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
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.
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.
Vort Port International (VPI)’s Nick Imbriglia (Electrical Engineer) and Merry Walker (Executive Director), flew from Washington, DC to Chennai, India to meet India Solar Lamps (ISL) team director Chandni Shah. In Chennai, the three met with potential microfinance institutions (MFIs) and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, including a visit to the remote village in which the team will pilot the ISL project. Since development started in March 2010, the team has grown rapidly from one director (Chandni Shah), adding three business analysts (Charu Vijaykumar, Leena El Seed, and Chris Yoder) and four engineers (Alrick Nelson, Pritham Prabhakher, Nick Imbriglia, and Merry Walker). The team has been working hard to bring alternative and sustainable lighting technology to rural communities in India. They have developed a robust and affordable solar lamp, seen here below, that requires only about one watt of power to light a four by four square foot space for six to eight hours.
The light is critical for families in the village, where children currently use kerosene lamps to do their homework at night, causing them to inhale harmful fumes. Additionally, the fishermen of the village rely on the small kerosene lamps (seen below) as they fish during the night.
Other lighting options include 60 or 100 W incandescent light bulbs fixed to the side of their huts and costly, battery-powered flashlights to light their path. The team noticed that the incandescent bulbs were haphazardly tied to the side of the hut with exposed wires that tapped into the intermittent grid. Grid power fluctuates based on availability; frequently, if nearby cities use more electricity, it is diverted away from the village, leaving the inhabitants completely in the dark. Furthermore, relying on grid-dependent light sources is extremely costly to families in the fishing village. The villagers were understandably enthusiastic about the ISL team’s prototype which was demoed during the visit. By visiting the site, the team was able to realize several design changes that they hope to implement prior to the pilot program. Furthermore, ISL envisions preparing material for teaching the villagers about concepts such as energy efficiency and why an LED-based solar lamp is more efficient than an incandescent bulb. Currently, the villagers view a bulb as a bulb, and they simply want something larger, not necessarily more efficient. However, the partner villagers seemed eager to learn new concepts and work with VPI/ISL on understanding solar energy and energy efficiency. The team looks forward to working in India with the villagers, including explaining solar technology and the economic and environmental potential it will bring to their community. ISL plans on collaborating with MFI’s to create economic opportunities for local women by enabling them to build and sell the lamp in neighboring areas.
The meetings with the NGOs and MFIs were promising: they showed interest in the technology and theorized how interactions between VPI/ISL, the local women entrepreneurs, and the villagers could play out. ISL and local MFI’s are still in discussion and working collectively on creating a comprehensive plan for the immediate future to ensure that the technology is appropriately disseminated to the communities that need the lamps the most. Overall, the excitement exhibited by all parties from this trip has been brought back to the team and will motivate us through the next phase of development as we continue to refine the design and implementation. The team is grateful to have been a part of this experience and looks forward to continuing this journey with partner NGOs, the villagers, and Vort Port International.
Imagine, if you would, the world.
There’s a lot out there, and no two parts are quite the same. Each one boasts a unique blend of geography, culture, resources, and so on. There are an indeterminable number of factors that define the regions of our world.
There are also a lot of problems, that’s plain to see. Somewhat more difficult to see, however, are appropriate solutions to these problems. Make no mistake: potential solutions are often abundant for issues in the developing world.
But not all solutions are created equal.
Our topic today concerns Appropriate Technology – its definition, its process, its challenges. Appropriate technology is just that: appropriate. But before diving into what that means, please watch the following video demonstrating AT in action.
At this point, some people might be scratching their heads. The guy put water and bleach in a Pepsi bottle… How does that constitute some amazing technology? Well, that’s the thing with appropriate technology: it’s all relative. Each part of the world has different characteristics, different strengths and weaknesses, which must be accounted for. Would it make more sense to supply this community with lightbulbs? They lack the necessary resources and infrastructure. Likewise, Demi’s solution would be ineffective in an area where nighttime light is needed or where the buildings are multi‑storied.
To aid our comprehension, I requested a little help from Professor Barrett Hazeltine of Brown University. Professor Hazeltine is something of a legend at Brown, having taught engineering and engineering management all over the world, including Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. On top of that, he’s one of the most cordial people you’re ever likely to meet (for more information, see http://www.engin.brown.edu/people/Faculty/facultypage.php?id=1106970190).
Region specific and environmentally sound, appropriate technology is a solution that is “simple enough to be maintained by the user’s local community.” Hazeltine added that it is set apart by a “concern for the user in many aspects – not just cost.”
Pretty straightforward, right? Well, easier said than done. Tailoring a solution to a region requires a certain familiarity. Take Vort Port International’s recently announced Bamboo Bicycles Project in Uganda. With it, we hope to provide a sustainable, economically feasible transportation solution. For American engineers, this means constant communication with future users. What are the roads like? How much bamboo is available? What is the average family income? They provide the parameters; designers provide the technical know-how and training to make it self-sufficient.
Coming from a first world background, developing an appropriate solution often requires non-conventional thinking. This can often lead to projects not being taken seriously, Hazeltine pointed out. Consider the Bamboo Bicycles Project. One of the challenges we face is demonstrating to investors (and users) that yes, bamboo can be an effective material for bicycle construction in this region and, furthermore, it is a far better solution than supplying metal framed bicycles which locals have no means of manufacturing or repairing.
To develop appropriate technology, one must design beyond basic function. There is a personal element that pervades the entire process. Will this solution work? Will users be able to sustain it indefinitely? It’s a lot of work, but when implemented correctly, the results can change that big, wide world.
This blog post was written by Nicholas Imbriglia, a member of Vort Port International’s India Solar Lamp Team. He currently resides in Washington, DC.