Mathias Craig, Part 2 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
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Speaker 4: Hi listeners, my name is Brad Swift. I'm the host of today's show this week on spectrum. We present part two of two with our guests, Mathias Craig Co, founder and executive director of Blue Energy. Blue Energy is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization working among the Caribbean coastal communities of [00:01:00] eastern Nicaragua to help connect them to energy, clean water, sanitation, and other essential services. Monte has, Craig is an engineer by training from UC Berkeley and MIT. He talks about what he and blue energy have learned about adapting and localizing technology through projects they undertake with remote isolated communities. Monte has also talks about the future of applied technologies and blue energy in developing areas. Here is part two. [00:01:30] As you work with the technologies that you choose from, how much are you changing those technologies? Are you able to feed back to the people who are actually manufacturing and designing those things?
Speaker 1: When we started the organization, we thought of ourselves as sort of a technology creator. When we started working with small scale wind power locally manufactured small scale wind turbines, you know, we were early pioneers in that working with the earliest pioneers like Hugh Pigott, as I had mentioned in another group up in [00:02:00] Colorado, went by the name other power. We really saw ourselves as the primary design. We spent a lot of time. We did design workshops, we did a lot of cad drawings and we were really deep into the technology when we thought that technology was going to be 80% of what we could contribute. What we learned a number of years later was that that's not where we can add the most value. There's a lot of people around the world that can work on technology that had better setups and more experience, more resources to throw at the problem, and we needed to leverage [00:02:30] that.
Speaker 1: That was one key realization. Now, on the other end of the spectrum though, we know that just taking technology from around the world and plugging it in never works. It's a lot of romance about that, but the reality is there's tweaking. There's adaptation that has to take place generally not with a cell phone, not with a pencil against her self-contained units, but with systems. These are systems, not products generally and for that you need adaptation and so we started thinking ourselves as technology [00:03:00] tweakers or packers, hackers or we use the word localize a lot to mean not inventing, but how do you take something that is successful somewhere else in a completely different context or if you get lucky, you find something that's operating in a relatively similar context and you say, okay, what needs to change for that to be effective where we are?
Speaker 1: We have a ton of examples of this and we found we're very good at this and it's a place where we can add a tremendous amount of value. One example is you have [00:03:30] the mayor's office in Bluefields, which is where we're, we're operationally headquartered there on the Caribbean coast has a lot of requests for latrines to be installed for the communities. It's very poor sanitation in the area. They want to comply with that request. Right now there's thousands of latrine designs out there. How does a severely under-resourced government office figure out which one is going to be appropriate for the local context? The answer is they can't and it's just paralysis there and that's an example of where [00:04:00] we've built very strong partnerships and where we can add a ton of value. We can do that study, we can look at the designs, we can go visit a design in Honduras and check it out and say, oh, this design Central America.
Speaker 1: Certain cultural similarities. Certain cultural differences can be very different environment, so let's try it out, but it seems promising. Let's test it for a year and let's study. Let's study the the decomposition of the waste. Is it working? Is it not working? And we did a pilot a few years ago looking at a solar latrine where [00:04:30] you you use passive solar heating, sort of greenhouse effect to help decompose the waste faster. We thought it was very promising. It didn't work in Bluefields because very high humidity, the rainiest part of the country and it didn't work like in the highlands of Honduras, but we saved a ton of money by studying that for a year rather than going out and building a thousand units because there was demand for latrines, so we did a lot of work on that. We've done that now with the water filters, with the well [00:05:00] drilling techniques and technology done that with cookstoves biodigesters everywhere in the technology portfolio.
Speaker 1: I'd say we've had a hand in localizing the technology, adapting it and seeing what's going to work and then helping to roll it out slowly. At the end of last year we built our first latrines and built 55 latrines. We'd been studying and working on the trains for over two years. And one of the key elements of being able to do that technology localization are [00:05:30] the students and the international fellows that come work with us on the ground for either short term programs in the summer summer fellows that come in or longer term fellows that come for three months, six months or a year and work with us on adapting the technology. So behind that latrine program of two years, they was, you know, over half dozen students that did research that contributed to their schoolwork on campus and pushed the design forward. [00:06:00] So that's part of our global leadership program. They get the benefit of learning what real technology design is like in the field and learn about that social element that they don't hear about in class generally.
