Travelling in Peru, I had several incredible experiences that have inspired me to finally pick up the (ahem, keyboard) again. From surfing in Lima and eating ceviche by the beach to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, this was a trip of a lifetime.
However, it was one experience in Peru that had the most significant impact on me, and that was my time volunteering with a Calgary-based NGO called Light Up the World(LUTW).
LUTW is an awesome non-profit whose focus is on implementing solar energy projects in communities that don’t have access to electricity. Since 1997, the organization has been bringing clean energy into homes, schools and community buildings to off-grid areas in 54 countries. Over the past few years, their efforts have been focused in Peru which has one of the lowest electrification rates in Latin America, where 4-6 million people in Peru (actual estimates vary) currently live without access to electricity.
I had never thought much about what it would be like to live completely off the grid with no access to electricity. For most Canadians, ‘getting off the grid’ typically means getting away for a weekend camping trip in the mountains or a stay at a rustic cabin by the lake. It’s seen as a break from everyday life, a chance to escape our cellphones and office computers to get back to nature. But for millions of Peruvians, living off the grid isn’t a vacation – it is their everyday reality. And that reality is one where families may need to resort to using animal dung or wood for cooking. It’s a reality where, to study or do homework, children must use the dim light of a kerosene lamp or a flickering candle.
Not only do these energy sources pose inherent risks such as accidental fires, injuries and respiratory ailments stemming from the inhalation of toxic fumes – fuel sources such as kerosene are a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, these inefficient lighting sources are extremely costly and families can spend as much as one third of their monthly income on kerosene or candles! To imagine that people love to complain about high electricity prices on almost a daily basis here in Canada! With a reliable, renewable source of energy such as solar power, this income could be directed to other priorities such as nutrition, business development or education. Access to electricity is an indispensable enabler for reducing poverty, improving health and promoting economic growth, which is why the United Nations made access to affordable and clean energy for all one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2014.
My employer Capital Power Corporation partnered up with LUTW as part of the corporation’s community investment program. As part of this initiative, Capital Power provided the funding directed towards the solar systems, equipment and staff at LUTW, while myself and several of my colleagues traveled to Peru to meet up with LUTW to install these solar electricity systems in rural communities in the Andachupa region. Our little group of 8 consisted primarily of office nerds (and one former electrician who was our saving grace!) who, until this trip, had likely never even held a pair of wire strippers in hand. Nonetheless, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Lima, ready and eager to learn all about small-scale solar systems. We were all motivated to volunteer our time, energy and money for the program primarily because of the social impact that we believed solar projects could have, and wanted to have the chance to witness first-hand how communities could benefit from this kind of work. But as the project went on, it became so much more than just about what we could give to these communities in terms of access to electricity.
Our first couple days in Lima were spent getting to know each other, team building, and completing an intensive crash course on installing off-grid solar systems. The very first basic circuit we built I short-circuited (by accident I swear!), but by the end of the day we were able to circuit 5 LED lightbulbs in parallel, with switches! My grade 6 science teacher would have been proud, my first year university physics professor probably much less so! Armed with our newfound technical skills (or lack thereof, depending if you are a glass half-full or empty kind of person), we flew to Huaraz and met up with a local LUTW staff and technicians who would help us on the installs and also maintain the systems after we left. We loaded up our trucks full of equipment, then drove another 4 hours to Huallanca, a charming town nestled in a mountain valley at an altitude of nearly 10,500 feet, which served as our home base for the week.
Despite only being around 400 km north from Lima, Huallanca felt like it was oceans away. The views of coastlines dotted with skyscrapers were replaced by mountain vistas, speeding cabs and congested roads were replaced by motor-taxis (reminiscent of the tuk-tuks in Thailand) puttering around on quiet cobblestone streets. Instead of high-end shopping centers, little old ladies sat on doorsteps peddling local fruits, homemade soups and hand-knitted hats. Our group was among the only non-Peruvians visiting the town, and locals often approached us as we wandered the streets, smiling broadly and shaking our hands to welcome us to the community.
