Name: Moulik Desai
Organization: Quetsol, Solar energy social start-up enterprise serving the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ customers.
Other Participants: Alex Rosenthal, Amanda Hahnel
“Land of the Eternal Spring” …is the phrase used to describe Guatemala for the beautiful spring-like weather all year round. Tall peaks lined by golden sunshine, picturesque blue skies sprinkled with powder puff clouds in Quiche, to mid-west like flat lands of Peten to black sand beaches. Guatemala is a land of diversity not just in is geography but even its people, comprising of 23 indigenous Maya tribes who all speak different languages, and not Spanish!
Little known may be the fact that over 55% of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line. The rural tribes are scattered in remote, hard-to-access villages, tucked away in the beautiful valleys far away from modern development, which is concentrated mainly in Guatemala City. People in villages rely on subsistence farming and supplement their basic needs through a meagre income stream from cash-crops (like cardamom, bananas etc) thereby exposed to market price fluctuations. They money earned is spent on necessities, one of which is candles. Yes, candles – to provide them with enough light so that their children can study and they themselves can be productive preparing for the next day, to earn an honest living. Many rural villages, around 500,000 households do not have access to the electricity grid, and thus spend a major portion of their income, around $160 a year, on candles as their sole source of light.
Our APEX project is with a social enterprise, a micro-solar startup company called Quetsol, primarily aimed to improve the lives of rural Guatemalans by providing solar-powered electricity kits that can power two bulbs and charge a cell phone from a day’s worth of sunlight, and thus help replace candles and save some money that can be used towards improving their lives. Along with the founders of Quetsol, two extremely bright, young individuals, we visited one of the offices of their sales and distribution partner, a micro-finance institution in Guatemala, to deliver kits for a group of 70 people who had mustered the will and signing up for a somewhat expensive loan for the purchase.
From their standpoint, you may think of this as a huge capital investment, e.g. buying a new car where you need to convince your better half, perhaps even yourself in the hope that it serve you well in the long-term. When we arrived at the office, the village folk, Quetsol’s customers, were already waiting in anticipation, some of whom let out a sheepish smile when they saw our trucks with the Quetsol logo. We joined the Quetsol staff to help unload and move the kits from the back of the truck to the office. The next item on the agenda was the customer demonstration and training, which was done by the CEO and filmed by the co-founder. We stood back to observe the crowd and take notes about how it was executed and if there were opportunities for improvements. We probably should have had notepads, white labcoats and yellow hardhats! At the end of the session, we regrouped and debriefed with the founders – shared our feedback, opinions and suggestions, which very refreshingly were always welcome.
Our next task was to gather responses from existing customers, which was perhaps the truest experience of rural Guatemala. This 200-household village was nestled in beautiful mountains, amongst the clouds at an elevation of 7,000 feet, and a 5-hour ‘joyride’ from Coban, just one way! En route, we even had to ford a river in one point hoping that our car wouldn’t stall and that we wouldn’t have to call the Guatemalan AAA for trail-side assistance. On reaching the village, we visited several households and talked to heads of the household. Although Amanda spoke spanish, our questions were relayed through the founder as he engaged the customers in a dialogue. Some of the houses doubled up as one-stop-retail stores (much like the rural micro-Walmarts), which sold confectionaries to vegetables to mobile phone recharge cards. Some others were typical wood-houses, with ducks and chicken walking around the ‘living room’ with the authority of a respected grandparent! One of them was a 4-room house, a solid construction made of concrete, equipped with a modern mattress and frame – a mansion compared to other houses in the neighborhood. This disparity of income in the same village was quite intriguing! The owner worked for a political party – ah, of course! However, our exercise was not in vain – we discovered new information that would help improve trainings or customer demonstrations, ideas for providing warranty service for the kits, and even potential product improvements. All in all a productive trip for Quetsol!
Wherever we went, we received a warm welcome and the locals seemed quite content, contrary to the news reports… perhaps, we were just lucky. But it is only after a journey like this, that we get reconnected with our purest emotions, hopefully ignited and inspired enough to veer off the beaten path and make a small difference in the world… Godspeed!
Moulik Desai, Class of 2012.