There's an unfortunately predictable formula for infrastructure projects in developing countries: A well-intentioned nonprofit comes in, spends a small fortune installing promising equipment, then moves on or runs out of money. Inevitably, a screw comes loose, and with no one there to fix it, the whole project crumbles.
Peter Haas knows this better than most. He spent years after college volunteering on several continents—and watching too many projects collapse. "It just killed me to see these systems fail that I had the knowledge to repair and the people in the community didn't," he says. So in 2004, bored with his consulting job and aching to travel, he created an organization to incubate self-sustaining businesses that would make and service low-cost technologies in developing countries.
His nonprofit Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, or AIDG, opened its first company last August: XelaTeco, staffed by 10 local workers in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Ideally, XelaTeco will support itself with contracts from NGOs doing work in the area; already it has received a $20,000 contract from the United Nations Development Program to build a microhydroelectric system. And if the system needs parts and service, XelaTeco will do the job. When the shop turns a profit, it will repay AIDG the initial investment, and Haas will put that money into another manufacturing venture. He's scouting locations for a Haiti—Dominican Republic shop set to open in early 2007, followed by one in Thailand. The goal: a network that's continuously spawning new ventures—and a trail of infrastructure projects that never break down.
"There will be corporations who see [social responsibility] as a brilliant marketing opportunity. Does this mean all companies are sinisterly lurking behind their 'do-good' personas? No." —Vanessa Horwell
A version of this article appeared in the October 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.