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Changing Rural Lives through Renewable Energy in Nicaragua

Imagine having to walk for an hour just to get drinking water or wash your clothes. Or being forced to rely on candlelight and gas lamps for all your household chores and other activities after dark. That’s what daily life is like for many rural people in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere—but an innovative organization called AsoFenix (short for AsociaciÛn Fenix) is changing that through small-scale renewable energy projects that provide basic necessities such as clean drinking water and household electricity.

“In rural Nicaraguan communities, 60 percent of the population does not have access to sufficient water or clean water, and similarly, the majority of the rural population doesn’t have access to electricity,” says AsoFenix founder and director Jaime Munoz.

AsoFenix currently works in the Boaco province of central Nicaragua, northeast of Managua. In order to provide clean water to rural households, AsoFenix has installed solar-powered systems that pump water for drinking and irrigation. To date the organization has completed four large projects that collectively provide drinking water for 1,400 people.

“It was very difficult before we had the potable water project. We walked very far to get water to drink, and we had to walk for an hour to be able to wash our clothes,” says Nidia González, a resident of Candelaria, the village where AsoFenix installed its first solar-powered water system in 2004. “The other problem we had here in the community before the project came was that there were a lot of illnesses. Diarrhea, vomiting and lots of flu.” All that has changed now that the households have easy access to clean water.

Along with the potable water projects AsoFenix has constructed hydroelectric microturbines that generate electricity for three communities, as well as solar panels that provide energy for another 25 homes. The organization has also developed smaller projects in the areas of biogas, wind energy and crop irrigation.

“If we look at all the natural resources Nicaragua has, it has the potential for four or five times the energy that the country needs,” says Munoz. “It shouldn’t be possible for us to have so many sources of renewable energy—wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass, and geothermal—and still have many families who don’t have access to energy or even the hope of getting it in the next 10 or 15 years.”

Cruz Torres Burgo owns a small organic coffee farm in the community of Malacatoya, where AsoFenix installed its first microhydro turbine. He says having electricity has changed his family’s life. His children can now study at night, and the air in the house is much fresher without the gas lamps the family used to burn. His work has also benefitted: “Before I used to depulp the coffee by hand, and I was coming home late at night. Now it takes me half an hour to depulp the coffee with an electric motor.”

AsoFenix’s commitment to the communities in which it works goes well beyond its primary focus on renewable energy. “The biggest challenge for AsoFenix is really to improve life in the communities, in the families, and also to help protect the environment in each one of the communities,” says Munoz. To that end, the organization follows up its large projects with supplementary projects to address such issues as health, education, watershed protection, and community organization. Says Munoz: “AsoFenix is striving to create real solutions to reduce the poverty level in each of the families, in each of the communities. So our goal is a broader one, to achieve a truly sustainable community.”

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