Progress in Haiti

I mid-July, I arrived in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and immediately met Allison Archambault, co- director of EarthSpark International.  EarthSpark is dedicated to electrifying rural Haiti. We collected a volunteer, Brian Gunn, who was coming to Haiti from Washington, D.C., to work with EarthSpark for a month. Brian got into our truck for the eight-hour drive to Port Salut, on the westernmost peninsula of Haiti.

There are 10 million people in Haiti, and most of the attention has been focused on Port-au-Prince since the 2010 earthquake. As far as I could tell, it is a city of complete disorganization. Rebuilding is taking place, but evidently without codes or guidelines. Most of the social problems center in Port-au-Prince, as my ride from the airport illustrated. But the need for access to electricity (some 7 million people) is much larger than the area around Port-au-Prince, as I soon discovered.

After a bumpy, rainy, honk-accompanied ride (why do they lay on their horns constantly?), we arrived at dusk in Port-Salut, a beautiful ocean-side community. It’s rustic, to be sure, with cows grazing outside my room and goats everywhere, including on all of the menus. Electricity is spotty and there no hot water in the hotel, but it was so hot outside, who cares. And, I’ve never had more mosquito bites on my body in my life.

We had a dinner of local fish and lobster, with rice, always rice, which was nice, because the next night when we went to dinner, they’d run out of food for the small, dedicated EarthSpark staff. For that and other reasons, I came to admire this dedicated team.

For instance, Allison and Rachel are wonderful young women. Alison is a passionate environmentalist who feels the answer to the world’s energy problems lies in renewable energy and energy efficiency. She has recruited a like-minded group of employees who I came to admire. They are devoting their lives to this cause, and more power to them.

Rachel lives in Port-Salut, and is American, although she did her undergrad abroad, and she is a tech wizard. She’s developed incredible systems and marketing plans and I came to really admire her. And, she’s sharing her plans with us. Like the residents, the team lives below our poverty line both in income and access to energy.

Another team member, Arthur, is 29 years old and from Paris. He is taking a sabbatical from a French gas company to work for EarthSpark. Imagine having a one-year sabbatical after working for a company for seven years. Brian, another team member, is a 40-year-old consultant from Washington, D.C., who decided to spend a month in Haiti volunteering for EarthSpark.

Here’s the bottom line: Like everybody else in this space, EarthSpark has learned by trial and error. They built a clean energy store, to which no one came. They’ve worked for four years on a microgrid in Les Anglais, a community two hours further down a dirt road that we visited the next day.

After grants from the National Geographic Society, the United Nations, the Haitian government and others, they have just 14 customers connected to the micrgrid. But, they’ve learned from their experience and will now be able to roll it out to a much larger population The microgrid will expand to 54 customers next month and hundreds more eventually.

The Haitian government must also believe in them because it is now investing in EarthSpark. We had dinner with the U.N. representative from this area one night and she spoke very highly of their work.

I asked the EarthSpark team: “How are you going to sell 10,000 solar lanterns for us in the next year?” They assured me they will. They’ll do it by expanding their network of regional managers and resellers, some of whom I met the night before as we took an after-dark stroll through Port-Salut, stopping and visiting homes using solar-powered lanterns.

It was evident how important these lanterns are in people’s lives. We saw kids reading and mothers cooking. We visited midwives who saved babies lives because of the lanterns. They make such a difference.