This is the story of how some unintended consequences helped a struggling charity grab hold and grow.
Mathius Craig had an idea, a good idea. A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had enrolled in a course called Engineering for Social Solutions. Students were asked to design a project that would help an impoverished community solve a pressing problem. Craig’s idea was to install wind turbines that would bring electricity to the most remote villages of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. He knew the region fairly well; he’d spent time there with his brother and his mother, who studied Amerindian languages.
Craig is a native of Eugene, Oregon. He describes himself and his brother Guillaume as “pretty bull headed. We’re pretty good at making unlikely things happen.” In 2003, with only a few thousand dollars donated by friends, he, Guillaume, and a childhood friend from France brought his class project to life and launched the company they called blueEnergy.
It was not easy going. There are no roads in Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean coast. All travel is by water, and military authorities in the coastal town of Bluefields dictate when boats can enter and leave port.
“We didn’t have any heavy equipment. We didn’t have a house, we didn’t have an office,” Craig said. “Just getting around is more complicated than you can imagine.” Breaking into the culture proved surprisingly difficult too. The region is a pastiche of ethnicities and customs that vary from village to village. Still, the partners were energetic and determined. They envisioned using wind power to ease the lives of poor residents, while promoting literacy and economic development.
In the Caribbean, darkness falls every evening around 6:00. Residents who worked all day fishing, farming, or tending cattle had little chance to learn to read. There was no light in the evenings except from oil lamps and diesel generators, which were noisy and caused pollution. A clean source of electricity would change that, as well as enabling local health clinics to keep supplies of vital medicines.
blueEnergy’s first turbine, erected in the village of Bangukuk, began producing electricity in 2004. A short time later, the partners were thrilled to find a group of adults attending reading classes at night in the local school.
Here’s where the law of unintended consequences kicked in. Electricity gave Bangkukuk residents access to lights, yes, but also to television. A number purchased TVs, in some cases draining their meager savings accounts.
Electric service is not extensive in the seventeen-plus villages that now have blueEnergy turbines. The power switches on only a few hours a day. Each windmill serves twenty-six homes but is capable of generating only half the electricity consumed by an average American household. Clearly residents can’t partake in television marathons.
Nonetheless, the television quotient made the partners completely rethink their approach to battling poverty. “We knew from the start we couldn’t be a purely technological company,” Craig told me, “but we overestimated how much we should focus on the technology.”
After talking extensively with the villages’ residents, the partners decided it was just as important to improve access to clean drinking water and sanitation. So they began digging wells or offering bio-sand purification filters, through a partnership with a Canadian firm. They also started installing latrines, hooking up solar panels to pump water and provide electricity to schools and homes, and teaching workshops on topics like sanitation and adapting to climate change—all in partnership with local residents. A North American company that sells propane stoves opened an office in Bluefields and redesigned its stove to better fit the region’s cultures. “We see a big part of our role as acting as a bridge to bring in other partners,” Craig said.
At the time I spoke with Craig, blueEnergy’s forty employees and volunteers were starting work on a refrigeration plant, powered by a wind turbine, in the fishing village of Monkey Point. “If they can keep the fish cool, it’s marketable for longer,” he said. Much of the labor for the project was being donated. The company has developed what Craig described as “almost a private Peace Corps,” where young interns dedicate months or even years to blueEnergy projects, often working sixteen-hour days in rugged tropical conditions.
blueEnergy’s experiment in selfless entrepreneurship has branched and bloomed into a network of regional poverty programs. The process has not been smooth. At several junctures the company nearly closed. It survived because of the staff’s hard work and flexibility—specifically their willingness to admit they didn’t have all the answers. You can read more about the organization's work here.
This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how would-be helpers began to practice true service, once they started listening to and working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people they were trying to help. If only we would all do this, every day. My hope is that I’ll recognize my own mistakes for what they are and, like Craig and his collaborators, gracefully change course in favor of real solutions.