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Partners Both Home and Abroad Help Advance VPI’s BioD Project

Over the years, Vort Port International’s BioD project has truly developed into a partnership between social entrepreneurs and students in the U.S. and in Madagascar. What started off with a handful of engineers and business specialists here in the States has evolved into a team of dedicated students and professionals with a wide range of expertise in both countries.

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BioD strives to implement human-centric solutions to pertinent issues in Madagascar, and is working with two outstanding partners there. Over the past two years, BioD has been collaborating with engineering students at The University of Antananarivo, who have been involved in the assessment, design, and prototyping phases of the project. And within the University’s Institut pour la Maitrise de l’energie, five engineering students seeking their masters degree have constructed a prototype of the BioD and are currently testing the device. All the materials used by this team as well as the inputs for testing come from Madagascar and will provide us with benchmark data essential for scaling up. Over the next two years, as the BioD project progresses to the implementation phase, these students will play a crucial role in the deployment of the biodigester technologies in rural Malagasy communities. Through this partnership we are promoting local knowledge and skill development that will outlast the BioD Project and hopefully inspire other initiatives to improve the standard of living in Madagascar.

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The BioD team has also partnered with the Rotaract Club AVANA, which is based in the capital city of Antananarivo and whose members are young professionals with backgrounds ranging from finance to marketing to information technology. Their focus is to give back to their local community through education and empowerment projects. The Rotaract Club has assessed rural communities in Madagascar where the BioD will be prototyped, which consisted of a needs analysis and a survey of locally available materials, and has initiated a partnership between the BioD Project and our partner communities. The Rotaract Club members are also assisting with the education plan of the project, which seeks to deliver environmental and human health information to community stakeholders.

And closer to home, in September 2013 BioD launched a partnership with the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. This partnership will add the support of students and faculty from their Global Human Development program. The Georgetown team has already submitted the BioD concept for a social enterprise competition through the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). Faculty members with decades of development expertise will serve as mentors on the project.

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These partnerships and the ones we hope to develop in the future will ensure that the solutions we deliver are culturally appropriate and sustainable in the long run. BioD aims to spark a culture of entrepreneurship in Madagascar that will last beyond our project and take on the challenges of tomorrow.

This blog post was written by Rahul Mitra, VPI BioD Project Co-Director

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VPI Member Spotlight: Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook

PK and Zook

History is full of dynamic duos — two talented individuals who find that they can accomplish more by working together. Lewis and Clark. Woodward and Bernstein. Aykroyd and Belushi. Kwiatkowski and Zook. Never heard of the last pair? Well you will, or at least you’ll soon know of their work covering Vort Port International’s (VPI) efforts to enable low-income communities globally to gain access to basic necessities through education, training, and innovation of sustainable technology-based solutions.

VPI’s media team members Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook both grew up in northern Michigan — Kwiatkowski in the tiny town of Cheboygan, Zook in the even tinier town of Reed City. Their paths crossed when they both were students at Grand Valley State University, having been drawn to video production for similar reasons — each wanted to use storytelling as a way to create social change.

“I find it rewarding and invigorating to survive in a natural environment with only the most essential tools,” Zook explains. “But, perhaps paradoxically, I’ve also always been fascinated with media and creating a record of events that can be engineered to tell a story. I eventually developed an interest in combining the two.”

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During college Zook had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout China, shooting documentary and anthropology footage of people operating in an environment far removed from the “modern” world of technology and luxuries, and much more reliant on immediately available natural resources. Traversing through the Himalayas and observing the unelaborate lifestyles of small rural communities helped cement Zook’s interest in exploring the ultimate simplicity of human existence through the complicated technological medium of digital video.

Kwiatkowsk also studied film/video production in college, and found that while he enjoyed producing student work in the film program, he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the industry itself, finding it to be aggressive, self-important, and wasteful. Wanting to explore film as a means of social discourse and public good, he switched his emphasis to nonfiction media and produced two short documentaries as well as promotional material for the United Way of Ottawa County before graduating.

