When I stumbled upon Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, I knew right away that they were doing something special. There unique approach to creating positive change involves long term commitments to the community; I was especially impressed with their commitment to green technology. I was lucky enough to be able to get Peter Haas, the founder and Executive Director of the AIDG, to take some time out of his very busy schedule to answer ten questions for The Sietch.
1. The Naib: Could you tell Sietch readers about AIDG? Specifically how did it start, who is involved and what role do you play in the organization.
Peter Haas AIDG is a new international development charity that starts small businesses in developing countries to produce, install and repair clean and green technologies for the rural poor. We started a little over two years ago. Our first business, XelaTeco, located in the 2nd largest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), was founded in August 2005.
The need for an organization like AIDG crystallized for me during a trip to Cuba (legal, of course) with Global Exchange. We were studying urban agriculture at the time and visited many farms. Two farms struck me the most; both were pig farms outside of Havana. One had a biodigester that had been installed by a family member in technical school. A biodigester is a system that turns animal waste and kitchen scraps into biogas and fertilizer. This place was clean, free of the normal pig-farm smell, and tree-covered. Their kitchen lacked the black soot normally associated with open wood-burning stoves.
The family was saving a good amount of money on kerosene by using the gas generated in the biodigester for lighting, a stove and a gas-fired hot water heater. They also used the
fertilizer to increase crop yields on their farm. The other establishment was just the opposite. The pig waste leach field was letting out some really noxious fumes. All the nearby trees had been cut down for firewood over the years. To light the house at night, the farmer was shelling out the big bucks for kerosene, etc. etc. A big issue was that farmer #2 had no way of getting a biodigester if he wanted one. There was no biodigester salesman or depot he could go do. There was no way he could access the benefits of this fairly simple infrastructure improvement.
A few years later, I was traveling around the world and I kept seeing the same situation with other technologies in other villages and farms. I realized there had to be some barriers to getting an appropriate technology business off the ground and profitable. AIDG was created to overcome those barriers and create businesses to address these problems. We view infrastructure development as an important key to helping
families escape the cycle of poverty.
The AIDG team is run by myself (Iâ€™m the ED), Cat Laine (who does communications and development, plus our excellent blog), Benny Lee (who coordinates our education and outreach programs), and Steve Crowe (who runs the business incubation program in Guatemala). We have a crack team of volunteers who have helped us tremendously over the years, including Pete Zink a fab engineer over at BU. Our first business, XelaTeco,
started with a team of 10 talented engineers and metal-workers (7 men, 3 women).
2. The Naib: What sort of problems is the developing world facing that you feel the right technology can solve?
Peter Haas First off, I think it is important to note that the problems in the developing world are not different from ones we face now or faced at the turn of the 20th century. They just tend to be on a larger scale. All societies need safe access to clean drinking water, energy, sanitation, transportation, adequate housing, and health. Technology can solve and
in many instances is solving all these problems in various areas of the world.
One thing that developing countries need, however, is increased technology and knowledge transfer. That is something that AIDG is very much dedicated to. One way we try to promote this is through our internship program where we get some of the top engineering students from around the world to work with employees at our incubated business. The students get training in international development and appropriate technology implementation in the field and our employees get a chance for some top-notch collaboration that drastically improves their skills and knowledge base.
3. TN: Sometimes environmental solutions are not always the easiest, what made AIDG decide to “go green” with its infrastructure projects?
PH For us green was really the only way to go. We specialize in appropriate technologies, which are by definition affordable, locally repairable and environmentally sound. This focus on local sustainability and affordability really necessitates the use of green technologies.
If you think about the history of infrastructure in the US, you find a lot of
green technologies. In the 1920s, for example, there were almost 50,000 solar water heating units in Florida. Small-scale wind was common on farms in the plains. In the northeast, many municipalities relied on small-scale hydroelectric systems
If you want to make something for a rural setting with limited grid access that is also cheap and uses few consumables/outside inputs, green tends to be the best option. Additionally, we wanted to create products that would save our customers money. For example in Guatemala, households that are off the grid and use candles and/or kerosene lamps for lighting pay equivalent to about $11 per kilowatt-hour. Thatâ€™s 80 times the cost of grid electricity. In this case, biogas powered lamps or solar LED systems can make great sense.
4. TN: What benefits are gained from working directly with the people in need?
PH If youâ€™re working directly with the people, you find out what they really need rather than your conception of what they need. In a lot of situations, it can be the difference between creating a glorified paperweight and creating something that people use and value. This idea of co-creation and participatory development seems to be a new one in international development, but it has been around in business for decades. Think focus groups and customer feedback. We want to make products that change the lives of the people who use them, products that they are excited to own and use. Unfortunately, weâ€™re in no way
omniscient. The only way to get it right is to work with the people in the communities we serve.
5. TN: How do you go about deciding what technology is appropriate for each part of the world?
PH Much of this depends on the needs/wants of the community, local constraints in materials resources, what price point the local market can bear, and access to a labor pool that can be trained to produce, install, repair the final product.
So to go into more specifics, in Guatemala we are able to make Pelton turbines and ballast load controllers for a micro-hydroelectric system because we had access to most, if not all, the raw materials in Xela, plus a highly talented labor pool to choose from. In Haiti, where we are planning to expand to next, it would be extremely difficult to get
hydro-electric components locally, even if we found suitable locations. From the survey we did last summer when we went to Cap Haitien with Amy Smith, it was clear that electronics are out. Plumbing supplies for biogas, metal working for charcoal presses, and bike parts for agro-processing machines are very common. There also is a much stronger
need for sanitation and cooking systems in Cap Haitien than in Xela. We are looking for opportunities to create sustainable businesses, so weâ€™re planning to start with those in that market.
