Mathias Craig, Part 1 of 2
Mathias Craig, Co-Founder and Exec. Dir. of Blue Energy. Blue Energy is a not for profit, NGO working in Caribbean coastal communities of Eastern Nicaragua to help connect them to energy, clean water, sanitation and other services. Blueenergygroup.org
Speaker 1: Spectrum's next.
Speaker 2: Okay. Welcome to spectrum the science and technology show on k a l ex Berkeley, a biweekly 30 minute program bringing you interviews featuring bay area scientists and technologists as well as a calendar [00:00:30] of local events and news.
Speaker 3: Hi and good afternoon. My name is Brad Swift. I'm the host of today's show. This week on spectrum. We present part one of two with our guest Monte as Craig Co founder and executive director of Blue Energy. Blue Energy is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization working among the Caribbean coastal communities of eastern Nicaragua to help connect them to energy, clean water, sanitation, and other essential services. Matiaz Craig is an engineer by training right here at UC Berkeley. [00:01:00] He talks about what he and blue energy have learned about applying and localizing technology through projects that they undertake with remote isolated communities. Give a listen to part one. Monte has. Craig, welcome to spectrum. Thank you for having me. How were you initially drawn to technology?
Speaker 1: It started really early for me. I was a tinkerer. I always thought that I would be an inventor when I was young. So I think the, the attraction came, came super early and [00:01:30] then when I studied here at UC Berkeley in civil and environmental engineering, I started getting exposed to technology. Just sort of took it from there.
Speaker 3: When was it that you started down this path of connecting technology with sustainability and equitable development?
Speaker 1: So I started thinking about that again while I was here at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to take a number of classes in the energy and resource group with Professor Richard Norgaard and Dan Cayman, which was really inspirational [00:02:00] for me. And I started to see renewable energy in particular as an opportunity to use technology in a green, sustainable way. And also I liked the international element of it, but this is a global issue around the environment and also around issues of energy and water. And it was easy to see how they could fit together. I think it really started here. And then in graduate school I was at MIT and I had the opportunity to take a class called entrepreneurship in the developing world with Professor Alex Pentland [00:02:30] over in the media lab and that was my first sort of insight into how I might combine those things. Practically speaking in an organization,
Speaker 3: when you first started trying to couple those things, energy generation, sustainability, what was the status quo of things?
Speaker 1: What was the landscape like? What year was it? I started thinking about renewable energy and wind power back in 1999 when I was a student here at Berkeley. It [00:03:00] was a class project in 2002 at MIT and we launched in Nicaragua in 2004 I think the landscape for small wind in particular, which was what drew my interest initially, it was pretty sparse out there. There weren't many organizations doing small scale wind for development. There have been some small scale wind turbine manufacturers in Europe and in the United States for a number of decades on a commercial scale, but they weren't really thinking about emerging markets and how wind [00:03:30] might contribute to rural electrification in those places. And we formed some nice partnerships, one with Hugh Pigott from Scotland who was the original inventor of the wind turbine design that we were using and worked with him for a number of years to add our own contribution to the design and evolve it.
Speaker 1: And were there other groups in the field that you kind of model yourself after? We didn't really have any models for the small scale wind, but there were some organizations that I looked up to and kept track of [00:04:00] in terms of community development, the how to implement technology in community situations in the developing world in particular, one group was called it DG. It was intermediate technology development group. It's now called practical action. They've been around since the 60s promoting how do you do responsible development in communities, deploying technology, but thinking about all the other dimensions around that work. And then another group I have a lot of respect for is out of Portland, Oregon, green empowerment. They've worked a lot with practical action as well. [00:04:30] It's a holistic view on how to use technology to create impact, but with a recognition of all the other components that have to go into that work.
Speaker 1: And what was the learning curve like for you and your organization in the early years? Very steep. When we launched the organization, we had a lot of passion, a lot of commitment, a lot of ideas, but we did not have formal business training. Our level of experience in the field, we had some historical experience in Nicaragua, but trying [00:05:00] to launch your organization at work there is quite different than visiting. So I'd say the learning curve was extremely steep. That's been one of the most rewarding parts of this job for the last 10 years is every day I feel like I'm learning something new. And I think in the beginning of the organization we didn't have a very solid structure or a very big organization in terms of number of people. And we've had a lot of turnover over the years. And that's where I think the learning curve remains fairly steep for the institution because you have to [00:05:30] figure out how do you bridge those changes within the organization and how do you document your learning so that you don't have to constantly re learn the same lessons and you get to move on to the next lesson.
