Tuesday, February 2, 2010

H2O, Computers, and Spiders OH MY!

Computod@s, the business I created to provide low-cost, high-quality computers to low-income communities in El Salvador, has taken great strides recently. It is amazing how many people will “go to battle for you” when you are creating something for the betterment of society. We have received support from key individuals and institutions from both the U.S. and in El Salvador making my job less demanding and freeing up more time to take on new projects.

This past March I came down to El Salvador for my first time with a delegation from the Santa Clara business school. Part of the immersion was focused on visiting micro-entrepreneurs in order to better understand the importance of micro-loans. At first I was hesitant to believe that in the rural villages lived such a kind of motivated, creative, and entrepreneurial persons. After meeting Angel Tobar from Santa Maria de la Esperanza, a small village just outside the capital San Salvador, I knew that the class did exist, and all that was needed was financial assistance.

At only 18 years old, Angel discovered a method to utilize the rainfall much more efficiently for the town with the creation of a hydraulic ram pump. The pump uses the power of flowing water to pump a smaller quantity of water at much higher pressure. Ram pumps (see Angel introducing the pump in photo above) require no fuel or electricity, they quite literally run on water! The pump in Santa Maria de la Esperanza cost only $52 and is a unique apparatus in that many of the parts are from recycled materials and other common products used in these rural villages. For example, the body of the pump was created from an empty fire extinguisher. Angel has been able to use this pump to create many crop fields (photo below depicts one crop field. Vegetables are grown above the ground on a fence like apparatus and beans are grown below to best utilize the water source) that feed the whole town, and not to mention all the water they could ever need. Shelby McIntyre, professor and co-chair of the marketing department at Santa Clara University showed a lot of interest after he found out what Angel had created. I have been working directly with Shelby, who is helping to secure funding from organizations in the States, and Angel to create a franchise model from this ram-pump. We are currently in the process of creating a manual of the ram pump and are looking to begin creation in a new community in early 2010. I will be sure to update all of you about the progress of this project.

There is no doubt that economic development is a very large sector with an enormous budget, so the only answer to explain why the poor remain poor is to “follow the money.” It is now time to start channeling these funds to people like Angel who have the passion and creativity to create a positive change.

If you remember when I was creating the micro-credit program in Guatemala one of the greatest hurdles was communicating with the many indigenous languages spoke in the rural villages I was visiting. Lucky for my Spanish, that which is the only language spoken in El Salvador. As my Spanish has improved immensely, I now look for opportunities to help with translation when delegations or other institutions visit from the United States. The opportunity presented itself last week as a group of prominent poets from the state of Indiana came to learn and study with poets of a different culture.

I met the poets in Quetzaltepeque, an hour bus ride outside San Salvador, which is the home of the Salvadoran poet organization. It was an amazing day as I became very close to the Salvadoran poets who were in there lower 20’s just like me. The day was dedicated to the arts. First we visited a pottery cooperative. As you can see from the video below these men are very skilled artisans in pottery. We were able to see, as you can, too, from this video how a pot is made from clay to finished product. These pots resemble many pots that I have seen on the mantles in the houses of my friends in the States. However, these pots were sold for only $2 to the natives who use them as a pail to transport water, and to cook soup.

For the second part of the day we created murals on the village walls with poems inscribed over the paintings. My artistic creativity doesn’t fall far from the business tree, so I mostly stuck to translating. The poets were accompanied by a news reporter who was creating a documentary for one of the television stations in Indiana. As I was not occupied with a paintbrush, he approached me curious to find out more about my mission here in Central America. As I began to explain to him some of the projects I am creating with some of the experiences I have had he immediately asked if he could interview me for the news station. I said that I would be delighted to and that we would conduct the interview that night after we were done with the murals. Just as things couldn’t have gotten any better, they got worse! I began talking to one of my new Salvadoran friends and asked him what he does when he is not with this organization. He told me that he ferments and sells liquor. I found this to be very intriguing as he described the process of creating this alcohol using the corn from his fields. He asked if I wanted to try some, and as a curious college graduate, I bit the line. He gave me one large shot of this alcohol and waited to tell me after I drank it that it flirts close to 100% alcohol. I am pretty sure that my mind was still thinking college, but my body forgot to tell my mind that for the past four months I have been living in a city where I am not been able to leave my house at night; therefore, after one more shot I was drunk. After I returned to the murals the reporter had his camera and microphone all ready to go. You can just imagine how this interview went. Don’t worry if you do not have access to the Indiana news stations, because I am sure this will be on YouTube in no time. (Below is picture of me in my office surrounded by Computod@s computers)

Two weeks ago the CEO of DPG, a supporting partner of Computod@s invited my business partner Sam Baker and me to his beach house on the coast of El Salvador. The night before Sam and I traveled to Santa Maria de la Esperanza to meet with Angel about the ram pump. We ended up staying longer then expected, and due to the length of time necessary to get back to the capital as well as issues of safely traveling at night we had to spend the night in the village. We had a great night just enjoying the company of the people in the village. We sang songs because there were no devices to play music, and I think I was able to take care of my arachnophobia as when I turned off the light and the last thing I saw in my bedroom was a spider the size of my palm. In order to make our business trip on time, we woke up at 5:00am and had to walk 1-½ hours through the forest to reach the freeway. Four buses later and we were back in the capital with 15 minutes to spare before it was time to head off to the beach.

Walking into this house on the ocean, my eyes saw a sight that I never thought existed in this country. A three-story house that was a pebbles throw from the ocean with a swimming pool accompanied by a hot tub with a table constructed in the middle to serve drinks. As this day was supposed to be relaxing it is very difficult in these extreme environments. As we left the gates of this beach house it was not more then two minutes into the drive when looking out the window you could see shack after shack. This is one of the greatest struggles in El Salvador, which has the seventh greatest inequality wealth gap in the world, and even worse is how visible. It was difficult to enjoy a drink with my boss in a hot tub that is a pebbles’ throw from the ocean, knowing that if I throw that pebble in the other direction it would land on a community struggling to keep the water flowing. What a day: eating breakfast in one of the poorest villages in the world, and eating dinner in one of the richest. That is doing business in the developing world!

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