Photo Essay: Solar Installation, Jeamileth Ramos, El Mojón

I don’t have an eloquent or inspiring way to say this: starting a company is hard. That’s an understatement, but if I thought about that at all, I wouldn’t be here.

I’m told that the key characteristic of a social entrepreneur is an uncompromising commitment to the customer and the problem they’re out to solve. I’ve come to erase the word “if” from my vocabulary — I guess that’s what an “uncompromising commitment to the customer” means.

Building something entails working and waiting for the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. It’s easy to fall into a habit of not celebrating small achievements because I know there is something else to do next. It’s even easier to think “Why celebrate? We knew we had to get it done if we wanted to get to X anyway…”

Personally, I struggle to find moments where I feel actively proud of what we’ve built. I ask myself if it’s possible that I’ve become temporarily immune to impact and achievements as a result of being in the thick of it. That makes me sad.

With that said, I’m sharing a regular day we had at Colibrí because it’s a boatload of interesting information for someone’s who not in the thick of it — and I want to celebrate what we’ve built, particularly our awesome team, who truly makes me proud.

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March 2nd, 2017

We’re training a new staff member, Mauricio, so we had him tag along with Neil, who has been with Colibrí for a year. I joined for fun and because it’s important to get refreshers from customers and change up my routine. The main work of the day was doing an installation in El Mojón, a 45-minute motorcycle ride from our head office in Matagalpa.

Neil, a Colibrí team member, loves the “campo” and always has fun on the job. He enjoyed oranges and mangoes while we were waiting around.

We have nearly 20 customers in the area. People in rural areas tend to be shy, but we passed by several customers and checked in with them and they all nodded vigorously when we asked if they were happy with our service. One of them had a pig so big and pregnant that from far away she looked like a horse sitting down.

We lingered around Byron’s house (a customer) while we waited for his neighbors (his brother and sister-in-law) to get back — they were the ones getting the installation. Byron’s property had tons of citrus trees and a nicely kept yard. We chatted with his wife, who after a lot of encouragement, agreed to stand in a photo in her kitchen. She was preparing nacatamales and fish recently caught from a nearby river.

Byron’s wife in her household’s kitchen.

The customer, Jeamileth, returned from picking tomatoes and we began the installation. We left the installation up to Mauricio, our new hire, so that he could practice. Neil was pretty funny (and effective) in “boss” mode, and it makes me feel good about promoting him soon. It is a godsend how much ownership he takes over Colibrí.

Jeamileth and her family have a three-room house — quite standard — kitchen, main room, and bedroom. She has two boys — 11 years and 9 months old. Her husband, Ervin, is away for the month working as a picker on a coffee farm for harvest season. This is very common. Her in-laws, who live with Byron, came over to watch the installation (they’ve had a Colibrí system for about a month).

Our starter system, the Colibrí-Empieza, comes with 4 lights. Households always opt to put one right outside. Neil installs one lightbulb for Mauricio before Mauricio goes on to do the rest.

We start the installation by planning out the positioning of the lights and battery with the family. Colibrí’s offering is unique for this income demographic (beyond just our product) because we prioritize customer service and quality. We treat our customers as capable and valuable consumers who are deserving of a free and high-quality installation. There are few companies that will go out to a rural, last-mile households and provide a consistent service. Getting an energy system installed in the house is a big deal and it needs to look as good as it works. We want the neighbors to be impressed — and envious! Neil was vigilant about Mauricio’s cabling techniques, wasting no opportunity to whip him into good habit if his fixtures weren’t straight.

Mauricio installs a light in the kitchen while Jeamileth looks on. Most of our customers are burning wood for cooking. We always cover the kitchen light with plastic so that the bulb itself doesn’t get damaged. We’ve seen kitchen lightbulbs so covered in black matter from the fumes that they look spray painted.
Households in rural areas are pretty sparse on the inside but you will always encounter photos on the walls from graduations, weddings, baptisms… We try to get photos of customers back into their hands because they’re extremely appreciative of the token.
Lightbulb in the living room of the house. All the cables must be straight and as unnoticeable as possible. All the light switches must be at the same level.

While some customers choose to be involved in the installation, we require no work on their part — we’re here to serve them. Jeamileth continued her daily routine working in the kitchen, attending to her baby, and chatting with Neil, who was mostly supervising Mauricio. Her 11 year old son had returned from school and was clearly excited about the household’s new tech, although he was adorably trying not to show it.

Neil has worked as a credit officer for various microbanks (primarily ProMujer) in the Matagalpa region for the past 6+ years. His experience and clients have been almost entirely in rural areas. He loves the campo, as they say in Nicaragua. He is relatable, selfless, kind, and easy-going and has the right doses of humor in the right moments. He is a new father and was excited by his idea of making sopa de gallina (chicken soup) over the weekend for a fun family meal.

Jeamileth’s son went and caught the chicken Neil bought. She tries to get him to pose for a photo with the chicken.

The obvious move was to buy one of Jamileth’s five hens. She sold it to him for $5. This is the third time Neil has come back with a chicken purchased from one of our clients. He started telling me about all the clients he shops from — a client in Tapasle, down the road, that has amazing cuajada (typical Nicaragua cheese)… how he wants to come back and buy 50 oranges from Byron’s trees… He also walked away with 5 dozen eggs, a massive squash, and a bag of tomatoes for each of us, courtesy of Jeamileth’s harvest. We joke that Neil does his canasta básica shopping in the field. I think it’s awesome that he, on his own accord, engages with our clients in ways that extend beyond his position at Colibrí. Talk about buying local and knowing where your food comes from…

Mauricio & the final step — installing the panel. This roof was particularly uneasy, so it took some maneuvering.
Neil going through and checking all the lights. Jeamileth’s father-in-law was involved and instructive during the whole installation. He has a system in his own home.

Neil finished up his shopping and Mauricio completed the last steps — installing the panel and checking the battery’s charge and power.

Colibrí is a pay-as-you-go solar energy provider and our service is called Colibrí Fácil-Pago. A fixed monthly cost gets clients 30 days of usage of the system, but they can make payments of any amount whenever the want. For example, if $10 is the monthly cost, they can pay $5 and have service for 15 days. This is done through activation codes: customers make payments with a Fácil-Pago vendor and receive an activation code via SMS that they input into the battery. A battery screen setting reflects usage days purchased. The final step of the installation is generating the first activation code and having the customer practice inputting it.

Activation code generation via SMS means having a cellphone is a requirement for Fácil-Pago customers — this is rarely an issue. However, it is often the young children in the household that know how to use cellphones better than the parents, the actual owners of the phones. Clearly children are more tech-savvy all around the world. I find it so cool that among most of our clients, it’s the children taking care of the activation code input. Unsurprisingly, Jeamileth delegated the task to her son.

Jeamileth’s son, 11, punches in their first activation code.
Neil poses for a photo with one of his purchases.

As we finished up the installation, Jeamileth’s mother-in-law, who had been observing the installation and struck me as uniquely sharp, mentioned that Jeamileth’s family had been hanging out at her house every night since they got their Colibrí installation. She laughed telling me how the grandkids cry when they have to go home (next door) where they have no energy access (they used flashlights). She said the 9-month old baby likes to sit under the light and play and literally cries when he gets taken back home to where it’s dark. She said the 11-year-old’s bedtime is now 8pm instead of when the sun goes down.

That all changed for them today. I was grateful to leave carrying a genuine comment about a quality of life gain as a result of Colibrí — along with a live chicken, a massive squash, and lots of delicate eggs, all of which made for a slightly uncomfortable motorcycle ride.

Jeamileth and her baby, 9 months old, in front of their home.