Shedding New Light
Meanwhile, that same day in Brazil, Fabio Rosa’s company began delivering energy to its first 70 rural families. His bright idea: Rent the sun. For the same money that those families spent on non-renewable energy sources like kerosene and batteries, they could rent basic solar panels, packaged with irrigation systems and electric fences. Expansion to nearly 800,000 families is the next goal.
From Fabio’s original entry:
Tell us what you do and the specific challenge you faced.
Fabio Rosa has spent the last twenty years bringing electricity to Brazil’s rural poor. When he was appointed Secretary of Agriculture of Palmares do Sul (a rural municipality in southern Brazil) at age 22, Rosa realized that lack of electricity was making farming significantly less productive, and causing people to flock to the cities in pursuit of a better life. Using inexpensive materials and simplified construction, Rosa reduced electrical distribution costs from $7,000 to $400 per household. Some, by irrigating their crops with electric water pumps increased their farm income 400 percent within a year. Most acquired showers, refrigerators, and televisions–luxuries that were previously unheard of. Two years after the project’s implementation, one in every three beneficiaries was someone who had returned from the city to resume living in his or her former rural area. Working with state electrical companies, Rosa spread his system to more than 40,000 people during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What was your moment of truth?
All Fabio’s successes seemed to have been reversed in the late 1990s, when Brazil hastily privatized its electric utilities. The new utility owners didn’t care about low-cost rural electrification because serving cities was much more lucrative. But Fabio knew his work was important because two billion people still lacked electricity. He learned that one billion of them could afford solar energy today at commercial rates–provided that they could rent it or pay it off in installments. Fabio became convinced that solar energy would prompt economic activity, improve education and health, decrease carbon emissions and relieve stress on overcrowded cities. So, in 2001, Rosa shot back with a new approach: renting solar energy to low-income people. He and his team, STA Agroeletro, conducted a study and found that almost 70 percent of the rural families interviewed spent at least $11 per month on non-renewable energy sources–kerosene, candles, and batteries. This was about the same amount needed to rent a monthly basic photovoltaic solar home system. Rosa made the system cost-effective by packaging it with productive tools–irrigation systems, electric fences and high-yielding organic farming methods. He obsessed over the details and studied the mistakes made by other solar-energy initiatives. He went so far as to include figures of saints on the box that contains the batteries, so that people would remember to pay attention.
What were the results?
In August 2003, Fabio launched a project called The Sun Shines for All, a for-profit venture to deliver solar energy to 6,100 rural families who lacked electricity but could afford to rent solar panels. Expansion to more than 775,000 properties will follow. Fabio is starting to receive recognition, including a $50,000 Tech Museum Award and a profile in the upcoming book How to Change the World (Oxford University Press). While energy companies have largely ignored rural people lacking electricity, Fabio Rosa’s decades-long commitment to the issue, combined with his innovative new approach, may just provide a feasible blue-print for the future.