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Assessing impact in Cuajinicuil, Nicaragua
Renewable World and Green Empowerment supported AsoFenix to bring electricity and light to homes, and the possibility of increased incomes to the people of the poor, rural community of Cuajinicuil in 2010. The initial project involved collaboration between AsoFenix and blueEnergy, two Nicaragua-based NGOs with different areas of expertise, to construct and install a solar-wind hybrid system with the community. We made the long journey back, which culminates in a steep 40 minute trek through maize fields, in November this year. As part of a follow-up sustainability assessment we met with community members to understand the impact of the project on their lives.
Zenayda Valerio Huembes is a woman with a lot of energy. She is in her twenties, a teacher, and has roles in a local agricultural cooperative and local government. Over the last two years, she has played a major part in the administration of the renewable energy system in Cuajinicuil. She ensures that the community capitalise on municipality-level projects promoting renewable energy.
Despite her many other commitments, Zenayda, like many rural Nicaraguan women, still spends around six hours a day in the kitchen. Having light has been transformational for her. “Now there is much less chance of me adding a cockroach to the soup!” she laughs. But the point is a serious one; women spend hours straining their eyes as they cook in the morning, evening, and even when there is natural light – the typical house here has no windows. “Of course the project has benefitted women most of all” says Zenayda. “Men have to go out to work early in the morning and now we can just turn on the light when we like and cook”.
Zenayda explains that what you can’t see can be dangerous; “Before, with the light from the kerosene lamp it was impossible to see under the bed and spot a spider or a snake in an evening. Now, with electricity, you turn on the light and you can see everything”. In this instance, light is a lifesaver. In addition, Zenayda is now able to clean and remove husks from her corn on an evening, freeing up her time in the day to work with the cooperative.
Left: Zenayda on horseback - the only alternative to the trek up to Cuajinicuil. Right: technicians Daling González and Bryam during maintenance on the turbine. Photos © Jon Sumanik-Leary
Meet Bryam Bolaños Delgadillo, Zenayda’s nephew. At 19, he has been involved in the renewable energy system since its installation. In his case, this project has had an impact only measurable by the passion of his words. I’m touched to see AsoFenix staff greet Bryam as ‘Engineer’ and work through equations with him in preparation for his university entrance exam.
Bryam is determined to study electrical engineering in Managua and AsoFenix is giving him any assistance they can to get him there. Not only does electricity from the micro grid provide light for him to study in the evening but Bryam already has excellent work experience: he has been involved in around 20 local solar installations for AsoFenix and a handful of hydroelectric projects in other communities. He has high hopes for gaining his university place. As he pointed out, ‘not everyone gets to build and look after a wind turbine’. He’s genuinely motivated by his role, and proud to have a major part to play.
It’s moving to be surrounded by such positive people who truly care for their systems and see their presence as a springboard out of poverty. But there is still work to be done, and the energy committee know it.
Users of the micro grid pay a monthly rate for energy access. This covers the maintenance of the system but community members can’t yet afford to pay tariffs which would enable replacement of parts. I sit in a discussion of whether fruit drying or pig rearing is best to create a community-level enterprise with a revolving fund for this purpose. Zenayda points out: “I see us progressing towards sustainability”, not only in terms of creating a microenterprise, but also in terms of ensuring knowledge is transferred between technicians like Bryam and retained in the community.
As I sit in Zenyada’s kitchen I’m delighted that this project has removed polluting kerosene lamps, improving air quality and decreasing the risk of fire. However, Zenayda continues to cook on an open wood fire in an enclosed space, and she coughs as she speaks to me. The walls are smoke-stained black and it is hard for me to stop my eyes from watering. I ask if she has heard about the fuel efficient cookstoves that AsoFenix has installed elsewhere; she has, and she wants one.
I leave feeling inspired – by the quality and integrity of the work of our partner organisation, AsoFenix; by the remarkable relationship that has been established with the people of Cuajinicuil; by Zenayda’s drive and focus; and by Bryam’s ambition. To me, they represent the empowerment that Renewable World strives for in all our projects. I have no doubt that this is just the first step for the community and that access to energy will continue to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty.