The Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group is a new type of charity. They incubate sustainable businesses that tackle some of the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental needs by using smart sustainable technologies. Their founder and Executive Director, Peter Haas, took a few minutes to answer some questions from EcoGeek.
EcoGeek: What is The Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG)?
Peter Haas: AIDG is a new international development charity that is focused on incubating small-scale enterprises for renewable energy, sanitation and water systems for rural villages. We work through a combination of education, outreach and business incubation to create a sustainable set of services that provide for the infrastructure needs of villages whose populations make between 2 and 4 dollars per day.
EG: Where are AIDG enterprises located?
PH: Right now we are working in Guatemala in a region within about a 150-mile radius of Quetzaltenango, which is in the northern part of Guatemala up near the Mexican border, and we are just starting to work in Haiti. Our operation in Guatemala runs one business called Xela Teco (pronounced Shay-la Teco), our first business, which is focused on hydroelectric systems, bio-gas, solar systems, water treatment and water pumping. Our next business in Haiti is going to be focused primarily on bio-gas. We also plan on starting a few smaller businesses in Guatemala focused on other appropriate technologies.
EG: When was AIDG formed?
PH: AIDG was formed in 2004 but didn’t really get started until January of 2005 when we got our nonprofit status. We did our first outreach project in the highlands of Guatemala in April of 2005 and by August of 2005 we started Xela Teco.
Xela Teco is a for profit company. We provide training, tools, equipment and very low interest loans.
EG: How did you start Xela Teco?
PH: We started in 2005 with a group of young engineers we found in the Quetzaltenango region who were either unemployed or extremely underemployed. Many of them had substantial technical training but there were absolutely no jobs or opportunities for them. To give you an example, one of our electronics workers had been supporting himself primarily by weaving, and our hydroelectric engineer had been working in an unrelated field.
What we have found is the capacity of local talent in places like Haiti and Guatemala is substantial. There is an incredible amount of human capital that is completely untapped. The problem is not a lack of talent in these places, the problem is a lack of opportunity.
EG: Xela Teco is a for-profit business. Have there been any surprises by working in the open market? What sells?
PH: Right now, micro-hydro power and biogas are popular. We also have developed wind power, and efficient, clean-burning wood stoves.
EG: Let's talk about your recent expansion into Haiti. What is your business focus there?
PH: We are starting a project in Cap-Haïtien, the second largest city with a population of 500 – 800 thousand. Only about 30% of the residents have access to real sanitation. Right now solid waste goes directly into the ocean or into canals that wash into the ocean. We are working with the mayor’s office there, Oxfam and a couple of local NGOs to develop a municipal scale treatment center outside of the city. We are going to provide a solid waste treatment plant and the supporting infrastructure for a larger percentage of the population. Our goal is to create a municipal scale biogas production facility and use smaller scale biogas for areas where our infrastructure can’t reach. There are places in Cap-Haïtien where latrines are used but they are just a few feet above the water table and people have wells directly next to the latrines. This creates contamination and disease. We are working to develop appropriate scale biogas in these places.
EG: How do you think you can make money providing sanitation?
PH: Our goal for this and all of our projects is that the businesses we incubate should be able to support themselves within their local economy. We have a very low lending rate. We are not looking to make a lot of money, we're looking to provide a service. The question is whether the business can make enough money to sustain itself. Right now there are people making their livings off of cleaning latrines. They do this with just shovels and wheelbarrows. They go into the latrine waste deep in excrement and they shovel it into a wheelbarrow. They drag the material off to a pit or they drag it to the ocean and dump it there. Our goal is to help them organize their business and to get better equipment so that they can process more latrines at a lower cost and to make some beneficial use of the material.
Bio-gas made from the waste is something we can sell to local industry such as pottery kilns. Profit from the sale of gas will help the bottom line.
EG: Where will AIDG be in 5 years?
PH: I hope AIDG will be a multi-regional international charity. Operating is several sub-tropic regions - Latin America, the Caribbean , South America, Africa and Oceana. And in each of those regions we will reach a point where we will have formalized our training techniques so that we can incubate several enterprises that will have greater skill sets to draw upon. For instance there has already been interest to develop multi-discipline enterprises like Xela Teco in Haiti. We hope that eventually as we develop as an organization we will be able to incubate different businesses to respond to the pronounced needs in many different regions.
EG: What are your most pressing needs?
PH: Access to funding and financiers, and connections to industry and people who have experience with community scale infrastructure. Some international development charities started with significant resources. We are a grassroots organization. Xela Teco began with $800.00 and a bag of tools.
We are starting to improve our funding base. We’ve found that foundations are very conservative in their investing strategy. Individual donors are the people who make investments in new and risky and exciting enterprises like AIDG. Our goal is to spread the word about us to attract the attention of some of those private donors who might be interested.
EG: How can EcoGeeks help?
PH: One of the biggest things EcoGeeks can do to help is by promoting the idea of design for the other 90%. This is an area that global fortune 500 profit making world ignores. There are not a lot of companies designing things for people who make only a few dollars per day.
I believe more people thinking these problems and designing things that benefit these people, will be a great help. Finding new ways of getting new sustainable technologies out there and actually investing in new companies to get things out there will also help. With more minds working on the problem it is more likely that poverty is going to go away in the next 100 years. I’m a firm believer that we have all the tools and resources we need to eliminate abject poverty – to get rid of the terrible grinding stuck at the base wage level poverty. As a global society we are going to see the end of poverty within the next 100 to 150 years. One of the things that is really going to help make this change is investment in companies that produce products that help people who are at that base income level in the same way that scores of products are made for people living at the level of people in the U.S. and Europe.
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