After college both friends ended up in Brooklyn, working in various types of media production. One day Kwiatkowski received a call from Merry Walker, a friend of a friend, who was looking for a volunteer to produce media content for the new nonprofit she had recently co-founded. Kwiatkowski became the media director for VPI, producing video content for the organization and its projects. He soon recruited Zook to help produce promotional content for each project, utilizing footage shot overseas by other VPI members as well as content produced domestically.

“Joining up with VPI was a no-brainer for us,” Zook shares. “Developing media for an organization that supports renewable and sustainable energy initiatives for the base of the economic pyramid was precisely the opportunity that we were both looking for to contribute our skills and passion for media to a cause that mirrored both of our own personal credos.”

Since joining VPI, the team has produced promotional videos domestically for the organization, as well as provided opinions and insight from a media-minded perspective. They also shared some valuable “training” advice (as well as comic relief) during a series of videos leading up to VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K fundraiser last spring.

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“The case is made overseas, and the projects are welcomed by those we’re aiming to help. It’s now time for these projects to make their case domestically, and that is where Joe and I come in,” says Kwiatkowski. He is currently working on a live-action spot shot in Washington, D.C., which showcases the prototype bamboo bike in use for Bandha Bikes, a project based in Uganda. And Zook, with the help of artist Valerie Light, is producing a short animation piece introducing the BioD project, based in Madagascar. Both are moving quickly to finish promotional material that can help raise much-needed funds for these two projects, and afterwards they will refocus their efforts on a new spot promoting the organization as a whole.

“Working full-time elsewhere, and spread between other video projects, it can be difficult to find the time to produce enough worthy content for an organization doing so much,” Kwiatkowski admits. The team often relies on the footage shot by other members during their assessments overseas (usually on their smartphones), creating some production challenges. In the future, hopefully there will be funds in the budget for them to travel abroad and document first-hand VPI’s trials, tribulations, and successes in order to better tell the organization’s story as a nonprofit and promote the causes of each project.

“It would be a thrill and an honor to produce content hand-in-hand with the people we work with on the ground overseas, and I’m sure one day we’ll get there,” says Kwiatkowski. “Until then, we are happy to do what we can here in the U.S. Producing content with little to work with puts us in a situation that demands creativity. I like to think Joe and I are up to the challenge.”

Kwiatkowski became a first-time dad in July and hopes to impart on his daughter the importance of being a global citizen, and to do one’s part in a world increasingly stretched thin.

Zook couldn’t agree more. “Ultimately, my goal for this organization is to establish and sustain an active, relatable, and provocative media presence that educates, sparks interest, encourages the public to engage with our organization, and inspires them to utilize their own skillsets to contribute to good causes within and outside of their own communities.”

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Our Honorary Founding Members

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When Vort Port International (VPI) was conceptualized and incorporated in January 2010 I was fortunate to have the help of five remarkable co-founders: Ellen Faulkner (formerly Creal), Phillip Dixon, David Yeung, Paul Jawlik, and Marianna Oykhman. VPI derived its name from the words “vortex” and “portal,” which conveyed our mission of bringing people, resources, energy, and ideas together to solve fundamental global problems through technology and entrepreneurship. The organization quickly gained followers and members interested in working towards this cause.

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The volunteers who joined soon after VPI’s incorporation truly helped to fill in the gap left as some of the founding members moved on to new endeavors. The hard work and dedication of these members helped shape the organization into what it is today. Being an organization comprised entirely of volunteers, most of the members are in school, have jobs, or both. It takes an extra something to be able to help run a nonprofit organization in addition to a multitude of other responsibilities, but these passionate members stuck around through our ups and downs, squeezing in meetings between classes, on the way to lunch, and late into the night. They used personal vacation time and funds to travel on behalf of VPI. We bounced ideas around on how we could improve, constantly sought feedback from experienced advisors, and worked to continuously improve our operational and project development models.

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By the time that VPI officially received its 501(c)(3) status in February 2011, we had completed our first project and had a membership of 20 individuals. Over the last several years, our portfolio has blossomed into three projects and our membership has doubled, with our scope expanded to three countries outside of the U.S. and our volunteers based in seven cities worldwide. We’ve hosted countless events and increased our online presence significantly. Throughout all this, there have been four integral members who have been with us since the beginning: Shivangi Khargonekar, Patrick Kwiatkowski, Chandni Shah, and Jason Vou.

