One of the amazing things I learned in Haiti happened in a little room located at the headquarters of the Papaye Peoples Movement (MPP). It was a workshop, actually, where a small team put together and repaired solar panels for use by peasants.
The technicians told us that they have been doing this for several years, that they would prefer to use U.S.-manufactured parts but lower costs had driven them to use Chinese-made parts (they seemed quite afraid we would be offended by this—which would have been hard with a Chinese-manufactured iPhone in my back pocket).
The units they created were mostly small. And the technicians told us that they couldn’t keep up with demand. In fact, they had taken to buying complete charging units from China rather than buying the parts and fabricating the units themselves (which they had done to keep costs down for the peasants).
And why were these units so popular with the peasants?
To power their cellphones, of course.
It was another of those “raise palm of hand to forehead” moments. Of course, it was the cellphones changing people’s behavior.
For at least a decade, First World helpers have come to Haiti with solar stoves and other contraptions so the Haitian people could stop cooking with wood fires and preserve the forests. A noble goal, but one the Haitians had no interest in. “That’s not how we cook,” they’d say.
But cellphones. People will do anything for their cellphones, even in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, even in the country’s Central Plateau, where annual household income is around $400. Like all those people splayed out in the aisle at the airport, phone cords wrapped all over the place to re-charge, Haitians are motivated by their phones.
It’s not hard to imagine that people will buy the unit to charge the phone, then purchase a slightly larger one (with a small battery) to power a few LED bulbs at night. Soon they’ll have it power a small fan or a radio. And that is likely how Haiti will power itself into its next phase of development, one cellphone and one solar panel at a time, motivated by what Haitians want, and not what well-meaning First Worlders try to provide.
And for the 473rd time on this trip, mind blown.
(And if you thought solar was a long way from mattering in the First World, this is a fascinating piece from Vox that is really encouraging. It’s closer, and better, than you might think.)