Flor Cassassuce is involving marginalized populations living in extreme poverty in the process of engineering effective technologies to solve community issues in health, hygiene, and economic development by installing technology development community centers throughout rural Mexico.
The New Idea
Flor’s organization, Grupo EOZ, is the first organization in Mexico to develop high-quality technology based on community needs that is accessible to marginalized populations. The community, accompanied by a local rural technology extension agent, identifies their needs in terms of health, hygiene, and economic development. Then, based on their needs, if the appropriate technology cannot be found at a reasonable price Grupo EOZ invents, designs, develops, and continually improves a corresponding technology. The community technician is also in charge of training, follow up, technical support, and maintenance for families. Given the low, near symbolic costs of Grupo EOZ’s technologies and their tailoring to communities’ needs, families have a stake in improving the quality of their lives through appropriate technology.
The model’s employing of local community members for technical support and promotion also serves to create sustainable, high-quality local jobs. The inventions that Grupo EOZ engineers are not only solutions for improving the health situations in rural communities, they also become tools that give local families ways to increase their income and overcome poverty.
Grupo EOZ’s role does not end at the development of the technology. The organization also serves as a key actor in connecting technology authorities with marginalized communities that have had traditionally limited access to them, including government municipalities, local community stakeholders, international and local universities, and other social organizations working in the field. Grupo EOZ serves to catalyze linkages between key influencers to provide an integral approach to improving the quality of life for marginalized rural communities. Due to local labor and resources, EOZ’s model can be replicated in any rural area.
In Mexico, 32 percent of rural area residents are in extreme poverty and 61 percent in moderate poverty. The Mexican government has identified 1,000 communities as the poorest of the poor. The high poverty in rural areas provokes several serious health problems caused by poor housing infrastructure, and is directly related to issues of water and sanitation. Those most affected by the lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene are children, who often, as a result, will contract diarrheal diseases and parasites.
Moreover, poverty in rural communities is often accompanied by unemployment. For many, the only source of income is a welfare stipend they receive twice a month from the Mexican Secretary of Social Development, or via remittances from family members that have migrated to the US. Without any viable career options, many leave home in search of better jobs; leaving communities without their most able workers. Technology careers, in particular, seem to have no place in rural communities due to the lack of demand. Thus, the few students who study technology flee to urban areas in search of jobs.
When third parties choose to bring appropriate technology to a community there are four primary problems: (i) technology is not tailored to the community’s needs and addresses a problem that is not a priority, and ultimately, not useful to the community to resolve a social challenge (ii) technologies are dropped into a community that generally has little previous exposure to it, without training users on how to use them (iii) communities rarely receive follow up or accompaniment in using technologies; therefore, when users encounter problems they do not know how to resolve, the technology is never used again (iv) in many cases the most needed product does not exist in the marketplace. Most technology producers have little interest in poor populations, as a seemingly unprofitable market. Thus, the myriad of technological advances that would serve as critical means for community development end up passing by rural areas.
In collaboration with local employees, Grupo EOZ identifies the most urgent social needs within rural communities. If the technology needed to solve the social need does not already exist at a reasonable price, Grupo EOZ works to develop and distribute a technology that does meet the community need. Through direct contact with the local community, Grupo EOZ’s promoters individually train each beneficiary about use and maintenance, in addition to follow up visits to resolve any technical issues.
Grupo EOZ’s first technology—the ZEOZ water purifier—has benefited more than 5,700 rural families living in ten Mexican states (Chiapas, South Baja California, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City, State of Mexico, and Jalisco). However, Grupo EOZ’s needs studies are bringing to light a wide array of needs, including water pumps, presses used to produce natural acids, dehydrators to dry fruit and medicinal plants, distillers for producing extracts and essences, small soap generating technologies, solar refrigerators, mechanisms for fabricating adobe blocks, and stoves, among others. Flor hopes to make all of these more accessible in the coming years.
Grupo EOZ’s team currently consists of eight people: four based in the headquarters in Baja California, a national coordinator, a promoter in the State of Mexico, and two promoters in Chiapas. The national coordinator supervises all state coordinators, who in turn, train and supervise the technology extension agents within the communities, resulting in the generation of local jobs and guaranteeing the program’s longevity. Community technical agents are graduates from local universities and receive continuous training through Grupo EOZ’s certification program. Grupo EOZ hopes to utilize the sales of its technologies to provide worker salaries to ensure sustainable positions in rural communities.
Grupo EOZ is utilizing its strategic partnerships with international and local universities to design its appropriate technologies, and to create a certification program, “Rural Micro-franchising and Appropriate Technology,” to further expand Flor’s model. The certificate will consist of 50 percent theory and 50 percent hands-on projects in the countryside. The students and young entrepreneurs interested in using the microfranchising model in their region will receive training throughout the program to create a detailed business plan due at program completion.
Grupo EOZ also collaborates with social organizations that work in sanitation to promote the concept of a Clean House. Flor plans to intensify existing collaborations with social entrepreneurs that create solar panels and biodigesters to create homes with appropriate technologies that work in concert to better the infrastructure of rural homes.
To secure Grupo EOZ’s financial sustainability, Flor has created a hybrid business model. Flor utilizes the for-profit side of her model to sell her technologies to high-end markets to reinvest the profit on the non-profit side. This subsidizes the technology costs for rural markets and enables her social vision to be realized. In 2012 sales to middle/high socioeconomic markets in urban areas reached 2.7 million pesos. In 2013 Grupo EOZ generated an estimated 3 to 5 million pesos in urban sales to reach their social expansion goals for the next several years.
Flor is expanding the model of Grupo EOZ through a system of one microfranchise per municipality in order to reach 1 million rural families within the next ten years. Within five years, Grupo EOZ plans to have over 100 franchises throughout ten states, with 500 rural technology extension agents to reach approximately 20,000 families. Once successful, Grupo EOZ will integrate the rural technology extension agent model into public policy so that corresponding Mexican governmental agencies can use it as a basic element in their rural and social development programs. The franchise aspect of Flor’s model also permits easy replication of her project throughout Latin America and the rest of the world.
Flor, a French national, was interested in social causes from an early age. When she was 18 years old she worked on a project with Doctors Without Borders in Russia. Flor organized a group of young ex-criminals, let out of prison on conditional probation. With the objective of building a shelter for homeless children, Flor trained the group in plumbing, brickwork, carpentry, and electrical services to carry out their task.
After working on this project for two years, Flor studied civil engineering at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris and later graduated with a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley, Flor founded a chapter of Engineers Without Borders (founded by Ashoka Fellow Bernard Amadei) to carry out social projects in developing countries alongside other students and professors from Berkeley.
After college, Flor turned down a high-paying job in Silicon Valley, to pursue her true passion in the social sector. She worked on a project analyzing water in rural homes of Baja California. Preoccupied with the results of her study, Flor invented an at-home water purifier for rural communities, the UVeta, which received various awards, including one from the World Bank. During this time, the idea of starting her own organization emerged, because the more time she spent with families in rural Baja California, the more she understood the lack of opportunities and poor quality of life among rural communities. Flor decided to dedicate herself to developing suitable technologies to improve the quality of life of marginalized rural populations.