An Inside Look at LUTW’s Social Enterprise

Nestled in a valley, deep in the Peruvian Andes lies the city of Huaraz, capital of the department of Ancash. Travelers will know this place for its scenic beauty and its easy-to-access, world class trekking and mountaineering routes. Few will know however, that only some thirty minutes’ drive away from the city members of the rural farming community ‘Purucuta’ still live disconnected from the electricity grid. They use candles, battery powered lanterns and small low-quality solar products to light their homes at night.

Like many other rural communities, they have been left behind in Peru’s development. Even though they are included in a government concession zone for electrical grid extension, the steep mountainous terrain and large distances between houses make it costly for the grid to be installed and unlikely that it will be.

There are increasingly more solar energy products in Huaraz which could be a solution for the families; but these systems are expensive and require a large one-off payment. This makes it difficult for subsistence farmers to buy. Travelling to these rural communities and properly installing a system is also too costly for local businesses. Many rural Andean communities are transhumance, moving livestock seasonally between different homes, this means that a permanently installed solar system may only be used for half of the year. A gap exists linking rural off grid communities with high quality, affordable products that meet their needs.

Light up the World’s social enterprise offers simple to install ‘plug and play’ solar systems. These systems can be easily taken down and transported between homes. Homeowners can pay for their systems in small monthly amounts that better reflect their income and expenditure patterns. Our systems are fitted with pay as you go technology which means systems require a key code to be unblocked. A customer will pay a monthly amount and receive a key code that will unblock their system for the same time. This way families can slowly pay off their systems until completing their payment and fully owning the system. There is also a strong incentive for families to complete their payment plans.

After running a subsidized volunteer project in Purucuta, where we fitted their community building with a large solar system, we approached the community with our pay as you go home systems. Many families were interested and curious about the pay as you go technology. However, a certain scepticism still exists around solar lighting products – in the past many have bought cheaper options in the local markets and been disappointed when these have broken after a few months.

An important aspect of the work we do is to establish a local solar agent in the communities we work. They are our first point of contact and are trained to explain the functionality and capacity of the systems we offer. They also take monthly payments and generate unlock codes from an application on their mobile smart phones. They can attend to technical problems quickly and ensure that our work in communities is sustainable. Señor Mauro lives in Purucuta and has been helping us to coordinate with the community. He will benefit from commissions from sales made and payments collected. This will hopefully form another stream of income for his family of three. It will also help us to maintain a presence in the community and allow us to provide good customer service to ensure our products last. Our pay as you go systems will last for 5 to 7 years before needing a battery change.

Work in communities can be slow, being patient and building trust is paramount. With the help of Señor Mauro we have managed to sell some smaller systems and just this month our Engineers Without Borders UK volunteer Ruairi Mcloughlin installed one of our new pay as you go TV systems. Momentum and interest around the systems is growing and we are expecting many more members of the community to sign up next month. Offering these products in Peru helps connect an underserved market with high quality, long lasting technology that can enable families, on their own merit, to better their quality of life.

For more information on LUTW’s social enterprise, check it out here 

Op-ed piece by Tom Griffith. Tom is the Social Enterprise Manager based in Lima, Peru. The opinions of this post are totally personal and not the organization’s.