On behalf of VPI’s three active founding members, Phillip Dixon, Marianna Oykhman, and myself, I would like to thank Shivangi, Patrick, Chandni, and Jason for their hard work by deeming them honorary founding members of VPI. Their selfless dedication and drive toward developing a better world has helped to lay the foundation for our organization, and I’m proud to work alongside them. It’s because of the commitment of these individuals, as well as all of our members, partners, and donors, that we have been able to evolve into a growing nonprofit with the potential to make a real change in the communities we work with.

This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI BioD Team Brews Up a Fundraising Project

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Madagascar is well-known as home to an abundant variety of plant and animal species seen nowhere else in the world, as well as its high quality exports of vanilla, chocolate, and rice. What you may not know is Madagascar is also home to some seriously good coffee. This fact was discovered during Vort Port International’s most recent trip to the country earlier this year when team members tried some of the coffee during their travels. After tasting the quality of the coffee, the team thought there had to be a way to incorporate this wonderful product into our overall BioD strategy.

With this in mind, the BioD team and its local partners the Peace Corps and Rotaract Club AVANA began exploring the possibility of using the coffee as a fundraising tool for the BioD project. The goal would be to transport the coffee back to United States, where it would be roasted and sold in and around the Washington, D.C., area. The proceeds from the coffee would go toward operating costs for the BioD project as well helping defray the substantial initial investment required by the Malagasy when purchasing a biodigester.

Although the fundraising initiative is still early in its development, significant progress has been made. Thanks to our Peace Corps and Rotaract AVANA partners in Madagascar (and some of their family coming back to the U.S.!) we were able to send around five pounds of raw coffee to Washington, D.C. Once the coffee arrived, we teamed up with a locally owned roaster to roast the coffee for us and provide feedback on the quality. In addition, we took the roasted coffee to several local D.C. coffee shops for feedback and to gauge interest level.

The feedback from the roaster and the coffee shops was overwhelmingly positive! The quality of the coffee, along with rareness of being able to offer a coffee from Madagascar, led to a lot of interest from the roaster and coffee shops. Due to the high interest from our first batch of Malagasy coffee, we are already looking to bring back a second batch of raw coffee to test with additional roasters and gain some more feedback.

While there is still much work to be done, the BioD team is excited about the prospects the coffee fundraising brings. In addition to providing a source of fundraising for the BioD project, the project will aid Malagasy farmers in finding a steady buyer for their coffee and increase awareness of Madagascar as a legitimate coffee exporter. The BioD team is confident that conscious coffee consumers will be excited to try the Malagasy coffee, as well as learn about the biodigester program it helps support. Hopefully within the next year you will be seeing Malagasy coffee at your favorite coffee shop and will be able to try it for yourself!

This blog post was written by Mike Waldsmith, Business Lead – BioD Project with Vort Port International.

VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit www.theshapeofnews.com for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Vort Port International’s BioD Project Partners with DC’s Wangari Gardens

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.

VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K Raises Awareness, Money and a Few Heart Rates

Vort Port International (VPI) volunteers have traveled to the far reaches of the earth — rural villages in India, the jungles of Uganda, the island nation of Madagascar — but early on a brisk Saturday morning in March many found themselves in what was, at least for them, new territory: Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park.

On March 2, 2013, VPI hosted its first 5K race/walk. Dubbed the “EmpoweRun”, the event saw 118 runners make their way through a 3.1 mile looped course of wooded trail by Rock Creek in the heart of Washington DC.

“I had a really great time. It was my first time running in a few weeks due to an injury, and I wasn’t sure whether I could drag myself out my warm bed so early on a Saturday. Really glad I did though — thank you for organizing this!” said participant Kathleen Coffey.

And runner Alvin Chen had this to say about the race: “I did my first 5K ever today and wanted to thank you all for a great event. Plus I learned a lot about VPI’s mission. Great work all around.”