Speaker 1: And what we get is we get to move along sort of the r and d side of things. And do you have a good relationship with local governments? Is that one of the things you try to cultivate? Yes, and I think that's something that sets us apart from a lot of nonprofit organizations in development, [00:06:30] generally speaking, but also in Nicaragua's, we've chosen to engage the government directly. The government in some form is what is going to be there and is representative of the people's will in some form. There's always challenges and just like we have in this country about how representative is it, et Cetera, but at the end of the day, it's the ultimate authority in the region and so if you choose to go around it and not engage it as many organizations do, we feel that you severely [00:07:00] limit the potential for your longterm impact. So we engage directly.
Speaker 1: It's not always easy and we engage at different levels. We engage the national government. We have an office in Managua and the capital city where we're in constant contact with the ministries, with all levels of national governments. We engage there over on the coast. We engage with the regional government. We engage with the indigenous and creole territorial governments. It's a semi-autonomous region. [00:07:30] It's a very complex governance structure in the country, but we engage at all those levels. To discover what their plans are, to help build capacity where we can, you know, we learn and we teach. And then in the best cases to coordinate, you know, we've done a project with the Ministry of Health. We work with the Ministry of Health, the local nurse. We designed an energy system, install it, the Ministry of Health puts in the vaccine freezer and fills it with medicine and we both train the nurse. Well now that is a very [00:08:00] challenging collaboration to manage, but it leads to very big impact if you're willing to do it the right way.
Speaker 1: You know, one of our strongest partners is the municipal office of Bluefields, the municipal government, the mayor and his staff where we're collaborating on a number of initiatives both within the city of Bluefields and the surrounding communities around water and sanitation, around building a biodigester for the slaughter house so that all that animal waste will cease to be dumped into the river untreated [00:08:30] and will actually become a useful byproduct of methane for cooking. And how many may oriel administrations have you dealt with in the Bluefield? There's been sort of three that we've worked with. Nicaragua is a highly polarized country, politically even more so than the United States. You know, we like to think where the extreme example, but not even close. When you look at the world that Greg was highly political and highly polarized. And when I say highly political, meaning that many [00:09:00] government functions and the services that they deliver are dictated by political affiliations.
Speaker 1: So the risk of engaging as we do is that you end up on one side or the other and we're on the side of civil society. We want to help strengthen Nicaragua and strengthen the population of Nicaragua regardless of political affiliations. And so in our internal policies, that's very clear. We work with different political parties and in fact we play a very big facilitator [00:09:30] role convening people who would never meet on their own. If we can get the PLC and the Sandinistas to sit down on a table and think about a water and sanitation issue where they politically cannot meet by themselves. We have broker meetings between u s government officials who can't officially sit down or meet directly with with sanity, still government officials because of US policy, but they can be in a meeting talking to us and that can be overheard. Conversations that can be very productive.
Speaker 4: [00:10:00] Spectrum is public affairs show on k a l x Berkeley. Our guest is Monte Craig Blue Energy Blue Energy is a nonprofit working along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
Speaker 1: Are there technologies out there that you'd love to use, are introduced that you just can't really approach? [00:10:30] Oh absolutely. There's a very clear answer to that. For me, it's mobile payments outside of blue energy. Last year I was part of a Fulbright nexus program, a relatively new program. They launched looking at issues of entrepreneurship, climate change and energy in the Americas. So with 20 of us scholars last year and one of the topics I was investigating was pay as you go solar micro grids or home solutions as a new way of opening up access to electricity [00:11:00] to more remote populations in a cost effective way. And it's very powerful, but it hinges on a few technologies. One is the mobile phone. That's going pretty well already. It's exploding worldwide. Nicaragua has pretty good coverage on a population basis, on a geography basis. That's not great in particular in the region we work in because it's isolated and low population density, so not a strong incentive for the network providers, but it's still coming.
Speaker 1: It's coming and every year is, oh, there's one more cell tower. The communities are getting connected [00:11:30] piece by piece, so that's great. Now if you can layer this concept of mobile payments on top of the cell phone network, it allows you to think of lots of creative ways of delivering your services more cost effectively. For example, if you designed the communal energy system, you can envision a system where somebody has a cell phone, they have a payment application on the cell phone, they make a small payment, you know, a couple of cents. They can pre buy a certain amount of energy and then you have a remote control meter [00:12:00] on their charge controller in their home that you can activate through the cell phone network. So they pre-buy, you receive your money digitally, you turn on their system and provide them x number of units of energy that they pre-bought and when it runs out it goes off the operates.
