In a New Light
Solar panels create new beginnings in Nicaragua
It’s six in the evening in the community of Cahuita Blanca and the sun is about to dip behind the green, rolling hills of the Nicaraguan countryside. In a few moments this remote village will be plunged into darkness, like it is every night around this time, and Enrique de Jesus Gonzalez Gonzalez will need to make a decision. It’s a decision he is used to at this point in his life, the choice between his family cooking, eating, and spending their evening in darkness, or the option to light a diesel lamp to illuminate their home.
At first glance, the decision may seem like a simple one for Enrique. But the knowledge that these gas burning lamps emit toxic chemicals equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, according to The World Bank, makes that decision a little more difficult. And Enrique is not making the decision for himself, there is his family to think about. His wife and newborn daughter must live with the consequences as well. They are more susceptible to the smoke and toxins, as women and children traditionally spend more time in the home in Nicaragua. All this risk, for poor and often inadequate lighting.
This story isn’t uncommon for farmers like Enrique. Nicaragua has the lowest electricity generation in Central America and the lowest percentage of people with access to electricity. Nearly a quarter of Nicaraguans do not have electricity, and about sixty percent of those are in rural areas. For remote communities like Cahuita Blanca, conventional grid electricity is unavailable, and therefore opportunities for obtaining access to electricity are rare.
This leaves families with few alternatives. Most involve open fires in the house or gas burning lamps, both emitting fumes that cause respiratory illnesses. Additionally, the risk of fire and toxic exposure due to accidents is high. For families living on just a few dollars a day, the cost of five to fifteen dollars per month on fuel for light is significant. Then there are the environmental consequences. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories found the main source of greenhouse gases in the developing world come from non-renewable lighting sources such as the burning of kerosene or diesel. A typical household burning one quart of kerosene per week releases nearly 300 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere per year.
As 6 p.m. rolls around once again and the last rays of light begin to fade, Enrique is face-to-face with his usual choice to keep his home lit or not. Tonight is different though. Tonight Enrique has his decision already made and is quite confident in his judgment. After the sun fully disappears and the Gonzalez family is left in the dark, Enrique walks into his living room and flips a small plastic switch.
This simple and seemingly innocuous action does something quite extraordinary: it illuminates his small home like never before. Wired from that switch on the wall are four LED bulbs placed strategically throughout the house, allowing for maximum brightness. But how did Enrique’s family gain access to electricity when located so far from the grid? Well, one would need to look no further than Enrique’s roof, where EOS International recently installed a small solar panel.
EOS International, a nonprofit focused on providing Nicaraguans opportunities to improve their health, generate wealth, and preserve the environment, has improved over a quarter million lives in Nicaragua since its formation in 2008 through installations of simple, inexpensive, and locally repairable technologies.
Enrique’s new solar system is truly life-changing, providing four to five hours of light for the entire home each day and improving health by reducing smoke inhalation. Furthermore, the system allows users access to outlets, enabling them to charge phones, power radios, and perform any number of electricity-requiring tasks, too often taken for granted by much of the world.
“The system has been very reliable, which gives us a great peace of mind, in knowing the panels will always work when we need them,” Enrique explained. “There is a big difference between the quality of light from the oil lamp verse the solar panels. In addition to the change in the quality of our lighting, using the panels has allowed us to save a lot of money every month. We also wanted to have better lighting for ourselves, in order to be able to better care for our baby girl. It has changed our quality of life because we no longer have to deal with the smoke produced by oil lamps.”
Although the health benefits are substantial and the savings important, there are more advantages than meet the eye. It’s the feeling of self-worth and hopefulness that comes with joining the rest of the modern world. It’s the fact that they now enjoy longer days. The knowledge that their daughter will be raised with one of the world’s most basic comforts, a luxury that they themselves never experienced growing up, and until recently, didn’t know was possible. Often when we see a light, that is all we see, but for some, an LED bulb is more than just that, it is genuine ability to provide a better life and better future, all suddenly appearing with the flip of a switch.
A little ways down the road José Noé Molina sits diligently in front of a stack of books. Even though it’s getting late in the night, he continues to study by the help of his solar panel lighting, an opportunity previously unimaginable. Before the installation, José would have to finish his reading when it became dark, a huge hindrance when preparing to become an Agricultural Engineer.
At twenty-four, José is more than just a solar panel beneficiary. In fact, he was integral to his community receiving electricity, including his neighbor Enrique. In addition to being a student at Catholic University of Tropical Agriculture (UCATSE), José is also a designated community leader.
Holding this respected position can be a lot of responsibility but is also essential to allowing organizations like EOS International to be successful. With the help of José, EOS’ Nicaraguan staff was able to organize the community, gauge interest in solar systems, and eventually install the technologies. By the end of the project, thirty-two homes were equipped with solar panels and José had become the de facto expert while helping install the units. His involvement has created a more sustainable model as well, allowing the community to approach him for maintenance, repairs, and installing new units.
“I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with EOS on this project.” José said. “As an engineering student, they have trusted me and allowed me to work by their side. I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity and feel very grateful for their support.”
José represents the future for communities like Cahuita Blanca throughout Nicaragua. His zealousness and passion paired with EOS’ bold vision shines light on all that is to come to the people of Nicaragua. With every newly installed solar panel, a family embarks on a new beginning. With every outlet used to charge a phone or power a radio, a household becomes more connected and informed about the world around them. And with every light turned on, a new future is illuminated.
As one Nicaraguan woman explained, “to gain access to electricity would be like a blind person gaining sight.” And such, Enrique, José, and the thousands of others benefiting from EOS’ solar units don’t just see their home when they turn on the light; they see that anything is possible.
Create a better future with EOS International
Our 2,325 installations of simple, inexpensive, and locally serviceable technologies have helped over 534,167 Central Americans access safe drinking water and opportunities to generate income. Please help us invest in the future of millions of Nicaraguans by supporting EOS International.
Photos & Story by Slade Kemmet (www.sladekemmet.com)