The next day, after several people had time to rest from the long day of travel and recover from some mild altitude-related ailments (going from sea level to over 10,000 feet can often induce altitude sickness symptoms including headaches, nausea and fatigue), we were ready to get to work. We drove about 1 hour on some extremely bumpy country roads (which did not help those suffering from nausea much at all!) to a community called the “9th of October”. If Huallanca was oceans away from Lima, then 9th of October was a completely different world! Small homesteads constructed primarily of scrap metal and adobe sparsely dotted lush green hillsides. Although I spotted a few rusty early ‘90s Honda Civics, the preferred mode of transportation seemed to be either horseback or foot, and bleating sheep outnumbered the local residents at least two hundred to one!
There were four main facilities that we were going to install solar systems at over the next several days, including a newly built community center, the school and a health clinic and one additional solar system at another school in nearby Llancash. The first thing I couldn’t help but notice was the utter simplicity of these buildings which were supposed to provide the backbone to the community. Not only did the buildings lack any kind of electrification, but they lacked almost every other amenity and comfort that we in North America would typically expect. A kitchen was nothing more than an empty room with a clay oven fueled by wood.
The schools were shabbily equipped with old chairs and desks reminiscent of a 1900s one room school house at best, or cardboard boxes used as makeshift tables wrapped in paper at worst. The health clinic looked like it could have been the set of a medical horror movie – the maternity ward consisted of a single rusty iron bed, a broken pipe in the bathroom leaked water 24/7, and the medicine cabinet was poorly stocked with mostly empty boxes. Ironically, some of the buildings did have a few modern appliances here and there – such as old laptop computers, stereos and even a printer! These items were typically either donated or given out through government programs but sat idly by collecting dust because there was no way to power them.
Then the work began. It was quite the challenge to go from wiring simple circuits on a small board to setting up an entire solar system! We did walk-throughs of each facility with the locals (the Mayor of the town for the community center, the school teacher for the school and the nurse at the clinic) and they told us where they would like lights and outlets located and how many lights they wanted on each light switch. And even after we came up with full circuit designs and laid out wires, we faced all kinds of other challenges with installing the systems. It was an endless struggle to try to get nails to stick in the adobe walls without them crumbling, and a headache to try to screw light fixtures into water damaged ceilings! Accidentally cutting the wrong wire or getting our positive and negative wires mixed up were also frequent mistakes that we had to check (and then double check!). Fortunately, we were lent a helping hand by a young local boy named Emerson who waited for us to arrive each morning to help dig holes, fetch tools from the toolbox and screw in lightbulbs. Although he occasionally was more of a troublemaker than a helper, especially the time when he pretended to cut himself on a box cutter by pouring iodine he found in our first aid kit on his hand!
The day after we got the first solar system up and running at the community center, townspeople were already showing up at the door with their cellphones in hand eagerly asking if they would be able to charge their devices! After we finished another install at the medical clinic, several families stopped by to excitedly check out the new lights and inquire into whether LUTW would be able to return to install smaller scale solar systems in their own homes. It was so encouraging to see that positive impact on the lives of these rural communities was immediately realized by basic access to electricity – something we in Canada consider one of our most simple amenities. By the last day of our installations, we were regular pros, and set up a full solar system at a school that worked without any troubleshooting on the first try – there were celebratory whoo hoos! and high-fives all around!
After the four solar system installations were completed, we returned to the last school we worked at in the town Llancash to hang out with the schoolkids for the day. We put on a short skit about how a solar system works (we even had to say our lines in Spanish!), played several games that taught the children basic electrical safety, and showed them how the lights and outlets worked. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of a group of the students huddled at a doorway to one of their classrooms now equipped with lighting, eyes wide with anticipation to check out their new electrical system.
Each child was fundamentally no different than my nephews or younger cousins who live in first world countries – they love to laugh and run around outside, they are eager to learn, and are endlessly curious and inquisitive. This is despite the fact that they have so, so much less – less materially, financially, and educationally. How many of these students would even graduate high school? Would any have the opportunity to receive higher education and secure stable jobs in urban areas? How many would continue to live in the highlands and work the soil? Would any of the girls face the hardship of becoming teenage mothers, as is becoming increasingly common in rural areas of Peru? A few lightbulbs obviously cannot solve all of these potential problems, but even if it can make their future just a little bit brighter, then it is well worth it.
I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, LUTW for their incredibly hard work and for organizing such an amazing volunteer trip, as well as Capital Power Corporation for believing in and supporting the work that LUTW does in Peru.
Text by Christina Free