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
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.
I recently caught the R train at Prince Street in Soho on a rainy summer afternoon. The subway system and its strange ecosystem of commuters, tourists, homeless, and wildcards is hardly phasing to my wife and I anymore. We moved to Brooklyn three years ago from our humble (and quiet) home state of Michigan, but we have acclimated well to our new environment. On this particular train was a wildcard I’ve grown accustomed to seeing underground. The middle-aged man standing in the center of the car, with his worn jeans, t-shirt and backpack, felt the need to enlighten his fellow passengers. With a voice tinged with disparity, his exhausted red eyes beamed at us strangers, and the man began to stress aloud about controlled media, big business, and corrupt politicians. Then, specifically, he spoke urgently about the practice of fracking and its dangers to our water sources.
“Wake up! Wake up people”, he shouted. He tried to open a dialogue with those around him, to no avail.
With slumped shoulders, he tugged awkwardly at his grey ponytail. “I don’t like to go this route, but I see a few children on this train. If not for yourselves, can you at least think of them? Think of their future!”
* * *
Two weeks prior to this train ride, I came home from a long 12-hour day at the warehouse. My wife, Meggie, has been feeling sick and achy with a long list of symptoms that are foreign to her. We suspected she might be pregnant. My mind was a blur at work all day, constantly shifting from work to her and the impending pregnancy test we were going to take that evening. When I finally walked through the door after 9pm that evening, Meggie jumped up from the couch. Her only greeting was a sheepish smile. I knew, immediately, that she had already taken the test.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I asked. Her face went red and I knew it was true. “Holy shit.”
My daily thought process hasn’t been the same ever since. We are currently 8 weeks into the pregnancy, we have seen the heart beat, and we notice every baby and toddler in passing through the course of every day. As a father-to-be I am very excited and, strangely, very confident. Being entirely new to the world of parenting, we are devouring one baby book after another. We are pouring through online forums and even interviewing midwives. Overall, I am feeling very good about being a father.
* * *
That is, until I think of that man on the R train. Think of their future! The line struck me unexpectedly. He held up a handful of pamphlets for anyone interested in what he was talking about. My hand, almost involuntarily, shot up in the air. Grateful that anyone was listening, he rushed over and handed me the literature. However, I didn’t get off that easy. Suddenly his best friend, he began to embark on a one-sided conversation with me about the practice of fracking (already know it) and the petitions I should sign (signed them all). The train came to my stop, so I quickly thanked the man and dodged around him for the closing door.
Think of their future! The line continues to nag at me. In fact, it may be my greatest fear in raising children of my own. What kind of a world am I raising them in? I sometimes view the world as a place with an overwhelming vastness of problems (hence my participation in Vort Port International). But with as many problems as I recognize in the world, what problems will my children inherit? That is what scares me. At times, these broad questions seem utterly and hopelessly beyond my control (and as a soon-to-be parent, I don’t like it).
Thinking of their future, my role and work within Vort Port International has taken on new meaning. My reasons for nonprofit participation have new context. It is my hope that this nagging fear will evolve into unmovable purpose in Vort Port International and my role as a global citizen seeking sustainability for all.
Patrick Kwiatkowski, VPI Media Director
People have asked me what the motivation was behind starting Vort Port International (VPI). There were a number of factors including past experiences and lessons learned from working on philanthropic projects that lacked elements of social and financial sustainability. One instance, a team of people had designed and fundraised for an orphan care center in Malawi, but the work was not maintained due to lack of training and education of the members of the community. It taught me that connecting with the community and teaching them useful skills was crucial to the long-term success of the project. Lessons like that help shape how VPI currently makes decisions. And, underlying all that, the creation of VPI may stem from my experience of being part of a home that was given a chance to grow.
The majority of my early childhood was spent living in low-income, government-subsidized housing in Michigan. I remember eating free school lunches, receiving grocery bags of staple consumer goods, dumpster-diving for any furniture we could find, going to my mother’s workplace because we could not afford a babysitter. My mother, Yuyang Ye, would wake up before the sun and commute to work, and she would stay up until two o’clock in the morning to study, translating her biology textbook from English to Chinese word by word.
I recall these things and, above all else, I was happy and immensely loved. Life was focused on family, appreciation for having one another, and simple daily necessities. My mother would always say that the value of a person is not in what they own but in who they are. We did our best to make it by, while trying to live virtuously. In times of need, though, a strong network of people offered to us what we could not provide for ourselves. Free after-school programming at the local community center offered a babysitting service to allow my mother to work more hours. English as a Second Language tutored me in English, something my mother had not yet mastered. Family friends would generously take my brother and I to museums to help enrich our young minds, revealing an entire world to explore. Libraries offered a second home to further nurture our curiosity. Summer camps at the YMCA engaged children in team sports and taught us a strong appreciation for the outdoors.
I look back on a childhood full of wonders and excitement, and I have both my mother and my community to thank. Through perseverance and determination, my mother finished her Master’s degree and our family made its way into the middle-class. The support that my family received allowed us to succeed and, as a result, I strive to provide similar opportunities for others in need.
A realization grew within me as I began traveling more. When I visited Madagascar there were families content with what little they had, living simply and within their means. I realized that people, regardless of background, all want the same thing — parents want to provide for their children, children work hard to carry on legacies, and communities work together to help one another. The majority of families share a willingness to work hard and learn new things, if given the chance. Most of the world’s people are relegated to lifestyles less prone to meaningful opportunity. By providing community outlets to learn new skills they otherwise may not have a chance to learn, the less fortunate can make their lives infinitely better. And perhaps this engendered sense of greater giving will be paid forward time and time again. These personal beliefs inspired the creation of VPI, and they continue to be the centerfold of the work that we do. VPI empowers community members to provide for themselves a sustainable lifestyle, by teaching them important skills for long-term success. VPI functions by a group of young professionals who care deeply about bringing out the best in the people through smart, sustainable technologies and programs. And we understand that our contribution does not stop at the individuals we help; we’re passing on lifelong skills that can change entire communities for the better. And when their children grow older, they can continue to better the world one generation at a time.
When speaking with VPI colleagues, many of them come from similar backgrounds. Their families and communities influenced their decision to become a global citizen and contribute to something beyond themselves. We would like to recognize Mother’s day, just last Sunday, and honor the love and dedication that our mothers have provided us throughout the years. Thank you for being there for us, always giving your support every step of the way. It was you and the many chances that we were offered that allowed us to grow into the people we are today.