With a central philosophy that “it’s not worth giving, it’s not worth selling, it’s worth constructing together,” Pierre is addressing the unmet needs of diverse impoverished rural and urban communities in northern Argentina for cleaner and cost-effective energy solutions, thereby improving their income, health, the environment and livelihoods.
The New Idea
As exemplified by his central philosophy, Pierre engages isolated and largely impoverished rural communities in a social mobilization effort that brings communities together to equip themselves with a powerful and appropriate model of green technology that is adapted to their daily routine and customs. For Pierre, the community members, almost 95% of whom are indigenous, are both the key beneficiaries and the central change agents. His initiative Solar Inti only helps provide the tools and context. His deep, empowering engagement consists of an extensive period in which communities embark on a self-diagnosis of their needs and in collaboration with Solar Inti select and create new technologies that are most suitable for their regular routines. Community members work with each other and Pierre to build new transportable kitchens with ecologically friendly appliances using solar energy. These are adapted for use by rural farmers, especially to their particular diet, and come with a “kit” that serves to enable their adaptation and integration into daily life. The rural residents provide basic disposable inputs, such as wood and glass, to build and maintain the tools—and even more importantly their collective energy.
Pierre’s approaches success lies in its close participatory interventions that place the individuals from the community as the protagonists. Solar Inti’s engagement with local communities are both deep and carefully planned, much more so than most projects of similar high caliber, and are unlike any technology program available in the isolated northwest of Argentina. Rather than seeking to implant a piece of equipment in a new community, Pierre works with the community to design and adapt into their daily lives one of a plethora of devices that he and Solar Inti’s associates have either identified or created. As the Solar Inti intervention goes on, the community members develop a new sense of cohesion with one another, relying on one another to help in the adoption and maintenance of their new equipment. This cohesion lasts long after Solar Inti winds down its active involvement in the community.
Because of the power of the deep interventions and centrality of community empowerment, Pierre and his network of supporters and associates believe that the Solar Inti concept is spreadable to many different contexts. At its root is a social model that focuses on community needs first and engages local actors with national and international partners to develop low cost, affordable solutions (e.g. for cooking, heating and power) that are fully integrated into the fabric of daily life. Pierre is not wedded to one technology—the crux is the intervention. To that end, he has developed an intriguing financial model with French companies and foundations enthusiastic about contributing to rural development in Argentina. They have also opened up new opportunities to replicate throughout the country, as well as elsewhere in Latin America, parts of Africa, and even Europe, following other leads that have expressed interest in the model. Pierre believes that the idea can extend to poor urban areas, where itinerant food vendors people cook and sell food and could rely on the transportable kitchens, with their only input being cardboard waste. At its heart, Solar Inti seeks to produce new agents of change who value the use of technology for social development.
In the highlands of rural Salta and Jujuy, in northwestern Argentina, local communities suffer from high levels of poverty and economic and social marginalization. The few roads that reach these communities are of poor quality and lack regular maintenance. There is little to no access to regular transportation, leaving the communities isolated from the major cities and economic centers of Argentina, especially during winter months.
Along with isolation from major transport these communities lack access to power grids. In particular, natural gas lines do not reach rural settlements, and rarely extend beyond the principal municipalities. 95% of the communities in which Pierre works lack access to the gas grid. Without gas lines, rural subsistence farmers must resort to other means of fuel to cook their meals. This is mainly firewood, the cheapest resource, that nonetheless incurs high social costs. Most lands are privately owned and off-limits to the rural families who live in the area, —and in many cases, because they are indigenous whose rights to property ownership the government has refused to recognize —forcing them to trek large distances to find wood for their cook stoves and endure back-breaking pain to carry it back. The toxic smoke derived from burning this wood in open-air cook stoves places women and children especially at risk of contracting severe respiratory problems; indeed, some 8 of out 10 people in this area suffer from acute or chronic lung disease. In many instances these individuals recognize the damaging effects to their health, but they feel helpless without any options, with few health facilities to serve them. Those which do exist in their communities are sometimes up to six hours away and function informally, without delivering adequate services.
The public utilities companies have little incentive to extend the gas lines to these “backwaters” along the Andes. Indigenous communities rarely vote and have little sway in the urban areas and politics. Given Argentina’s current economic condition, and the impoverishment of rural villages, the extension of the grid to these communities is even less likely.
Seeking to solve this problem with modern solutions, many universities, private CSOs and social enterprises and even the provincial governments have sought to implement new technologies to benefit the welfare of the rural peoples of Salta and Jujuy. Yet none have generated deep positive and lasting change. Research and experiments by universities have created ideas for new approaches, but they have lacked the leadership, budget and concrete plan to turn ideas into action. Technological solutions for sale in the market that could replace open-fire stoves by relying on renewable energy are priced far too high to be within the means of families in this region. Some charitable programs, sponsored by the provincial governments and many foreign CSOs have donated a series of parabolic solar cookers to the schools and other public institutions like hospitals in the Puna region. However, without any attempt at training, preparation or follow-through, the donated cookers haven’t been successfully adapted by a wary population, who on the whole have rejected the introduction of this equipment, especially as when they break, there is no one to service them.