Speaker 1: When we launched the organization, we had no money, no experience, no major backers, no big team, and we really built it from scratch. And I think there's a lot of learning along the way there. What were the biggest challenges in the early days? Well, the challenges have evolved a lot over the 10 years. [00:06:00] In the early days, I would say the biggest challenge was cash. You know, cash flow for an organization is always a critical issue. And I think in the early days when we had actually no financing, that was a huge issue because we weren't able to pay salaries. It was a struggle to scrape together a little bit of money to buy materials. You know that's okay early on. In fact it can be quite healthy for an organization to start that way because it forces you to be very efficient and to think three times about doing anything before you do it.
Speaker 1: [00:06:30] Finding the talent that you need to tackle something as complex as infrastructure in the kind of region that we're in is very challenging and so you can sometimes attract the talent, but then how do you retain it? And it's not only a money issue, it's not only being able to pay people a fair wage, but it's a very dynamic context, a very dynamic environment. And people come and go. You know, if you invest a lot in training, which is a core part of our philosophy, build local capacity, but then that person moves on, [00:07:00] moves to the u s or you train them well enough that they can be employed in the capitol city and has a bit of a brain drain there. So you can't think of, okay, we're just going to invest a lot in this handful of employees. You fifth think, how are we systematically going to continuously train people that we onboard, retain them as long as we can and maybe help them move on to new bright careers. But I think that turnover issues is a big one.
Speaker 2: You were listening to spectrum [00:07:30] on KALX Berkeley Co founder and executive director of Blue Energy. All Monte has, Craig is our guests. What's your current
Speaker 1: assess for going into a new community? How do you do that? I would say we do it very slowly and thoughtfully. Our approaches. We want to pick communities where we think there's a tremendous amount of need, but where there's also we say in Spanish that the contract parties, the, the commitment [00:08:00] from the people we're going to work with, that the solutions that we're providing and building with them are things that they actually want to commit to and invest in. Early on in the organization, it was a bit throwing darts at a board and to where you're going to start, but in the last five, six years it's become much more systematic and we spend a lot of time visiting with communities. Generally how it starts is one of the leaders from the community comes and finds us. Now we have enough of a presence, enough of a reputation [00:08:30] on the coast that we're a known entity and somebody, you know, the leader of a community comes, says, oh, I saw this water project in this other community.
Speaker 1: We would like that as well and we don't just jump at that. We say, okay, duly noted. Thank you for coming. And then when we're out doing, say maintenance or a service visit in another community, we will stop by that community and have a look and start having the meetings. And it's a long process of getting understand the community at first, sort of informally. And then if we think there's an opportunity actually [00:09:00] going into a project development phase where we're starting to look at what the specific needs are, what are the solutions that we could provide, how might they match? And then doing things like understanding the power dynamics in the community. Okay, this one person came and solicited the service and they said they were the leader, but what does that mean? Are they an elected leader? Who Do they represent? Or the head of the fishing cooperative or the head of the church or the head of the communal board.
Speaker 1: So we're very cognizant of the fact that communities aren't monolithic and the community [00:09:30] doesn't come speak to you. Somebody does with an agenda and you want to understand who are they representing and you want to understand if they're a minority voice, what do other people think in the community? Who makes decisions? How do they make decisions, understand all of that before you get into a project. Because infrastructure projects to be successful really require longterm relationships. They aren't widgets, they're not selling them pencils and just transactional. They walk away with a pencil, everything's [00:10:00] fine. If you're putting in a water system or an energy system requires operation and maintenance, maybe upgrades in the future, you want to connect those services to economic opportunity to ways to improve health, to support education. There's a lot of moving parts and you want to make sure that the people you're going to work with will stay committed and that the solution will actually provide some benefit and not be just a neat gadget out there on the field for six months and then not work.
Speaker 1: So I think [00:10:30] it's very deliberate. We typically add only a couple of new communities per year and then we continue to work with the communities we've historically worked with. Our philosophy is to add new services, to look for new ways to leverage what we've done in the past. If we did a solar lamp program in the past, maybe now they're ready for a larger solar system. Now that they've seen solar and they've worked with it for awhile. So we look at how can we sort of keep moving up the ladder in terms of providing better and better services with more impact. [00:11:00] So within that meeting with them, you know, assessing what the community's like, what's the dynamic around what sort of technologies you'll use and how much education is involved in all that. Different technologies require different levels of involvement, different levels of commitment. Some of them are simpler.
