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Venturing into Amazonian Peru with Pangea Advisors and Luci

Venturing into Amazonian Peru with Pangea Advisors and Luci

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 10:01 - By Krista Sande-Kerback

Columbia Business School offers many opportunities to get plugged into the international development field, and I took advantage of this in my last semester by leading a Pangea project.  Pangea Advisors is the pro-bono consulting arm of the International Development Club, and is dedicated to “sourcing projects from organizations working to improve lives in the developing world.”  This semester, they offered 26 projects in a range of countries such as Tanzania, Cambodia, Palestine, Ecuador, and Samoa, which of course offered enticing travel opportunities, as well as the chance to work on real-world assignments.  Along with two classmates, I applied to a project to work with MPOWERD, a solar energy startup that produces inexpensive inflatable solar lanterns.

MPOWERD’s core product is the Luci, a featherweight 65-lumen light useful for travel, work, disaster relief, and more, which can be charged in sunlight via small solar panels at the base.  The product is largely marketed in the US towards campers/backpackers, but also offers the option to “Give Luci,” and works with NGOs around the world to donate lights to communities in need.  For our project, we collaborated with MPOWERD and one of its field partners, the Amazon Conservation Association, on a project to distribute solar lanterns to three remote indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru, as well as capture information via ethnographic research and in-depth interviews of community members.  Our end products will be a whitepaper, training guide for field agents, and beneficiary case studies.

Getting to the worksite was an adventure in itself.  My team had the chance to put one Luci to the test during the long drive from Cuzco, Peru to where we would be working in the Amazon, when a mudslide stalled us for five hours at night.  Thankfully no one was hurt, and the light definitely made the trip more comfortable, but we were very, very far from any amenities.  Mudslides are a frequent occurrence in the region though, so people traveling through there know to plan ahead.  Also, one of the communities could only be reached via a three-hour hike, and during the trip we had to augment our water source by drinking the water stored in bamboo stalks, and get across the river using a boat made of five logs tied together.  All in all, it was highly energizing and eye opening to travel this way.

The work that we conducted on the ground was some of the most fascinating that I’ve done on any international project.  Many indigenous communities in the Amazon have very little contact with the outside world; however, these groups knew about our visit and were kind to open their homes to us and share about their lives and their need for more adequate light (some of them had a single light bulb; others relied on flashlights and candles) in order to study and create artisanal crafts or fish at night.  We were able to quantify the potential impact of a family possessing a Luci, thereby not needing as many batteries or candles, and being able to produce more products for sale.  One of the communities relies almost entirely on the barter system, and actually offered us stalks of sugar cane in exchange for our gift of the solar lanterns.  We also gained many unique and fascinating insights that can only come with doing a project like this in person.

A question that the chief of one community appropriately raised is “what happens when the lights stop working?”  Understandably, waste disposal and protecting the environment are serious concerns for communities that are increasingly consuming products like batteries, or Coca Cola that comes in disposable bottles.  The good news, at least for these communities, is that this project doesn’t end with our visit.  A local anthropologist and a few volunteers working with the Amazon Conservation Association are monitoring the use and functionality of the lights in order to make sure that recipients know how to take care of them, and can help dispose of and replace them when needed.