Former real estate executive Jim Ayala has several suitcases in his office. These samples come in blue and yellow. No, they don’t contain clothes for an upcoming trip; the units, manufactured by We Care, are called solar suitcases and contain solar panels, sealed lead acid battery, charge controller, headlamps, a phone charger, and a battery charger.
The blue ones are meant for schools. The yellow ones, intended for clinics, specifically birthing clinics, also come with a fetal doppler, the tool used to put a baby’s heartbeat from inside the womb on speaker.
Mr. Ayala is chairman for Asia of Stiftung Solarenergie, or Solar Energy Foundation. He has a lean (but mean) team supporting his advocacy of providing power to communities outside of the national grid which have no hopes of being electrified anytime soon.
The foundation’s ideals are not new. It stemmed from various earlier attempts to provide electricity to underserved places in the Philippines. Right now, Stiftung Solarenergie operates in clusters, specifically in Region 12, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Palawan and Eastern Visayas. These places were identified on the basis of information on electrification, and on data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development on the poorest communities, those lacking in social services, geographically isolated, and beset with peace and order problems.
Changing a mindset
Ayala and the foundation’s executive director, Bambi Reyes, say at the onset that they are not in the business of “donating” or “doling out” to underprivileged communities.
“We’re doing a bit more than that. We are adopting a development approach that considers sustainability and empowerment. This project has a governance component, and we do not push through with the installations unless we are sure the community can do its part,” Ayala says.
The communities that wish to have the solar suitcases, after learning about it through various channels, signify their intention to be part of the program and then submit themselves to an application process. They submit necessary documents. The Solarenergie team then reviews these documents, and then if they are clear, a validating team proceeds to the community and meets its principals and stakeholders.
For schools, the stakeholders are parents, teachers, the students themselves and civil society organizations, if any, that operate in the area. For clinics, there are fewer, usually the midwives and other health workers. Solarenergie is now focusing on birthing clinics, recognizing that it is extremely difficult to ensure the safety of women giving birth if there is no light.
“Childbirth is excruciating as it is; we want to help make it more bearable if only through lights that would help midwives assist them better,” says Reyes.
The solar suitcases, properly handled and maintained, have a shelf life of 25 years. Thus, a key element in ensuring the success of the program is training the people to use them properly, troubleshoot them, and know where spare parts are available.
“We’ve all heard stories about solar-powered lights that were bought for a low price but were not useful for long because they conked out right away and people didn’t know how to repair them,” Ayala says. “We want to avoid that.”
A crucial part of the process is securing the commitment of the community. “This is a partnership,” Reyes says, “not a charity project. They have to assume responsibilities that would ensure the solar lights will be useful for a long time, and that they would have accountability to the people for whatever happens to it.”
“It’s a mindset, actually,” adds Ayala. “Even if you’re talking about communities is far-flung places, they should have the governance and operational systems to support the project, and make it run for a long time.”
Works in progress
Reyes, who has spent years as a Solarenergie volunteer before assuming her post, has many stories to tell.
For example, the solar lights in schools are not only used for classrooms. They are also used for night classes, under the Alternative Learning System where adults who have not had the chance of finishing basic education in their younger years catch up.
“The lights also power the teachers’ workstations and living quarters so they can stay up late to check papers and work on their lesson plans,” says Reyes.
“Many of these schools are in areas which are very difficult to reach. What the teachers do is stay there during the week and then only come home to their families on weekends,” Ayala adds
In Biao, Sultan Kudarat, a primary school is helped run by a parent-teacher organization that is in turn aided by a tribal council. The project took three months to implement there. The community agreed to contribute five pesos a day, per household, for the solar lights because they were spending so much more on kerosene anyway.
The measure was a success and soon, the community had some additional income. There was high efficiency in collection. Alas, the collector encountered some personal emergency and dipped his hands into the money.
The community set in motion a mechanism to get the money back from the collector, consistent with their culture, that enabled the people to trust the system again.
In a high school in Antipolo, Rizal, the teachers and parent-teacher officers could not seem to commit to undertaking the maintenance of the solar suitcases. They were also rotating functions and had other more pressing responsibilities.
The children, however, recognized their great need for light. As a result, the student council of the school, called the Supreme Student Government, took it upon itself to take care of the suitcase.
“We are still seeing how the youth can take on this challenge. It’s an implementation issue,” according to Stiftung Solarenergie (Solar Energy Foundation) executive director Bambi Reyes.
Other end of the spectrum
Donors range from the corporate to the individual. Some of them indicate that they want to focus on a particular region or even a community. Some entrust the choosing to Solarenergie.
One such donor is Les, born and raised in the United States by Filipino parents who had migrated to the US before he was born.
“This is my way of connecting to my roots,” he said.
According to Les, he has tried sharing with other projects for several causes in the Philippines but he was not able to see whether his help made any difference at all. “Here, the impact is immediate.” During his prior visits to the Philippines, Les—friend and roommate of Solarenergie chairman Jim Ayala when they were studying in the US—would join the installation teams that went to the communities.
He was then able to physically see the difference that his donated suitcases made on the communities that received them.
Other international donors gain cultural understanding of the Philippines. They learn, for instance, that just as not all places in the Philippines are populous or prosperous, not all of them are lit.
“There’s still energy poverty in the Philippines,” according to Ayala. Unless this is addressed, we cannot say that there is real equality and development so long as many places remain in the dark.
In the years that Solarenergie has been seeking to light up schools and clinics in remote places in the country, Ayala and Reyes have learned a few lessons which they hope would help them do their jobs better in the future.
They learned, for instance, that civil society organizations play a crucial role in their operations. Solarenergie has a lean office and they cannot do all the validation, training and capacity building by themselves. CSOs, for their part, have extensive knowledge of the actual situations of the communities and the people in them.
Thrust should be in training partners because in the end, this is about enabling and empowering people to take care of themselves in the long term. Repairs? Troubleshooting? It’s best they know how to deal with these on their own.
Another learning that Ayala and Reyes mentioned is to never assume that you know what people need, better than they know it themselves.
Even when you think you have the perfect solution, in the end, you are still an outsider. “These people, they know their community, they know what would work, they know what the potential problems would be.”
It is easy to imagine how the project can prevent someone from taking for granted the benefits of electricity. “Development is difficult without electricity,” Ayala says. “In the islands we’ve gone to, those which have never known electricity, it is like how it was 50 years ago.”
Despite one’s good intentions, one also needs to be focused and strategic. “We want to help, so we have to figure out the best way to help. We can’t be too scattered,” Ayala, perhaps applying his executive expertise, says.
He ends with citing the invaluable role of community-based civil society organizations. “They have been very helpful to us. They know the people, and they are in the best position to help shape their mindsets.”
In the end, it’s not just about giving light. It’s about changing how people see help. “We don’t just get things for free, much less feel entitled to them. We have to do our share.”