Speaker 1: For example, if you're doing a solar lantern project, you don't have to have the buy in of the entire community in a longterm plan necessarily to do a fairly [00:11:30] self contained technology such as that versus if you're doing a solar powered water pumping storage distribution system for a new pilot farm where you might have a lot of stake holders, a lot of moving parts. So we definitely look at how cohesive is the community. You know, some communities are communities by name only because on a map they have one name but it's 50 families that don't really talk or work together on things. Other communities are very tightly knit, [00:12:00] are very into communal goals. And that has a tremendous effect on what solutions we perceive as being viable. Not necessarily ones that we'll do, but even within the sort of the viable range. Because solar water pumping micro farm project requires a lot of coordination.
Speaker 1: So if it's a community that's very fractured and very individualistic, that kind of project probably isn't going to work. So that might not be on the table today. So we're always thinking in time horizons to you might see that, oh there could be [00:12:30] an opportunity for that two, three years from now. So it's very much not a cookie cutter approach we put in as much if not more time on the community engagement side of things as we do on the technology. And that's reflected in our staff. You know, how we allocate our time and effort and a lot of that's based on the history of your experience of doing this. And when it hasn't worked. Absolutely. When we started the organization and my brother and I and other members of the organization early on, we know from history going back [00:13:00] before the organization at our mother's work in these communities that the social dimensions are critical.
Speaker 1: The technical solution alone will never work. You have to understand people and communities to make that pairing. But I used to think it would be about 80% technology and 20% social, which I thought was a huge improvement over a lot of development initiatives, which are 99% technology, 1% social and almost always fail. So I thought, oh, very progressive and forward looking at us to think 80 20 now I know it's the other way around. [00:13:30] I mean now I say I don't think technology is ever more than 10 or maybe 20% of a solution both in terms of budget but time and the challenges you face and what you have to overcome. You know, you come in with certain ideas about what people need and the right way of doing things. But often those aren't very well informed and they often aren't very well rooted in the reality of the local context.
Speaker 1: And I'll give you one example. When we started, we thought communal solutions are the best. So we're going to do community based [00:14:00] solutions versus home scale solutions. So we went in and in the communities we worked in the beginning we just implemented community based solutions. But as I just mentioned earlier, in some of those communities, there isn't a strong social cohesion and the community actually doesn't really want to work together on issues. Well if you come in with a community based solution, it's not going to work very well, but you feel that that's the way it should be. So you start to let go a little by little about your preconceived notions about the way things ought to be and [00:14:30] how they should go. And you start to listen more and listen and observe and adapt your solutions and your methodologies to the reality of what's out there.
Speaker 1: And will you often start with a gateway technology, like you were describing the home solar lantern idea or do you sometimes go all in and say this community is ripe for a big project? I would say now we have the full spectrum there. I'd say most communities we are looking for a simpler solution and gateway or beachhead, you know a way to get in there because [00:15:00] we know that if you implement a relatively simple technology to start with, the main value that you're getting is that interaction. You're getting to know the community, but without project do they meet their end of the bargain? You know, are they actually contributing? Like they said they would. If things go badly, you don't lose much. Right? So it's a cheap way to have some immediate impact and get to know and understand the communities better over time and then sort of move up that ladder of complexity where you can have even greater impact.
Speaker 1: Some [00:15:30] communities though are very well organized and it looks like all the ingredients are there for successful engagement. It's just they've never had the opportunity. So in those ones, sometimes you skip ahead and you think, okay, maybe we can start with a more complicated system. The main cases that I can think of in my head where we've seen that is where one of the few other development organizations on the coast, because there really aren't many, has already been working in that community and you can leverage the [00:16:00] progress that they've made. And we have some great examples north of Bluefields where probably our strongest partner [inaudible] has been working for over 25 years. Really, really strong community engagement training on the basics of improved farming techniques, financial literacy, just doing great work. So if you go into a community that they've been working with and you start to plan a bigger project, those committee members have already benefited from 10 years of training. And so we notice a huge difference there. [00:16:30] And so for those communities we can think about jumping ahead.
Speaker 3: Mm [inaudible] spectrum is a public affairs show on k a l x Berkeley. Our guest is Matiaz Craig Blue Energy. When you start working with a community and you're having success and you've been with them for a number of years, is there a point at which you walk away or the flip side of that, [00:17:00] if it fails, do you say, this isn't going to work? We have to move on.
Speaker 1: Our approach with the communities again is the vision is longterm engagement because we know that the challenges that they're facing are very deeply rooted. I mean, these are decades, centuries old barriers that they're facing. You don't solve that in a quarter. You don't solve that in a fiscal year. It's a longterm relationship. Our approach is more continue to build the relationship and think about entering and exiting particular solutions. You might try [00:17:30] a solution and then it turns out that solution in this community doesn't work. It doesn't mean the community is broken. It doesn't mean that they're not worth working with. It means that that's not the right approach. So yeah, there's definitely times where we've entered in, as I mentioned earlier, with the communal approach. It's just pushing this boulder up hill year after and you're trying to build this community association. And it's not working. And we've made some tough decisions in our past where you say, okay, we tried that for a couple of years, we invested a lot.