Speaker 1: Just like the cell phone and most of the world, they don't have plans, monthly plans, you pre-buy credit, you use them when you're out of credit, you can't make a call. You could do the exact same thing with energy. If you had this mechanism and in a place like the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua where the cost of making a payment [00:12:30] is often as much or more than the payment because you have to take a long boat ride and if it's rainy you could take your days and you have to buy fuel and if you could just do that over your cell phone, you reduce the transaction costs tremendously, which opens up just a ton of new solutions. You know, microfinance, which is taken off all around the world. One of the biggest challenges on the Korean coast in Nicaragua is in microfinance. What people are doing is they're making micropayments over a long period of time, 12 months, 18 months, multiple years in some cases.
Speaker 1: [00:13:00] But if paying a dollar costs you $2 to make the payment, it all breaks down. If you could make a $1 payment for a couple pennies on your mobile phone, and that's not to mention the traceability, you get digital records of all transactions in a place where it's very hard to collect information. You can also envision it as a mechanism to push back a lot of information to the user. For example, they could remind them to perform maintenance on their batteries rather than sending [00:13:30] a technician out there to check the batteries. Very easier to train somebody how to check the batteries. The problem is they forget to do it, so if you could send them a text every couple months, check the water level on your batteries could have powerful implications in terms of the cost effectiveness of the life cycle of that system for very cheap. That's the one, it's just to me that would revolutionize how we work and I think that the barrier is mobile payments are starting to take off around the world, particularly in east Africa, parts of Southeast Asia [00:14:00] where the underpinning technology platform is strong enough of the cell phone network and government regulation or non regulation is incentivizing in one way or another.
Speaker 1: The creation of those payment systems. There are a few starting to pop up in Central America, but central and Latin America is very far behind the innovation that's been happening in Africa and in Nicaragua in particular. It's just getting off the ground as one initiative and Pesto in the capital city of Managua, [00:14:30] but it's not clear when or how they're going to expand to a more national network. If that's not something that blue energy will create. It's something we can advocate for and speak about, but ultimately we're sort of waiting for that next wave of innovation and technology to come out there so that we can build our services on top of it. Do you have any insights or challenges for engineers out there building technologies that you could potentially use? Like the latrines and solar [00:15:00] and wind? Absolutely. I mean, I think that engineers, especially at fancy institutions like Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT, are often sort of skewed towards thinking about flashy, shiny, new high tech things, which are very fun and exciting and can have an impact on their own, right?
Speaker 1: But if you're thinking about engineering and technology for the developing world, it is my belief now that you can have a much bigger impact [00:15:30] by looking at simpler technologies and making incremental gains on those. It's not a sexy, right? I mean, studying latrine for multiple years, you're like, how complicated is a latrine? Right? It doesn't have a ton of moving parts. It's from an engineering perspective, it's a little boring, frankly, but there is surprisingly a ton of work to localize the technology to have it create impact and people's first reaction is, hmm, that sounds kind of boring. Second reaction is we ought to be able to figure that out quickly, but that's not true. You know, haven't latrines been figured out? [00:16:00] Aren't there already latrine designs? Absolutely. And there's latrines that work very well in specific contexts and the challenge is not to go and vent a brand new latrine if you're doing that good for you and maybe you'll invent the best one ever.
Speaker 1: But for the majority of engineers out there, we don't need all of them going out there and renting a new latrine. Most of them, I believe could be most productive if they want to work in the development space to think about the process of localizing technology that already exists fundamentally in other [00:16:30] places and doing the tweaking. When you're in the field and you're working with people and you've seen the impact it's creating, it's very exciting and that's what the summer fellows we receive from. We have a partnership here with UC Berkeley, with the cal energy core, four of their fellows come and work with Berliner g every summer. You can ask them. It's a very rewarding experience and a very exciting experience that doesn't look very exciting on paper. Studying latrines for example, but you get out in the field see the impact. Make the progress and learn the social dimensions which ultimately [00:17:00] are the most critical, so I think a lot of the opportunity for creating impact if you're a young engineer is be willing to get your hands dirty, get out there in the field, understand that it takes time and focus on making a real meaningful contribution that's well documented and that builds on the previous person's work and that is prepared to interconnect with the next person who's going to come down.