A further challenge of the existing efforts to address the problems facing these communities has been that the technologies under discussion or donated to communities have not been appropriate for the customs of these communities themselves. The daily staples of the local diet in Salta and Jujuy includes many baked goods, such as empanadas, bread and other pastries, all of which require long times in the oven to prepare and considerable amounts of firewood or gas on a daily basis. Most of the stoves and appliances made available to these communities rarely are the appropriate cookware to produce the food that the farmers eat regularly. Faced with abandoning their lifelong diet of baked goods in order to employ a foreign technology, the farmers reject the new equipment. They recognize, though, the advantages that a new technology could offer, if it were appropriate for their customs and daily routines.
Pierre launched his CSO Solar Inti in 2008 with the vision that “the sun shines for all” to promote energy independence and improve the health and wellness of rural families and communities living in isolated areas of Argentina. Community participation is essential for the success of his approach. This is nurtured through a well-planned engagement in local communities upon invitation, with the entire process promoting bonds of cohesion that last long after Solar Inti’s direct involvement. Pierre began his work designing and deploying a number of different ecologically sound kitchen appliances in collaboration with local community members and national and international partners. He alliances among local and international resource experts from Chile, Uruguay and France to research and adapt multiple technologies for use among rural and communities. The communities themselves provided key input into their precise needs, and the equipment varied depending on the target population (women at home, schools, etc.).
Since beginning this work Pierre has been “technology neutral; that is, his methodology of training and empowerment is more essential to achieving his vision than the specific technology itself. He first started with a transportable solar cooker that he designed to use very few additional inputs—just a reasonable 6 kg of sheep or llama wool that the families contribute. This cooker expelled no smoke, reducing 50% of the normal monthly energy prices and saving 11 kilos of firewood a day for rural families. In subsequent years, Pierre started to design additional devices, including different sized solar cookers, bread ovens that produce 3 kilos of bread per 3 kilos of firewood, organic showers, solar dryers and other portable kitchens. All devices function on renewable energy and are created foremost with the end user in mind. To keep the costs low, Pierre works with the communities so that they can build the apparatuses themselves. To construct more complex technologies for home use, he and his team are investigating alternative materials to assemble and build in-house. Currently Solar Inti is exploring ways to outsource construction and boost the volume of technologies produced by identifying reliable, low-cost producers.
In addition to serving a key community need, the devices, though, are tools through which Pierre captures the attention of the communities. Solar Inti only starts a new project upon invitation from a community or a local CSO seeking the technology and workshops. Their engagement begins with an extensive diagnosis of the particular lifestyle and natural and social circumstances of each community through thorough listening tours and meetings with members of the community. In parallel, Pierre and his network also continue to tinker with technologies, designing and adapting new apparatuses to serve the various cooking and living needs of the populations with whom they are engaged. The next step is for communities to commit to a nominal investment of money and inputs, in the process committing themselves to the success of the installations. From initial contact to diagnosis to commitment of local resources can take up to six months – the length of time is necessary to ensure that the interventions are appropriate and will be long-lasting.
With local commitments made, Pierre organizes an initial workshop to demonstrate the use of the device in their day-to-day life. Usually some twenty-five to fifty community members participate at this pilot stage. He and his team present each device in intensive workshops of up to fifty community members, usually 7 women to every 3 men. Two official trainers and numerous resource personnel, both from the locality and from grassroots CSOs, and volunteers from other groups, take part in these workshops. These local organizations are critical partners who help Solar Inti access the communities and support the on-going training activities. Pierre is constantly hosting follow-up sessions and home visits to ensure that the families are employing the technology properly and that it has become a regular part of their kitchen routine. Documentation of this process and of the actual benefits of the technology is key for Solar Inti. After many of these sessions have occurred, the families fill out forms indicating the amount by which they reduced their investment of financial and physical resources through implementation of the new cookers or other devices.
Critically, the community members take on the coordinating role in holding follow-up and additional meetings and workshops, e.g. organizing problem-solving sessions, as well as exchanges of best practices and new recipes. The central focus of the approach requires that community members must be the agents of their own development who recognize the value and possibilities that this new equipment/technology offers them, and that they can rely on one another to incorporate appropriate technology into their lives. Solar Inti’s role diminishes, serving only as the host and convener of dialogue. The team trains certain families to perform the maintenance themselves and organize additional workshops. Some models of the apparatuses are sent to local schools to teach young people about the environment, health and appropriate technologies.