An important thing that weâ€™ve learned with XelaTeco is that what you write in your business plan doesnâ€™t always come to pass in the way that you expect. We started off thinking that windmills were going to be one of our major products right off the bat, as you can tell by our logo. Unfortunately supply chain issues meant we couldnâ€™t get permanent magnets, an essential part, from China and that we couldnâ€™t get the
price point down fast enough. We learned pretty early on that we had to be flexible in dealing with shifts in the marketplace and customer demand while sticking to our mission of increasing access to basic services (electricity, sanitation and clean water) for the rural poor.
6. TN: How do you partner with local groups to develop the tech, do the local groups come to you with what they need, or do you go to them with what you have to offer?
PH We do both. Local groups come to us with design challenges and we market the technologies we have already developed to other communities. We have also worked with several NGOs and community organizations to set up demonstration projects in the field that allow for testing and troubleshooting of our technologies. These groups have been instrumental in letting us know what our potential customers want as well as what is
and is not working. Additionally these groups provide Xelateco with its biggest channel for sales leads.
Itâ€™s been a mutually beneficial relationship. With access to Xelateco as an affordable supplier, the other NGOs can more effectively achieve their mission of promoting rural development in Guatemala. With the better understanding of the needs of the community at large, XelaTeco can more effectively produce products that will meet the needs of its
7. TN: What are some of the interesting projects you have accomplished so far?
PH This past December, we helped XelaTeco finish a yearlong project to build a micro-hydroelectric system for a community of 200 people. Before XelaTeco existed the people at the Comunidad Nueva Alianza had few options for getting cheap electricity because they were so isolated. Itâ€™s a long bumpy road to the community and a grid extension wonâ€™t be there any time soon. They had diesel generators on site, but they were
used to provide power to the main office at the plantation. In addition, bringing diesel in on that road was no small task and nothing was going to the homes of the community members. Through a grant from the United Nations Development Program, the community was able to contract XelaTeco to do the hydroelectric installation. Not only did XelaTeco build the Pelton turbines, manifolds, and charge controllers in Guatemala, but they also installed all the electricity poles, transformers, and high tension electric wire that would transmit electricity directly into the homes of the community members.
8. TN: Are there any other ways besides developing technological infrastructure that AIDG works with underdeveloped areas?
PH Possibly the most important thing we do, in addition to developing technologies, is to develop human capital and sustainable enterprises. Through our internship program and business incubation programs, we are doing much to train the next generation of engineers both in this country and abroad. The people training, whether they are local or
international volunteers, are the types of people who will take that knowledge and skill set to impact other villages, amplifying our investment.
One of Xelatecoâ€™s employees, Francisco Cruz Lopez, will be leaving later this summer to take his training and start his own electrical transmission wiring business. Since Xelateco is a business and not just an NGO outreach program, they already have replacements identified and have set up a skills transition schedule. But the thing that excites me
is that Francisco is now going to go out and hire 3 or 4 other guys to start wiring villages using the on-the-job training he got at Xelateco.
Many of our interns return to the states filled with ideas about how to make better products for the villages they have seen. Ideally, this will have a profound impact on how other engineers at their universities view product design for people living at the base of the pyramid should they choose to enter this field. It will also help them embrace the idea that elements of co-creation (or user-centered design) are essential to creating technologies that are relevant, useful and used by the populations they wish to serve.
9. TN: What would you say is your biggest success so far?
PH I would definitely say that the Nueva Alianza micro-hydro project has been our biggest success so far. There are 200 people who have electricity in their homes for the first time because of our work. And it has opened many doors for Xelateco to do similar projects in other communities.
Weâ€™re also really proud of what weâ€™ve been able to do over the past two years on $150,000. In addition to the hydro project, we launched a great internship program, started our service learning tourism program, created a great online resource, did many outreach projects around the Xela region, and a biodigester setup at an orphanage in Eastern Guatemala.
We started this effort as a real grassroots program with $800 in the bank. For the most part, the majority of our support has continued to come from the grassroots. While it would have been wonderful to have a $100,000 grant show up to support what we do (in fact that would still be wonderful), the fact that we have grown this program on small public support has been something we are very pleased by.
10. TN: What does the future hold for AIDG?
PH Our short-terms plans involve helping XelaTeco grow its business in Guatemala, improving our technologies to make them cheaper and better for the rural poor, expanding to Haiti and the Dominican Republic and strengthening the organization capacity of AIDG.
Ultimately, we want AIDG to be a multinational charity that has created a broad network of small businesses capable of providing low cost, environmentally sound, and effective technologies that meet the infrastructure needs of their clientele in rural areas of developing countries.
We really hope to see a great deal of collaboration and information sharing between our different shops. We are expecting that as the shops grow, this network will help foster some unique south-south partnerships, for example Guatemala made ballast load controllers installed in locally maintained hydroelectric systems in Haiti.
TN: Anything else you feel was not covered above, and you think would be interesting to my audience.
PH Not to jump right into the fundraising pitch, but we recently launched our AIDG â€œ300â€ campaign to raise $300,000 by Aug 15. This would allow us to buy XelaTeco a truck, start to expand into Haiti, and strengthen AIDG as an organization. Since we are a grass roots group this means weâ€™re trying to inspire a lot of people to write $100 checks.
Weâ€™re planning a few great fundraisers in the Boston and NY area for the summer. Check out our website over the next few weeks for more details.
Editors note: check out more amazing pictures of AIDG in action here.