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Suitcase stories (1)

First of two parts

Former real estate executive Jim Ayala has several suitcases in his office. These samples come in blue and yellow. No, they don’t contain clothes for an upcoming trip; the units, manufactured by We Care, are called solar suitcases and contain solar panels, sealed lead acid battery, charge controller, headlamps, a phone charger, and a battery charger.

The blue ones are meant for schools. The yellow ones, intended for clinics, specifically birthing clinics, also come with a fetal doppler, the tool used to put a baby’s heartbeat from inside the womb on speaker.

Mr. Ayala is chairman for Asia of Stiftung Solarenergie, or Solar Energy Foundation. He has a lean (but mean) team supporting his advocacy of providing power to communities outside of the national grid which have no hopes of being electrified anytime soon.

The foundation’s ideals are not new. It stemmed from various earlier attempts to provide electricity to underserved places in the Philippines.  Right now, Stiftung Solarenergie operates in clusters, specifically in Region 12, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Palawan and Eastern Visayas. These places were identified on the basis of information on electrification, and on data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development on the poorest communities, those lacking in social services, geographically isolated,  and beset with peace and order problems.

Changing a mindset

Ayala and the foundation’s executive director, Bambi Reyes, say at the onset that they are not in the business of “donating” or “doling out” to underprivileged communities.

“We’re doing a bit more than that. We are adopting a development approach that considers sustainability and empowerment.  This project has a governance component, and we do not push through with the installations unless we are sure the community can do its part,” Ayala says.

The communities that wish to have the solar suitcases, after learning about it through various channels, signify their intention to be part of the program and then submit themselves to an application process. They submit necessary documents. The Solarenergie team then reviews these documents, and then if they are clear, a validating team proceeds to the community and meets its principals and stakeholders.

For schools, the stakeholders are parents, teachers, the students themselves and civil society organizations, if any, that operate in the area. For clinics, there are fewer, usually the midwives and other health workers. Solarenergie is now focusing on birthing clinics, recognizing that it is extremely difficult to ensure the safety of women giving birth if there is no light.

“Childbirth is excruciating as it is; we want to help make it more bearable if only through lights that would help midwives assist them better,” says Reyes.

The solar suitcases, properly handled and maintained, have a shelf life of 25 years. Thus, a key element in ensuring the success of the program is training the people to use them properly, troubleshoot them, and know where spare parts are available.

“We’ve all heard stories about solar-powered lights that were bought for a low price but were not useful for long because they conked out right away and people didn’t know how to repair them,” Ayala says. “We want to avoid that.”

A crucial part of the process is securing the commitment of the community. “This is a partnership,” Reyes says, “not a charity project. They have to assume responsibilities that would ensure the solar lights will be useful for a long time, and that they would have accountability to the people for whatever happens to it.”

“It’s a mindset, actually,” adds Ayala. “Even if you’re talking about communities is far-flung places, they should have the governance and operational systems to support the project, and make it run for a long time.”

Works in progress

Reyes, who has spent years as a Solarenergie volunteer before assuming her post, has many stories to tell.

For example, the solar lights in schools are not only used for classrooms. They are also used for night classes, under the Alternative Learning System where adults who have not had the chance of finishing basic education in their younger years catch up.

“The lights also power the teachers’ workstations and living quarters so they can stay up late to check papers and work on their lesson plans,” says Reyes.

“Many of these schools are in areas which are very difficult to reach. What the teachers do is stay there during the week and then only come home to their families on weekends,” Ayala adds.

Continued next Monday


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