To mobilize resources for Solar Inti’s initiative, Pierre has built several novel partnerships with associations abroad. Solar Inti’s diverse portfolio of partners ranges from national and international foundations and businesses. Pierre first contacted colleagues from his previous work with foundations in France, and his former professor of chemistry in Nantes, who assisted in mobilizing local resources within France to invest seed capital in Solar Inti. These groups continue to support Solar Inti’s efforts. Additional support has come from another French foundation associated with the mining which has contributed to aiding communities in the far north of Jujuy near the Bolivian border. As the project took off, Pierre traveled back to France and raised additional funds from UN development agencies and private entities there. They were attracted to the clear value to the local communities that Solar Inti offered and the spirit of building a stronger Franco-Argentine relationship. Pierre and his associates have created a Solar Inti affiliate in France with a board and membership association that has so far successfully raised funds from corporations, foundations and individuals. Now, Pierre and his associates are looking to expand their support from among private French businesses, including one that sells “green” products, and private sector carbon credit traders to contribute CSR investments in the project, especially as he embarks on a new phase of expansion throughout the country and region.
The expansion of Pierre’s work with Solar Inti has occurred steadily over the first four years. Solar Inti has patiently and carefully increased its production, outreach and deployment of technologies, increasing to over 500 solar cookers last year fabricated and installed. He has hosted technology interventions in some 35 communities, addressing 2500 households.
Pierre is now at exciting yet challenging inflection point, as he must begin to adjust their approach to meet the increasing demand. Until now, he and his small team were directly engaged with all communities, conducting all workshops, and were limited to hosting only host a few per month due to the intensiveness of the design and the physically exhausting conditions working in the highlands of Argentina. While to date Pierre and Solar Inti have already trained and equipped three teams of trainers to meet the increasing demands from communities clamoring to work with Solar Inti, the demand for their work has grown such that Pierre is now focusing on building new train-the trainer models,
Growth opportunities for Solar Inti have developed rapidly. Pierre has received significant interest from around the region in spreading the methodology, and has already conducted some initial workshops and installations in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and even shared materials with a workers organization in Mexico. A French trade conference of green businesses has invited him to present the results of Solar Inti later this year. Furthermore, his small team working with the French branch of Solar Inti is pursuing new opportunities for installations and trainings in rural France among farmers who have been hit especially hard by the European financial crisis and seem like strong potential users of the equipment. He is at the same time concerned about increasing impact within Argentina, and this year plans to launch workshops in Neuquén, a province in Patagonia. Pierre also thinks that poor urban populations could benefit from a tailored model of the project. The University of Buenos Aires recently invited him to adapt the Solar Inti model to produce transportable solar cookers and implement the methodology with families living in the crowded slums, which often are also off the gas grid and whose residents often collect scrap cardboard that could serve as fuel for the cookers. Because Solar Inti relies on the families as the agents of their own change and a wide range of devices, the model is quite versatile and can be adapted to many different contexts.
Pierre was born in a small rural farming town in France, where his mother cooked and grandmother worked at a hotel restaurant. He grew up loving to explore the countryside, play in his mother’s garden, and smell the flavors of the kitchen, where he started to work at the age of 12. At 15, he moved to the city of Nantes to study physics, mathematics and biology, and later entered the college of engineering to complete a degree in agronomy. While completing his coursework, he completed an internship at the Nantes Biscuiterie, studying the reactions of children to new flavors and products. Because the children lacked the complex vocabulary to describe these tastes, Pierre developed a new teaching method for them to articulate themselves. This led him to study marketing and management, and upon graduation, he opened a consulting firm in land development.
In his consultancy, Pierre specialized in the evaluation of public policies and analysis of rural innovation projects, called the LEADER Program. He traveled throughout France to conduct surveys, and later throughout Europe. Exposed to new cultures and wanting to facilitate more exchanges, Pierre started to host small barter events, where people could bring small tokens from their culture and exchange them with other goods. These barter events started to become regular weekly exchanges and later served as profound influences on Pierre’s worldview.
Attracted to world exploration, Pierre decided to take a sabbatical and travel. As a service for exchange in one barter exercise, a mentor began to teach Pierre Esperanto, a language that would help him, according to the teacher, communicate with people across the world. Pierre traveled to Russia and lived with locals he met through Esperanto networks. Then he moved to Mongolia, where he lived with nomads in yurts and changed his vegetarian diet to accommodate the local cuisine. Pierre found opportunities to engage with people who speak Esperanto across Asia, spending time in China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, before going to New Zealand, Chile and finally Salta in Argentina. In all of these places, Pierre began to learn new crafts and share opportunities with his hosts by organizing little exchanges. When his wanderings took him to Salta, Pierre fell in love with the culture and social life of the people in Salta, and ended up staying to work at the Siwok Foundation, where he was helped to design a museum that would conserve traditional lifestyles through documentary films. During one film shoot in a house, he was shocked to discover the amount of toxic smoke from their cook stove that the women and children breathed. Concerned also about the ecological degradation of the nearby land attributable to the tilling of farmland, Pierre launched Solar Inti in 2008 with his wife, a native of Salta, under the mission that “through cooperation, you can achieve what you cannot imagine, the sun within everyone’s reach!”