Shedding Light on Haiti

Jean McGianni Celestin
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Farmer in Central Plateau of Haiti holding a solar-power light (Courtesy of Soleil Global)

(The Root) — To some extent, the greatest challenge facing Haiti is not just rebuilding the country after the destruction caused by the earthquake in 2010 — it's tackling the problems the natural disaster exacerbated.

The country's identity has long been perched between two extremes: Haiti is the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, yet it's become the poorest. According to an International Red Cross report in 2006, seven out of 10 Haitians were found to be living on less than $2 per day. In addition to those poverty statistics, the lack of adequate health care, public and environmental safety, education and employment are just a few of the chronic issues Haiti has battled for nearly half of a century.

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Three years after the earthquake, healing those old wounds is still the key to prosperity for Haiti, even as reconstruction continues. One of the focal points of recent revitalization efforts has been to reestablish the country's once-fertile agricultural sector by addressing a fundamental (and somewhat tangible) need — light.

Enter Soleil Global. Living up to its name ("soleil" is French for sun), the organization's mission is "to empower communities through innovative, affordable and sustainable energy solutions." Founded by Haitian-American social entrepreneur Jacques-Philippe Piverger and chaired by Ayo Roach, a great deal of its work focuses on Haiti. For the past year, SG has concentrated its efforts on the island's Central Plateau, where a vast amount of farmland still exists. Its aim is to put an inflatable, low-cost solar light in every household without electricity, beginning with those living in that area. They use the light — which was named "Luci" in order to give it a human characteristic. Mpowerd, a New York-based firm, has created and manufactured the device so that it can last up to two years. The lights are one factor that may help local farmers be more productive and assist residents in even the most routine daily chores.

As Haiti had the most arable terrain of all the countries in the Caribbean, farming used to be the country's primary economic engine for decades after its independence from slavery in 1804. Farming was a means of free enterprise and self-determination for many, but by the 1980s deforestation and the great migration to Port-au-Prince, the urban capital, had hampered this tradition. In addition, there was a flood of international goods onto the domestic marketplace that helped create an overdependence on foreign products, a problem with which the nation struggles today. These factors effectively have led to bankrupting the island's agricultural system.

As a result, those in the rural sector have simply been getting by. During a November 2011 meeting with potential investors about the nation's infrastructure, Haitian President Michel Martelly emphasized plainly how vital agricultural sector is today. "Decentralization is a critical cornerstone supporting my vision for a new Haiti," he said in the New York Times. "We want to strengthen and empower our rural communities and create new ones."

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Though it's hard to imagine by most Western standards, light is not a commodity many Haitians can take for granted. Energy poverty affects nearly every rural population across the country. And despite the fact that, surprisingly, Haiti as a whole uses very little energy (the equivalent of 250 kilograms of oil per head per year), an estimated 85 percent of the national population — many in farming communities — aren't connected to the power grid. They depend on nonrenewable biomass such as kerosene and candles, as well as burning wood and charcoal, which has led to rapid soil erosion, climate change and the sharp declination in agricultural yields — not to mention health issues.

In addition to Luci, Piverger is also currently guiding the sustainable development of more than 2,500 acres of land in the region with a focus on organic produce, manufacturing and residential housing. He has tapped experts from a range of fields and industries such as science, finance, medicine, law, entertainment and the arts through Soleil Global's "Light Up the World" project.

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"We've been bringing delegations to the area since October 2011 to inform and help execute SG's mission," Piverger told The Root. "For the past year, we've conducted fact-finding sessions and have analyzed ways to improve our work."

The organization collected data on 465 families (mostly farmers) and found that the daily income of the median household in the Central Plateau is between $1 and $3. Yet residents spend $6 to $20 of that amount per month on gas for their kerosene lamps. The average travel time from their homes to the nearest supplier in that area is 4.3 to 9.3 miles on foot, which they make three to four times a month.

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The residual impact this expense places on families is alarming, given that the Central Plateau is made up of mostly single-source income households. Soleil Global's goals are ambitious, and so far, the Light Up the World project has distributed more than 1,000 micro-solar lights to small farmers, not simply as a form charitable trust, but as a method for getting on the road of economic independence in the long run.

Once the initial distribution phase is complete, SG plans to provide more lights through a cooperative investment partnership through which Haitians can use the savings they accrue from using Luci to buy more units for $10 each.

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"When you give people something as charity, it doesn't resonate as effectively as it does when they see it as investment," Piverger explained. "The goal is to empower Haitians so they can once again determine their own fate, rather than treat them as a charity case."

He hopes that the distribution and sale of these lights will stimulate employment and help people generate income. But beyond the economic value, the project also helps alleviate impediments in education. Schools can use the lights, and children can now study at night. So, tackling the problem of energy doesn't just start anywhere; it starts at a level that is fundamental to every person's livelihood.

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As simple as this approach seems, it's addressing a need that no Haitian can do without. Only time will tell if this project and overall shift toward renewable energy in communities such as the Central Plateau will be successful. But one thing's certain: Without light, everything else is close to impossible.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Soleil Global was the organization that had named the solar light, Luci. However, the Luci light was invented and created by the New York-based firm Mpowerd. Soleil Global just uses the Luci light technology. We regret the error.

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Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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