The overall winner was Chip Daymude of Washington, DC, finishing with a speedy time of 18:33. Kate Norberg, also of Washington, DC, was the first woman to cross the finish line with a time of 23:17.

Several VPI volunteers participated as well, including Media Director, and first time 5K runner, Patrick Kwiatkowski, whose “rigorous” — and hopefully inspiring — training was documented in a series of humorous videos.

“When I realized that communities living below the poverty line abroad might benefit from my feeble attempt at some exercise — how could I resist? Every cramp and sore I might suffer is worth the chance to lift impoverished communities up with smart, sustainable technologies and practices — an easy price to pay,” said Kwiatkowski.

A series of signs along the course such as “You have just run half of the distance it takes for Ugandan children to go to school. You’re halfway there!” and, at the two mile mark, “You have just run half the distance it takes for women in Africa and Asia to gather water. Water ahead!” helped let runners know how far they had run, as well as remind them why they were running in the first place.

Post-race participants enjoyed drinks, snacks and an upbeat playlist of songs while cheering on the finishers that continued to roll in until just under the 58-minute mark.

The EmpoweRun raised more than $2,000 towards supporting VPI’s projects, which help further the development and distribution of technologies that provide basic needs such as sanitation, transportation, light and clean water in high-need areas of the world.

VPI would like to thank our sponsors Pacers Running Store, ING Financial Partners, Pepsi and Chamane Energy Drink; raceDC Timing for timing the event and all the runners and volunteers who came out to support the inaugural race.

Photos and results from the EmpoweRun can be found here.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

Rise of Public and Private Partnerships celebrated at the UN COP17

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Momementum for Change iniative

Public and Private Partnerships are being praised everywhere throughout COP17.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a speech about what the delegates must accomplish for this COP, and he also praised rising Public and Private Partnerships. There was a new initiative that took place this year called Momentum for Change.  It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.  This initiative’s goal is to celebrate the rise of grass root public-private partnerships that have changed the lives of communities in developing countries around the world and has scalable potential. Even though the right policy has not been reached due to political inertia, the COP still has seen success – success in bringing about awareness of the issues and encouraging other players to take stage.  The Momentum for Change initiative says their goal is to debunk three misconceptions – 1) that change is painfully slow and very little action is taking place on the ground.  2) that the private sector can only act after absolute policy is made, and 3) that it is absolutely too expensive to make real change.

Although, I agree change is happening, I think it is much too slow, and still is not enough. Yes, the private sector can act without strong policy, however, it is very unlikely, that most people will want to take that risk.  For widespread change to occur to meet our needs, the right policy must be in a place.  Markets are created by demand and regulation, and without the regulation part, it is hard to create the right incentives.  In the case of climate change, we cannot wait till the demand is so high that the whole world (including developed nations) is begging for help.  At that point, it will be too late.  We need to start supplying widespread low carbon technologies and solutions, now (well more like yesterday).  I whole-heartedly agree with number 3, change is possible, but again regulation must set the right incentives.

To help jump start this change, parties have been talking about the Green Climate Fund (GCF).  The details and logistics of how money will be distributed to developing countries are still being worked out.  However, there is a lot of contention about whether this money should go directly to the governments or also go to private companies.  Developing nations would like the money to go to the government to distribute and handle.  However, some people believe that private companies due to their precedent of efficiency, should be eligible as well.  These people note, that the private companies have made the tedious CDM process cost-effective and efficient. The decision of how this money will be distributed is very important.  If given to the developed world companies it could be seen as manipulation of imperialism and the encouragement of “corporatocracies.”  This would directly contradict the proclaimed purpose of the GCF.

In addition, I personally do not trust markets to fully regulate themselves. Although, private companies can be efficient, the incentives must set up the correct motives.  Else it can be disastrous, as we have all seen that prevail in the United States with the recent financial crisis. What we really need for optimal performance is a perfect marriage of public and private. We know that is a hard thing to accomplish in this world.  But it is essential that we try to get it right.   How can we get this right? How can we use regulation to create the right incentives in the market to steer our world in the right direction?  Isn’t this what we have been working on for the past 1293829018408 centuries?  But, human nature, political deadlocks, and corporate greed keep getting in the way. Hopefully, we don’t mess up again.

