By Max Levin
In May 2007, the government of Costa Rica announced the ambitious goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. Though Costa Rica has a rather large head start on alternative energy – 78 percent of its electricity is generated by hydropower dams, another 18 percent from wind or geothermal power – the nation also faces economic and infrastructure challenges. Despite its status as a regional leader in stability and prosperity, Costa Rica still has poor rural areas almost untouched by development, and its GDP per capita is less than four times that of the United States.
Its progressive policy coupled with its still-developing infrastructure make Costa Rica a terrific candidate for leapfrog innovation. On a recent trip to San Jose, I checked out a couple of local renewable energy enterprises in search of innovative new ideas.
Two particularly innovative projects from startup Inti Tech Solar caught my eye. The small Costa Rica-based company, which launched in 1999, is still a small-time operation. But with projects in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama and two ideas with global potential for scalability, Inti Tech could soon see its operations expand greatly.
The first idea that caught my eye is a plan to repurpose transoceanic containers as classrooms for indigenous peoples in Central America. In Inti Tech's words:
Lack of education is an obstacle for the advancement of indigenous people. The Internet is recognized as an indispensable modern vehicle in the process of education. However, access to and knowledge of the Internet are almost non-existent in these communities. Nevertheless, it is possible to provide them education on the Internet by using transoceanic containers as classrooms and photovoltaic systems to power computers and classroom electrical needs.
The containers can be transported by helicopter or truck the indigenous communities already stocked with the complete necessary equipment: solar panels, inverter, batteries, generator for a back-up, laptops, satellite dish, desks and chairs. Inti Tech would install and ready each classroom.
By reducing costs and creating a user-friendly end product, Inti Tech may be able to bring advanced educational resources and connectivity to underserved rural areas in an easy-to-replicate package. The build-up of surplus containers has become an environmental problem in many locations (as well as an embarrassing reminder of trade deficit), and turning the waste problem into essentially a prefab building will reduce the cost of material and labor necessary to construct a school. The uniformity of transoceanic containers should accommodate a process for building out and installing the classroom components that's standardized and streamlined. And with basic training in troubleshooting, the indigenous communities that receive the prefab schools should be capable of monitoring and maintaining the systems with little additional help.
A second project in the works at Inti Tech targets another population that could greatly benefit from basic technology: subsistence farmers in far-flung rural areas. These communities, which according to Inti Tech make up most of the country's indigenous population, live outside the grid and with limited access to transportation. The crops that they grow are useful for feeding their immediate families, but the farmers lack a reliable means of taking their crops for sale elsewhere, and thus remain confined to subsistence.
Inti Tech's idea is to create solar-powered crop drying and packaging systems that could be purchased for shared use by an entire community. The machinery, powered by a readily available renewable source, would allow these farmers to turn perishable crops into products with a shelf life that can be transported for sale.
As chronicled in C.K. Pralahad’s Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, bringing technology to rural populations could lead to the empowerment of needy communities while presenting a viable business opportunity for technology companies. Indian companies EID Parry and ITC Group — through investments in internet technology and crop-weighing machines, and greater connectivity and improved agricultural techniques — have shown the potential viability of such projects.
Both of these projects remain in the development phase, and implementing them will require solutions to some significant obstacles. Most immediate is the issue of funding, particularly because Inti Tech recognizes that most rural communities lack the means to finance such projects. Inti Tech plans to pursue startup funding from philanthropies and aid organizations, in the hopes that once they can prove a record of success, they can make a case for government funding. Another option is to encourage rural communities to seek micro-finance loans that would allow them to fund the projects.
Large obstacles notwithstanding, it is encouraging to see a startup company pursuing creative and resourceful solutions to distribute useful technologies and improve the quality of life for those most in need. I look forward to following Inti Tech's progress, and to watching other similar companies seize the opportunity for innovation.
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Max Levin is a first year law student at Georgetown Univeristy Law Center. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the American University of Paris and has worked as a researcher in sustainable futures consulting at Adaptive Edge. He can be reached at MCL79@law.georgetown.edu.
Photo credit: flickr/9.81 meters per second squared, Creative Commons license.
"Despite its status as a regional leader in stability and prosperity, Costa Rica still has poor rural areas almost untouched by development, and its GDP per capita is less than four times that of the United States."
Less than four times that of the United States? Did you mean to write "more than four times less than that of the United States"?