In some rural parts of Latin America, not having electricity is a way of life. It limits basic activities such as doing homework at night, charging a cell phone or keeping food fresh. In these areas small businesses are particularly affected, confined to work on a certain schedule and with certain tools, and sales can remain stagnant. Meanwhile their urban competitors advance in production and gain valuable clients. But the most dynamic small businesses find solutions to their problems.
The Inter-American Foundation (IAF) supports its grantee partners — including small businesses and organizations that promote them — by facilitating connections to share resources and offer guidance. For example, at a recent IAF-sponsored conference in Honduras, Grupo Juvenil Dion (GJD) and Cooperativa Femenina de Producción Agropecuaria Alianza Limitada (COFEPROAL) sparked a relationship and several months later started a life-changing initiative that would bring light to a rural Honduran community.
GJD and COFEPROAL share a desire to improve economic conditions and opportunities in communities where they work. GJD conducts vocational and small business training for youth in peri-urban and rural areas throughout the country via mobile training units. GJD selects sites based on demand and the opportunity to expand service provision in those sectors. They also look for places where the risk to develop small businesses is less susceptible to extortion (a significant problem in Honduras).
Responding to increasing demand for employment in alternative energy such as solar power, GJD now offers a specialization in installation and maintenance of solar panels under its electrician curriculum. Students learn the trade and participate in hands-on practice, and GJD assists in job placement when it can. COFEPROAL is a cooperative in Intibucá comprised of 24 members (primarily women) who produce weavings in a sparse production space in the rural Lenca village of Togopala, Intibucá. The women market and sell their woven products in a store in the large town of La Esperanza, Intibucá. They also run a small corner store of dried goods in Togopala. Sales of the weavings supplement their families’ incomes from small scale agricultural production. Over the past few years the cooperative has grown in membership and overall visibility, acquired new clients, increased sales and moved into a 1065-square-foot production space.
Last month the two organizations came together to collaborate on the installation of solar panels. For three days 14 of GJD’s students (including three women) installed 10 solar panels at COFEPROAL’s new production space in Togopala with supervision by a technician from the solar panel provider, Solaris. Despite rainy days during the installation, the young people demonstrated knowledge and skills they acquired in their course as well as a spirit of cooperation, solidarity and commitment with COFEPROAL and among each other.
As one of the students said, “It was a great experience. It’s not the same doing an installation on a practice board as it is for a big capacity project like this. And it reinforced our knowledge on technical aspects like the inclination of the panels.”
For some of the youth, this was the first time they had traveled outside of their communities and the first opportunity to meet indigenous Lenca people. They gained a broader vision of their country, honed their teamwork skills and participated in a social development activity. Perhaps more rewarding was seeing the women’s faces light up at their newly-wired production facility. One of the students said, “It was a great honor to contribute to people with scarce resources that need electricity to improve their living conditions.”
Considering there is no electricity in Togopala, and the only existing solar panels are low capacity, the installation was a big deal for COFEPROAL and its members. They can now work at night and incorporate the use of sewing machines to increase the variety of products. They can also work faster on finishing touches. Over time, by expanding and modernizing their production and fulfilling orders on a timely basis, their profits will be higher and more consistent throughout the year.
There are also benefits to the larger community of Togopala. COFEPROAL plans to offer a service to charge cell phones at a nominal fee, which will facilitate communication. They also plan to purchase a refrigerator to expand inventory at their corner store. By selling high demand items such as cheese and cold drinks, members will increase income for the organization, which they can use to cover operating costs and invest in materials.
One COFEPROAL member expressed the impression the GJD youth made on the community: “You can see their interest in gaining new experiences and their desire to acquire new knowledge.”
The women were thrilled that the installation occurred without any problems and that the system is fully functional. “It will improve communication and advance the use of technology in the community,” one community member said. The women are confident that the system will increase the cooperative’s income and improve the quality of life of the members.
Talk about community-led development!