, I went to meet with Kats and the members of Nansana Children’s Center (NCC) in Kampala, another partner
organization. NCC works with youth and single mothers in Kampala linking single mothers with educational resources and materials for thier children and linking families with other community resources so they can thrive, regardless of income. They currently have a small primary school program at their facility and are looking to eventually build a larger school, as well as other buildings to support their work. After introducing the Bandha Bikes program to Kats and the other board members, I spoke with the single mothers that are part of the NCC program. They were very keen to know what it would take to be part of the Bandha Bikes project.
We also ran through sample lesson plans on resource mobilization and gender equality which would be offered to participants of the program along with the technical bicycle workshops. The lesson plans were well received, but their perception of gender equality startled me because of the stark cultural differences. However, after running through a high-level version of the lesson plan, the group responded very positively to the class, saying that it was applicable and opened their eyes. I have the Bandha Bikes team to thank for their thoughtfulness in developing the lesson. Although I was uncomfortable in the situation, the lesson gave useful statistics and posed intriguing questions that challenged traditional thinking. Overall, the project aims to not only provide bicycles, but help educate on some of the underlying social issues and provide some context to address these issues so that the bicycles can help empower women and girls in the community.
The next day, I met with three wonderful individuals – Amos, Moses, and Brian – all of whom have been doing social work with the local community and teaching villagers how to make jewelry out of bamboo. They showed me how their work is already making a difference in the villagers’ lives, and that the community members they work with highly respect them. I arrived by boda boda (riding on the back of a motorcycle) to Lwanda, and was happily received by a large group of women yipping and yelping sounds of joy. I was told that these sounds reflect their excitement and joy for the project’s presence. We talked for a bit, and then set off to round up more people for a larger meeting at the center meeting place dubbed “the Office.” Approximately 40 villagers, primarily women, attended,
and they were attentive and asked great questions that reflected more of their concerns about development and whether there was assurance that we’d be back. Again, I could not promise anything but explained that the team was there a year ago and promised to return, and we had. After this, they seemed to open up more and responded with more yips of joy. I couldn’t help but smile when looking into their eyes — the happiness of hope lit up their faces. They got a kick out of watching the Bandha Bikes video that the media team assembled, and couldn’t wait for the bike to be in their communities.
2) If not, why? “They are too expensive.”
3) How would that help your lives? “They would provide increased access to health care, water, school, and the ability to perform jobs that would improve our livelihoods.”
With this overwhelming agreement about the potential and demand for bamboo bicycles, it is now our turn to do our best to meet this demand, and work with our amazing partners in Uganda to provide this simple, but life-changing technology.
For more information on the Banda Bikes project click here.
Written by Merry Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Vort Port International
Vort Port International recently participated in the annual Brackets For Good fundraising competition. Hoping to take the enthusiasm of March Madness and bring it to non-profit fundraising, in 2011 the Indiana-based organization Brackets for Good developed a way to match up non-profits using a bracket system in a single elimination tournament to score points: $1 raised = 1 point. The organization or team with the most points at the end of a week wins and advances to the next round. There are three total rounds, with two finalists competing in the final round for $5,000 in prize money. The participating non-profits also get to keep the money they have already raised.
This year was the first to include non-profits in the D.C. area, and VPI competed with almost 50 organizations to secure a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. VPI put up a good fight, making it to the Final Four before being eliminated, but not before having raised over $600 that will go toward VPI programs.
Of course you don’t need a basketball-themed contest to make a donation to VPI — those are welcome any time!
This blog post was written by Lisa Wu, Social Media Specialist for Vort Port International.
A community garden in the Park View neighborhood of Washington, DC, may seem worlds away from the African island nation of Madagascar, but this spring, Wangari Gardens (WG) will play an important role in developing technology that will be used nearly 9,000 miles away.
Since 2010, Vort Port International’s (VPI) Biodigester (BioD) team of creative designers and engineers has been developing a low-cost anaerobic biodigester to generate clean and renewable energy in order to provide an alternative for cooking fuel in biodiversity-threatened, at-need regions of the world.
Part of the development process includes testing, so when VPI Executive Director Merry Walker heard about Friends of Wangari Gardens, a non-profit with a mission of converting DC vacant green spaces into sustainable parks and gardens, governed by and for the non-profit benefit of the community, she knew they would be a perfect fit as a VPI community partner.
“While the BioD will provide sustainable energy in underserved communities around the world, our partnership with Wangari Gardens will promote awareness in our local community of the most pressing global issues such as deforestation, air pollution and lack of access to clean energy,” explains BioD Project Director Rahul Mitra.
Through this partnership, VPI will test the BioD at the Wangari Gardens site using manure from a local horse stable and plant waste matter from the garden as inputs. The by-products of the BioD are a nutrient-rich sludge that Wangari Gardens’ growers will be able to use as fertilizer, as well as methane gas.
“Wangari Gardens is ecstatic to partner with VPI on their BioD Project for several reasons,” says Josh Singer, Executive Director of Friends of Wangari Gardens. “First, we hope to use the methane gas by-product to create an outdoor cooking class someday. We also plan to educate our community about the science, benefits and sustainability of biodigesters. And finally, Wangari Gardens is named in honor of one of the greatest tree advocates in the world, Professor Wangari Maathai. If this BioD model could save forests around the world, we are thrilled to help.”
On March 17, 2013, the BioD team officially moved the prototype to Wangari Gardens where members of the community got a chance to see the BioD in action. Using a mixture of horse manure and water, the team began the seeding process, which will develop an anaerobic bacterial colony in the BioD prototype required to generate methane gas. Members of the BioD team were on hand to provide information on biodigester technology, as well as the global energy issues that VPI hopes to address. Pictures from this event can be seen on the VPI Facebook page.
VPI’s BioD team will be participating in open houses at Wangari Gardens over the next few months. Check WG’s Facebook page for schedule updates.
In other BioD news, students at the Institut pour la Maîtrise de l’Energie in Madagascar have started testing their prototype as well. Results from the concurrent testing of the two prototypes will be used to make design modifications and performance enhancements. Merry Walker will be traveling to Madagascar in May, at which time she and the students will visit partner communities. She will also visit the Malagasy BioD prototype, and identify the pilot sites and on-the-ground leaders.
For more information on the BioD project or to make a donation visit www.vortport.org/our-projects/biodigesters/.
This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.