Julene Guerrier’s two children rushed to finish their homework before sundown in Thoman, Haiti. Once sunlight is gone for the day, most of the modest homes in the mountain village rely on candles or kerosene lamps for light.
But thanks to a simple and portable solar panel system installed on her roof, life has drastically changed for Julene and her family. The system harvests energy from the sun during the day and then provides power for lights and mobile phones inside their home. A similar solar-powered solution enables her to use a sewing machine and earn an income to support her family.
“I am so, so happy for the solar-powered sewing machine,” she said.
The solar solutions stemmed from the innovative vision of an engineer at our company, Jake Smith, during his years as an electrical engineering student at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Once you hear the story of people in Haiti and the history of what the country has gone through, it just grabs you,” Jake said. “It’s tough – they’ve got limited food, water and power.”
Electricity is unreliable in Thoman. Many children don’t go to school, and some are malnourished because their parents can’t afford food.
“Life is difficult here,” Julene said through an interpreter. “Many people would like to go to a professional school to learn professions, but they don’t have access to them. Many people would like to live better, but they don’t have money. I would like to see more people have solar-powered sewing machines in order to make money by sewing.”
The solar-powered solution brings opportunity — not only for more homework time, but also for Julene to provide for her family and help those in her community.
“If somebody has a dress that is too big, I can make it smaller,” she said. “I can also charge phones for people if we don’t have city power.”
Designing a simple solar-powered prototype
Jake was a junior studying electrical engineering at Georgia Tech when he overheard a small group of students talking about plans to make a solar-powered system for Haitians. He felt compelled to help.
He became a member of the Haiti Solar Initiative, a program at the university that’s focused on the development and distribution of the Relay, the solar-powered lighting and charging device that would eventually be installed at homes like Julene’s. Research for the Haiti Refugee Hut Nanogrid Project was partially funded by our company’s University Program.
The group assembled a prototype with a simple circuit design and planned to train Haitian salespeople how to install it, aiming to create more jobs in the region.
“We showed this to several Haitian entrepreneurs and compared it to more sophisticated commercial products, and they’d always pick the simple prototype,” Jake said. “At first, I didn’t understand why – this is just a box with a couple of holes in it. But I finally figured it out: It’s because there’s nothing fancy about it.”
Creating the user-friendly Relay design, which features four TI parts on the circuit and a simple interface with a USB connection, was the easy part. The real challenge was distributing it in Haiti.
“The design took a day,” Jake said. “Figuring out how to make it work for Haiti took a year.”
Creating a sustainable business
Jake and the Haiti Solar Initiative team quickly realized that to make the Relay successful, people who knew the country well had to sell it.
“I was trying to find a way I could make a change,” said Ghaly Nicolas, who jumped at the chance to sell the Relay when approached by an administrator at his school, Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haïti. “Now I can really make a difference. This program changed my mind about how I can help Haiti.”
Business owners like Ghaly receive the device from the Haiti Solar Initiative at a price that’s less than the cost to build it and then sell it at a high enough price to turn a profit. All funds from sales are then pumped back into the program to keep it growing.
“We want to be able to create sustainable businesses around this device that are Haitian-run and simply focused on getting electricity to these rural regions,” Jake said. “One hundred percent of the money goes back into the program.”
’It saved us a fortune’
For Stan Buckley, executive director of But God Ministries, a larger solar-powered system designed by the Haiti Solar Initiative saved his organization more than $50,000 per year – money that once paid for continual diesel generator power for their community center in Thoman.
The organization’s Hope Center – which provides everything from food, medical care and home construction to Bible studies and job training for Haitians – now has electricity through a large-scale Relay installation on the building. The organization is raising funds for another large-scale installation on a community center it runs in Galette Chambon, Haiti.
“It saved us a fortune in generator fuel costs,” Stan said of the Relay technology. “That’s money we could be using to treat patients and do real ministry. If the sun’s out – and in Haiti, it’s always out – we have electricity and can function.”
No development without energy
Since joining our company, Jake has continued to work with the Haiti Solar Initiative to improve and distribute the solar devices.
“One of the reasons I’m at TI is because of the company’s commitment to philanthropy and giving back,” Jake said. “I’m very happy to be working at a company that encourages me to follow my passion for volunteering.”
As a result of his outstanding commitment to the community, Jake was recognized as a finalist for our company’s TI Founders Community Impact Award, which honors our company’s founders and their long history of philanthropy and volunteerism in communities where we live and work. He has installed solar panels all over Thoman — in homes, schools, dental clinics and churches that double as community centers.
Every time the Relay team delivers more devices to Haiti, they sell out within a couple of weeks. More than 50 devices have been installed in the country. But Jake hopes to install many more and bring a brighter future to families like Julene’s.
“We need more solar panels,” Ghaly said. “There is no development without energy.”