Speaker 1: It [00:18:00] did not work. You go take out that equipment but you don't abandon the community. So now based on what we've learned, what is a better solution? And that's an interactive conversation community. And it's a tough conversation when you go in to take out a technology, sometimes you have to clear the table, acknowledge your mistakes, go back to that conversation about what might work and then reenter with a new solution. And so we certainly have done that. The amount of engagement and commitment to any particular community [00:18:30] in any particular year has a lot to do with funding. These communities are often very difficult to reach. Remember, there's almost no roads on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, almost no civil infrastructure of any kind. So it's a major commitment to get out there and work with these communities. And it has a lot to do with our funding.
Speaker 1: So one community we might work with do a number of projects. Then there might be a little, if there's no funding and then we might re-engage, we stay in conversation with them, but we're not out there doing site visits and as frequently if there isn't a budget for it, but I [00:19:00] don't think that we've ever said, no, we're not going to work with this community anymore on anything. We've never reached that point, but certainly solutions have evolved over time. Are there any of these communities, would you consider them indigenous people? Absolutely. I think that's one of the most interesting things about Nicaragua that's often not known outside of the country is that Nicaragua was colonized by the Spanish and the British at the same time and you have two fundamentally different histories on the Pacific [00:19:30] side and on the Caribbean side of the country you have much more homogenous population on the Pacific.
Speaker 1: The Spanish, we're sort of building a new empire, a new society, and their approach towards indigenous populations was particularly aggressive and resulted in almost total elimination of indigenous populations. Whereas on the Caribbean coast, the British just had a very different approach. They didn't want to build a large British colony. On the Caribbean coast, they were more interested in the geographic and strategic importance [00:20:00] of that territory. So they wanted control over it. They actually promoted certain indigenous groups on the coast to work for them. So the mosquito Indians were sort of chosen as the most sophisticated, the largest population. So they were given uniforms and armed and the Bible was translated into mosquito. Of course there was a lot of brutality and everything, but it wasn't an extermination policy as it was on the Pacific. And so you have a very different ethnographic history on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua has historically been largely indigenous.
Speaker 1: [00:20:30] And then since the time of the British colonization, afro descendant populations that that were brought over during the slave trade and some that different waves. And it's a very complex story. I can't really do it justice here. But on the indigenous side, there's believe seven or more indigenous groups on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, we interact primarily with three of them. So a lot of the communities we work in are indigenous communities. And then we also work with creole, which is one of the Afro [00:21:00] descendant groups. And Garifuna communities, which is a different effort to send an it group that are descended from escaped slaves. It's a very complex ethnographic history on the Caribbean coast, very ethnically diverse, multicultural, and that's part of the beauty of it and there's a certain strength in that. It's also part of the challenge because each of those communities has very different worldviews.
Speaker 1: Is there linguistic diversity within the cultural diversity? Still [00:21:30] there is a lot of linguistic diversity and in fact linguistic diversity is what is the pre blue energy story. That's what brings us to Nicaragua in the first place because our mother collector involved is a linguist who specializes in indigenous languages of the Americas in particular and she works on language documentation and revitalization and that's the work that actually brought her to Nicaragua in the early eighties and had [00:22:00] her working out on the Caribbean coast with the Rama people, which is one of the indigenous groups to the south of Bluefields with a language that was really unwritten and was dying out. Native Speakers where there was only a handful left to very old. And so our mother has spent, you know, it's been an ongoing project. It was very intensive during the 80s but it still continues on to this day, continuous generation of new content where she wrote a dictionary, she wrote the syntax and then she's been creating pedagogical materials, [00:22:30] books about the birds and the plants and things that are important to people there.
Speaker 1: So that's deeply ingrained in our fabric, both as people, but also I think in the organization of blue energy where we came in thinking more about technical solutions, but we have this history and this, this very important understanding that comes from her work. Really dealing with people and culture. The technologies that you're using, how many of them are you manufacturing locally and how many [00:23:00] do you have to import? So when we first started, we really came in with the idea that local manufacturing was central to what we wanted to do and that it was intrinsically good. We were focused again on the small scale wind turbines that we were committed to manufacturing right there in Bluefields. I think one of the key learnings that we've had is that local manufacturing certainly does have pros. You do get to create more local employment. You do get to build more local technical capacity.
