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Photo by Michelle LaCourciere

Lighting up Haiti

Haiti | A California nonprofit is fighting poverty in a destitute nation through alternative energy-and without giving handouts

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

In six remote locations in Haiti, power lines are dead and dilapidated, yet light bulbs are brightening homes, churches, and faces. Haitian families laugh-or cry-as they turn on new electric lights for the first time, and their neighbors peek into their huts to see where the glow is coming from: Instead of a foul-smelling kerosene lamp that poses a fire hazard, they see a portable, rechargeable battery kit wired to two 4-watt LED bulbs. A total of 240 households are renting the kits by the month, and now all their neighbors want one, too.

The battery kits come from a California nonprofit called Sirona Cares Foundation. But rather than giving charity handouts, Sirona Cares is offering the battery kits as a business would, charging customers what they would otherwise pay for such things as kerosene, candles, and matches (about $6.70 a month). In the process the organization is improving Haitians' lives and creating local businesses-all with the help of native pastors who already know their people's needs.

Michelle Lacourciere founded Sirona Cares as a way of fighting poverty through alternative energy. The organization has helped over 1,000 Haitian farmers plant Jatropha trees, which produce oil the farmers can sell as a diesel substitute. The group also has reversed malnutrition among Haitian children by teaching caretakers to add locally grown moringa tree leaves to their diets.

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After the January 2010 earthquake, Sirona organized the largest drive for clothing, shoes, and medical supplies in Northern California: "I will never do anything like that again," Lacourciere says. "It was hard, and it's not sustainable."

Instead, the organization's current project, providing electricity to rural Haitians, shows evidence it can expand and remain as long as necessary. Since the late 1980s, power availability in Haiti has oscillated, and years of power theft and poor maintenance-in addition to last year's quake-have taken their toll on the grid. Even in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, lights blink on and off each day without warning. The Haitian government is slowly rebuilding infrastructure, but an estimated two-thirds of the population remains without power.

So, in partnership with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Sirona delivered six portable solar power stations (solar panels on trailers, essentially) to remote areas and designated a local leader as the "operator" of each one. With each station came 40 battery kits that 40 families in the community could take home to light their homes, recharge cell phones, or listen to the radio.

The business model: Customers don't buy the battery kits; instead they pay the local power station operator to recharge them. If a kit wears out or is defective, Sirona provides a new one. The station operators, in turn, become small business owners, selling power to villagers and paying a lease to Sirona for use of the 1.5-kilowatt power stations.

Most of the operators Sirona has chosen are pastors, who already are trusted in their communities. Sirona's manager of the project in Haiti is Lex Edmé, a 47-year-old pastor who once moved to the United States to "try to get rich," got married instead, and eventually returned to his native country to start a church, an orphanage, and two schools that are currently educating 800 kids. "These people [are] so excited about this light," Edmé told me by phone. Kerosene is expensive for his people, he says: "Now, they be able to save money. And the kids be able to study. And then they be able to get up in the middle of the night, just pull the string, the light comes on. They just feel like they in the city right now."

Although Haitians are poor, Edmé approves of Sirona's businesslike approach: "When you give somebody something for free, they feel like, 'Well, I can get it anytime I want to.'" But paying for it gives a sense of ownership. The pastor says that individuals with battery kits have started small businesses of their own, charging their neighbors to recharge phones or providing lighting for events like wakes, all too frequent in Haiti. The lights are even being used at some evening church services.

Edmé oversees the power station operators and sends them technicians if they encounter hardware problems. Operators are responsible for security: When one operator first received his solar station, he slept beneath it for several nights while arranging to enclose it with a 10-foot-high iron fence.

"You kind of have to ask yourself, can we really drop off $150,000 worth of equipment in rural Haiti and walk away?" said Lacourciere. But as of early November, the fifth month of operation, not a single bulb was missing, and not one power station vandalized, even though solar panel theft has occurred in nearby areas. Jealousy is a problem in Haiti, Lacourciere said, but people seem to believe the solar stations will benefit the entire community, not just a few individuals.

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