Speaker 1: If you can achieve that, that's how you have a huge impact over time. You're not going come in in six weeks [00:17:30] and sign some brand new thing that's going to solve the water and sanitation problem in the developing world. Those solutions don't exist.
Speaker 5: [inaudible] you are listening to the spectrum KLX Berkeley Co founder and executive director of Blue Energy Matiaz Craig is our guest. Blue energy facilitates sustainable development in eastern Nicaragua.
Speaker 1: [00:18:00] Have you learned things about sustainability in your experience in Nicaragua that might reflect back on the developed world? I think that is one of the most critical things that I've learned in the last 10 years is that this really is a two way street. It's very arrogant for people from the quote unquote developed world to go into a poor community in the developing world. See, for example, that they don't have a sanitation solution and say, oh, [00:18:30] what they need. Obviously here is this kind of latrine, like you're an instant expert. Like they've never thought of this before and you're an expert. Why? Because you come from the developed world and you can lecture them and train them on sustainability and what do you really know about sustainability? Last 10 years have been very humbling. We in the United States, for example, as a country, don't live anywhere near sustainably, right?
Speaker 1: We're consuming resources just left and right. And one approach is to say, oh my gosh, I don't want to [00:19:00] be a hypocrite, so I'm not going to go help. And some people take that path. I know I'm not sustainable, so I'm not going to go help people be sustainable, but I don't think that's very productive. I think what is most productive is to engage in that process out there in the field with an explicit intent of thinking. What can you learn from that experience and how can you take that back to where you come from. That is now an explicit part of our model where we have really two initiatives. We have the community development side, which is the physical work that [00:19:30] gets done in Nicaragua and we have what we call the global leadership program, which is bringing people in in part to contribute to the community development work, but the longterm impact of the global leadership program is to build more awareness in those people who are going to go back to their home countries and be leaders in their community around issues of sustainability for example, and climate change and all these other critical topics because their greatest sort of point of leverage is back in their own community, right?
Speaker 1: [00:20:00] They can come contribute some in the field, learn something, but if they go on to be a mayor of their town, for example, like that's going to be a huge impact where a business leader in their community with a more heightened sense of awareness of these critical issues like sustainability work on greening initiatives in their town back in the developed world where we're burning through most of the world's resources. Right? I know that. I know I can have a much bigger impact by cutting my electricity consumption in half than I can by installing [00:20:30] a 50 watt solar panel in a remote community. From a global perspective, obviously locally, that 50 watt panel has a huge impact, so I think we have to approach this as a give and take. We can contribute in the field if we do it in an appropriate longterm way, and that we need to be open to that learning experience in the field and take that back in the developed world.
Speaker 1: I think that's vital. What are the future plans for blue energy? We made [00:21:00] a critical decision a couple of years ago that for our community development work, we're going to stay geographically concentrated. We're gonna stay focused on Nicaragua with a strong emphasis on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. We feel that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done there and we have 10 years of experience building relationships, understanding that the culture and society, the key ingredients we feel to actually having a meaningful impact and those are things that we've invested heavily in and we feel [00:21:30] that they don't scale very well and so we feel that if we were to expand geographically, we would have to change our model and work in a different way that would be less impactful. We'd have bigger numbers and less impact. We feel strongly that we can have the most impact by staying focused in this geography until every person on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua has access to basic sanitation, clean water and electricity.
Speaker 1: Why would we go work anywhere else? Was the question we finally asked ourselves then. Oh, right now [00:22:00] the way that we have an explicit model for creating impact beyond Nicaragua, it's through the global leadership program and there's different components to that. One I mentioned earlier was bringing in international people to work in Nicaragua, take that transformational experience back home with them and be agents of change in their own lives, in their own communities all around the world. The second component is the institution to institution strengthening. That's when we work with a local government office and train them on it tools [00:22:30] so that they can be more effective in their work. Or we work with another development partner and share technology, so it's a way to have an impact beyond any border, but it's not us going out and physically doing another project. And then the third one is sort of based on the practical action, which is one of the organizations I mentioned earlier that has been an inspiration to me is doing a better job of documenting case studies and the learning and publishing that experience documents that can be shared globally.
