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
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.
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.