‘Voluntourism’ brings light to rural Nicaragua

Voluntourism is a unique way for foreigners to visit Nicaragua and lend a helping hand

Like many people living in rural communities in Nicaragua, the residents of El Delirio, Matagalpa have been waiting for electricity for decades.

The people of this town are part of the 35% of rural communities that don’t have access to conventional electricity. In fact, nearly a third of all Nicaraguans, or about 1.7 million people, live without power—still one of the highest rates in Central America, despite recent advances in rural electrification.

 

Rural Conditions: El Delirio’s schoolhouse

El Delirio, located about 11 kilometers west of Ciudad Darío, is typical of many rural communities in the central mountains of Nicaragua. In addition to having no electricity, the community also has no sources of potable water, no reliable public transportation and only one primary school. Small-scale agriculture—mostly beans, corn and sorghum—is the primary source of income. The fortunate families raise a few pigs and cattle that provide milk for cheese.

At night, the residents of El Delirio use kerosene lamps or old car batteries to illuminate their homes. Both are expensive, time-consuming and hazardous lighting options.

The community’s primary school, a multi-grade, two-room schoolhouse, had been operating without electricity since it was built in 2000. Teachers were limited to using only rudimentary teaching methods and the schoolhouse could not be used to hold town hall meetings or host any other community function after dark.

But on Aug. 8 of this year, after more than a year of preparation and planning, a group of U.S. volunteers working with the organization Power to the People and Managua-based solar company Suni Solar successfully installed solar panels on the school in the rural Matagalpan community.

The system—an off-grid, 880 Watt photovoltaic (PV) electric system with battery back-up—provides the school 24-hour access to laptops, high-quality lighting, cell phone charging, fans, television and DVD players, and other appliances to modernize and improve the learning environment.

 

The school will also act as a battery charging station for the community

Community members can also use the system’s new solar-battery charging station—an innovative solution for charging batteries directly from a solar panel—to charge their own 12-Volt car or deep-cycle batteries at the school and take them home for use at night. These batteries provide basic lighting and can run a TV, radio or other small appliances. Before the battery charging station was installed, community members would haul their heavy batteries to a nearby town and pay to have them charged. The battery charging station saves individuals time and money, and gives the school a small income that can be used to purchase distilled water for the system’s batteries and replacement light bulbs.

The small improvement means big change for the school and the community.

“We are so thankful to be in the company of volunteers who came so far to help us install the solar panels,” says Oscar Espinoza, coordinator for the El Delirio Energy Committee. “We will now benefit from having electricity for our school and community for years to come.”

Power to the People

 

Sometimes getting to rural communities is half the challenge

Power to the People is a U.S. non-profit organization founded in 2008. The organization offers socially-conscious travelers a chance to volunteer while on vacation to Nicaragua. The organization’s “voluntourism” trips take place three times per year, allowing participants to gain hands-on experience installing solar panels on rural schools while enjoying some of Nicaragua’s most beautiful destinations.

The experiences are often eye-opening for many volunteers.

“The El Delirio trip was my third trip with Power to the People,” says trip volunteer Colleen Smith from Irvine, California. “Although each solar installation offers a different experience within the communities, certain things remain constant—the unity of the communities’ residents, their genuine affection and appreciation for the volunteers, the children’s insatiable curiosity to learn, and the ability of a group of strangers to share ideas, skills, laughter, sweat, and tears, and walk away with memories that will last a lifetime.”

Power to the People believes strongly in the importance of sustainable development projects that empower local people and provide tools to help communities improve the quality of their own lives. The solar electric systems give rural communities access to reliable electricity 24 hours a day, and community members decide how the resource will be used to improve the overall well-being of the community.

 

Tortilla Lessons: voluntourism gives foreigners a unique experience

“Cross-cultural understanding and respect are a key part of our work. Volunteering while on vacation gives both travelers and the locals a chance to learn about life in another culture, have exposure to different ways of doing things, and fosters mutual respect,” says Jenean Smith, founder of Power to the People.

Since starting work in Nicaragua in 2009, Power to the People has successfully installed off-grid solar systems in eight rural communities in Nicaragua, including Zapatera Island, Ometepe Island, Boaco and Matagalpa. With two full-time staff on the ground in Nicaragua, the organization continues to develop new project sites, hold training sessions and workshops for community leaders, and conduct regular site visits. In addition, Power to the People has recently initiated a solar lighting program to address the electricity needs of rural households by offering small-scale and affordable solar lighting solutions.

Power to the People’s next project is set for October 20-28, 2012, and volunteers will work with community members to install a 990 Watt PV system on the primary school in the rural Boaco community of La Uva.

For more information about the project and volunteer opportunities, visit www.powertothepeople.org or email info@powertothepeople.org.

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