Speaker 1: We are often [00:23:00] requested people say, oh, I see you worked on, you know this bio sand filter. Can you tell me how it's gone? Well, right now that's a long conversation and we do that, but it's not very resource efficient. If we had really well written out, documented case studies of our experience, what worked, what didn't and why and publish that for the global community, I think that could have a big impact and how can people get involved in blue energy? Well, the first thing we need is to grow our support base financial support base. The number [00:23:30] one thing that people can do to help blue energy is to contribute financially to the organization because honestly we feel we have a model that's working very well. We have a very committed, dedicated staff and what we need to do is do more of what we're doing.
Speaker 1: The second thing is if you are a student or young professional who is looking to compliment traditional classroom education with experiential learning and personal learning and growth opportunities, you should take a look at our global leadership program. [00:24:00] There is a program fee associated with that that helps us run a professional program that is financially self-sustainable and helps fund the project work that you actually do in the field that has local impact. The primary opportunity for that if you're a current student is during the summer and if you're a young professional, we have longer term fellowship opportunities that range from three months to a year. Some of them requiring a two year commitment, but that's an opportunity to really get out there and go through the full cycle, you know, help develop, project, execute, analyze [00:24:30] it. At the end you get an opportunity to see the full picture and that's an opportunity for professional and personal growth that people again have leveraged for all sorts of future opportunities.
Speaker 1: And then the third thing is technology partnerships. Organizations that we can partner with that are champions of a particular technology, like the water filter for example, that we use. We learned that from an organization in Canada called cost c. A. W. S. T. They issue new plans every year. [00:25:00] We share back our design iterations with them so that it can be incorporated into the evolution of the plans. We're always looking for organizations like that. Just the caveat is we're looking for people that have a longterm commitment and are into design iteration. We're not necessarily looking for the flashiest new gadget that somebody just conceived of. We're looking more for long term technology partnerships. Matiaz Craig, thanks very much for being on spectrum. Thanks very much for having me. It was a pleasure.
Speaker 2: Okay.
Speaker 5: [00:25:30] To learn more about blue energy, visit their website. The URL is blue energy group.org spectrum shows are archived on iTunes university. We've created a simple link for you to get there. The link is tiny url.com/k a l [00:26:00] x spectrum.
Speaker 4: Now several science and technology events happening locally over the next two weeks in honor of its 40th anniversary. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center is sponsoring a series of lectures describing the research behind four Nobel prizes. The laureates are also longtime users of the national energy research. Scientific Computing Center is super computing resources. The last two lectures are being [00:26:30] held at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in June. These lectures are free. Tuesday, June 3rd mapping the universe. The Speaker is George Smoot of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley lab. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 for his work on the cosmic background explorer. The lecture will be in the building 66 auditorium, Tuesday, June 3rd noon to 1:30 PM then on Wednesday, June 11 [00:27:00] data computation and the fate of the universe Speaker as salt Perlmutter of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This lecture will be in Lawrence Berkeley lab building 50 auditorium, Wednesday, June 11th noon to 1:30 PM now we'll follow up on a previous spectrum news story.
Speaker 4: [00:27:30] The Berkeley News Center reports scientists working together on Kelp Watch 2014 announced today that the west coast shoreline shows no signs of ocean born radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Following their analysis of the first collection of Kelp samples along the western US coastline Kelp Watch 2014 is a project that uses coastal kelp beds as detectors of radioactive seawater arriving from Fukushima [00:28:00] via the North Pacific current. It is a collaborative effort led by Steven Manley, marine biology professor at California State University, Long Beach and Kai vetter, head of applied nuclear physics at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a nuclear engineering professor at the University of California Berkeley. The new results are from samples primarily collected from February 24th through March 14th our data does not show the presence of Fukushima radio isotopes [00:28:30] in west coast, giant kelp or bull kelp. Manly said these results should reassure the public that our coastline is safe and that we are monitoring it for these materials. At the same time, these results provide us with a baseline for which we can compare samples gathered later in the year. Information about the procedures and results including the results of the first samples analysis are available to the public at the website. Kelp watch.berkeley.edu the researchers [00:29:00] will continually update the website for public viewing as more samples arrive and are analyzed, including samples from Canada. The second of the three 2014 sampling periods is scheduled to begin in early July.
Speaker 4: The Muse occurred during the show was written and produced by Alex Simon.
Speaker 6: Thank you for listening to spectrum. [00:29:30] If you have comments about the show, please send them to us via email. Our email address is spectrum dot k a l email@example.com us in two weeks
Speaker 7: at the same time. [inaudible].