However, I do want to leave by saying this – grass root projects happening around the globe are incredible and quite inspiring.  I encourage you to go the Momentum for Change website and see the amazing work being done around the world by entrepreneurs and governments.  I am proud to be part of an organization, such as Vort Port International, that is promoting the development of these types projects.

~Chandni

(Director of Business Affairs at Vort Port International)

Momentum for ChangeUN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Momementum for Change iniative

Contention of Liability at the UN COP17

We have the responsibility for mitigation, but we also have a right to develop...

Liability was a huge issue discussed at the COP17.  Many developing nations are rallying for it to take as much importance as other issues discussed, such as Adaptation and Mitigation. I went to a talk by the South Centre organization with India’s Environmental Minister, where they were promoting this initiative. At this talk they spoke about equitable sharing of the atmospheric carbon space.  Where they argued that the Cancun agreement did not represent the principle of common but differentiated action by nations.  They urged that historical emissions by nations must be taken into account for fair sharing of the carbon space. It became clear to me that the slow progress and building deadlock on Climate Change policy is an inherited problem passed on to us by history.

India’s perspective is that developing nations have the responsibility to mitigate climate change, but also have the right to develop. South Centre panelists argued that Non-Annex countries such as India entered industrialization much later than Annex-1 countries.  For India and many countries, this was due to unjust Colonization.  Therefore, Non-Annex countries have not contributed to the emissions problem to the same degree as Annex-1, and they are still taking on the majority of the emissions reductions.  Sunita Narayan stated, that Annex-1 countries are only taking on 40% of the reductions, when they were the original contributors of the problem.  They suggest that the remaining emissions space should be delineated based on historical emissions and the equity principle to have a secure energy future, says India’s Minister of Environment.  The Equity Sharing Principle suggests dividing emissions by per capita and taking in account the emissions that Annex-1 nations disseminated from 1850, at the start of industrial revolution, or from 1960, the peak of the industrial revolution.  Annex-1 countries are against the per capita criteria and suggest that 1990 may be a more practical number to start from.

Though this contention lasts, Annex-1 nations have decided to support the developing world through a Green Climate Fund (GCF).  This fund would be raised by developed nations and to be distributed to developing nations to support the development of low carbon technology, adaptation, and mitigation. An agreed upon amount of US  $100 Billion will be placed in the fund. However, there is much agreement that even this amount is not close to enough. The logistics of the GCF are to be decided at the COP17.  Many non-Annex nations are criticizing this fund as cop out by the Annex-1 nations to avoid liability and responsibility to cut their own emissions.

It was really interesting to hear the point of view of the many of the developing countries in person. It was refreshing to hear such direct conversation, but the politics were also evident. Granted, I sympathize with the developing nations point of view – that they were not the main contributors of this problem, and they are yet again suffering the consequences of western development. I do see an issue – that ego will rarely let a person put their hands up and say yes, sorry, it was my fault, I will fix it.  So as Vikram mentioned in his last post, it becomes a game of pointing fingers and evading responsibility.  Although, in discussion the Minister of Environment did note that India is not avoiding its responsibility and is taking serious measures to promote sustainable development.  For example, India has a goal to have 20,000 MW of solar by 2020 and they have put in strong Feed-in-Tariffs for Wind and Biomass.  Regardless of aggressive policy, they are worried that their emissions will continue to increase. However, the Minister of Environment did not mention that India has very low coal reserves and with growth comes an increasing demand of energy, and thus a need for alternative energy sources.  That made me realize that may be the U.S is apathetic at this point because they have a lot of coal left, as compared to other nations? “Out of sight, out of mind?” Let’s hope our nation does not continue to take that perspective.

Even though the GCF, if implemented, could help the developing world, Annex-1 nations must not stop at that. They must take on binding emissions cuts to fuel mitigation, else, the problem will just continue.  If they take on binding emission cuts, there is a chance that the developing nations such as China and India will also do so.  This is becoming increasingly important as we near the end of the Kyoto Protocol.

~Chandni (Director of Business Affairs at Vort Port International)

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