Speaker 1: [00:23:30] Those remain true, but that you also have to look at the opportunity cost. If there's a very high precision part, for example, if your machine that needs to be built, if you can't meet the quality standards locally to be able to consistently produce that part within those specifications, but you continue with the local production anyways. What's you're doing is you're creating a future cost. Your maintenance services will need to be greater in the coming years. And in an environment like the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua [00:24:00] where maintenance can be very expensive because it's hard to get places, it's hard to train people to do certain kinds of technical work. You might actually be creating a quite large future cost. And so I think we got more realistic and a deeper understanding of what the pros and the cons of local manufacturing where. And one of the things we came to realize with the small scale wind turbines we were producing was that given sort of the fractured market on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, [00:24:30] we couldn't produce a high enough volume of the units to justify the kinds of investments in setting up the manufacturing and managing quality control that would be required to guarantee that every unit coming off the assembly line was in top shape and wasn't creating future problems for the organization.
Speaker 1: That in addition to some other issues of there being a lower wind resource than we had expected and the price of solar coming down dramatically in the last 10 years. And essentially in most cases out competing [00:25:00] small scale wind except in the best wind sites. We decided in 2011 to actually cease producing small scale wind turbines. And at that time we also took just a deep look at all the different technologies that we were working with. So what we have today is it's a mix. You know, we don't try to manufacture solar panels, we don't try to manufacture inverters. Let's buy a high quality internationally available inverter. And let's put our focus [00:25:30] on other things where we could have a greater impact. So on the electricity side, most of the components are off the shelf. And then what we do is we do the design, the need assessment, how many inverters do you need, what size, what size, solar panels, what kind of solar panels?
Speaker 1: Right? We do that work, assemble it all, and then we do some local building of components like the structural house of the system. For example, for other technologies like [00:26:00] the Bio sans water filter, like the cookstove, the designs that we're working with, there's a huge gain for local manufacturer. From a technical standpoint, they're very easy to manufacture, so they don't compare to trying to build a solar panel or a wind turbine. So when you do an analysis there, you realize that makes perfect sense to manufacturer the water filter locally in Bluefields. And so we do that. We have a shop space where we manufacture all those water filters locally. Cookstove similar issue. [00:26:30] It's largely built from locally sourced materials, different kinds of mud and rock and things that we've worked hard to identify in the region that we can optimize and so again it wouldn't make sense to try to bring that in from China or
Speaker 4: even the capital city. Makes sense to manufacture that locally.
Speaker 2: [inaudible] to learn more about blue energy, visit their website, blue energy group.org in part two Mathias [00:27:00] discusses adapting technologies, technologies he would like to work with and the future of blue energy. Now Rick [inaudible] present some of the science and technology events happening locally
Speaker 4: over the next two weeks on May 20th Science Festival Director Kashara Hari Well Interview Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of freakonomics superfreakonomics and now think like a freak as part of a Commonwealth club program [00:27:30] at the Castro theater four to nine Castro street at market in San Francisco. The new book aims to help show how to use economics to analyze the decisions we make, the plans we create and even the morals we choose. Tickets. Start at $10 for more information, visit Commonwealth club.org carry the one radio are hosting a free event on Thursday May 29th doors at six 30 show at seven [00:28:00] to produce the program. Sound off at Genentech Hall on the ucs F Mission Bay campus, 616th street in San Francisco. Sound off, we'll feature Dr Kiki Sanford, who we'll interview three scientists. First, UC Berkeley is Dr. Frederick. Loosen well, discuss communication, sound processing. Then ucsfs. Dr. John Howard explores the role of auditory feedback in speech.
Speaker 4: Finally, UC Berkeley's [00:28:30] Aaron brand studies the love songs from jumping spiders. email@example.com here's Rick Kaneski with a news story in a paper published in science on May 12th Amy Ogan, Benjamin East Smith and Brooke middly of the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington report that a marine ice sheet claps is potentially underway for the Thwaites [00:29:00] glacier basin in west Antarctica. The ice sheet has been long considered to be prone to instability. The team has applied a numerical model to predict glacier melt and they found that it is already melting. At a rate that is likely too fast to stop. The team predicts runaway collapse of the shelf and somewhere between 200 and 900 years in nature and news is summary of the paper. Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds called it a seminal work saying [00:29:30] that it is the first to really demonstrate what people have suspected, that the Thwaites glacier has a bigger threat to future sea level. Then Pine Island music occurred during the show was written and produced. Alex Simon,
Speaker 3: thank you for listening to spectrum. If you have comments about the show, please send them to us via email or email address is firstname.lastname@example.org join us in two weeks at this same time.