Tuesday, 7 Nov 2000

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil

Today I think I’ll tell you a story that began a long time ago. This is an old story, with a happy end. But the story is not over yet. It is a case where the replay of the happy ending continues ceaselessly.

Living beyond the grid in Bahia.

Photo: Lyon Press.

The question I began this story with was: How could solar energy and electric fences help people who are trying to survive in the semi-arid climate of Bahia, a state in eastern Brazil?

It was the beginning of 1992 when I told Cindy Lessa, the Ashoka Brazil director at the time, about my new idea to use solar energy and electric fences to promote rural electrification and increase rural farm family incomes.

The idea was very simple. It was (and it still continues to be) evident that the electricity network would not reach this vast Brazilian territory in the near future (and probably not even in the far future). With solar energy, it would be possible to provide electric power to 25 million Brazilians excluded from the world of electricity and the Internet. Furthermore, if these small farmers had electric power, it would be possible to help them increase their family income with a model of organic sustainable animal rearing, called ecological grazing management.

Building an electric fence.

Photo: Lyon Press.

After listening to my plan, Cindy said she wanted to introduce me to another Ashoka fellow, Ismael Ferreira of Bahia. It was the year of the Rio Summit, and during the event Ashoka organized a workshop with the fellows who worked on the environment and sustainable development. Cindy introduced us, and I met with Ismael for about two hours. I presented to him the idea of solar energy and the use of electric fences in Bahia. This was of interest to him, since he was the leader of APAEB, an association for community development in the semi-arid region of Bahia, where residents did not have electric power and faced great difficulty obtaining enough milk and meat for their kids.

The environment did not allow cattle raising, so the solution was to use goats. But there was a problem: To raise goats it was necessary to build fences, which were too expensive. The solution? Electric fences. They decreased the cost of fencing by up to 80 percent, and made it possible to raise goats. The lack of electric power for the fences would be eliminated with the use of solar panels. I then proposed for Ismael to use slightly larger solar panels so that houses could also have electric power. Ismael accepted.

A bright idea: Solar cells.

Photo: Lyon Press.

Ismael and his staff came for training here in Porto Alegre. They then returned to Bahia and started a very successful project that has become a model throughout Brazil. Currently APAEB has a well-established project of solar rural electrification and the use of electric fences, with more than 500 systems installed. After more than eight years, Ismael and I still stay in touch and work together. This is an example of the kinds of partnerships and projects promoted by Ashoka.

Now people have electric power and comfort in their homes. Solar energy and electric fences also began a new process of development in the region because family incomes can be increased by raising goats. This is just one case of how the use of appropriate technology and social entrepreneurship can promote sustainable development, even in an inhospitable environment.

A story with a happy ending that has not finished, and continues to bring comfort to families throughout Brazil.