Solar Energy, Women's Organizations and Rural Development in Nicaragua

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Solar Energy, Women's Organizations and Rural Development in Nicaragua
Gentile, Corinne
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Subjects / Keywords:
Appropriate technology ( jstor )
Charcoal ( jstor )
Cooking ( jstor )
Environmental technology ( jstor )
Food ( jstor )
Nonprofit organizations ( jstor )
Personal empowerment ( jstor )
Renewable energy ( jstor )
Volunteerism ( jstor )
Women ( jstor )
Rural development
Solar energy
Women--Societies and clubs
Undergraduate Honors Thesis


This thesis presents a case study of the non-profit Grupo Fénix (Phoenix Group) and their introduction of solar technologies into the rural community of Sabana Grande, Nicaragua. It considers the impact of these technologies on the environment as well as on the main project participants, the Cooperativa Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa (Solar Women of Totogalpa Cooperative). I argue that Grupo Fènix projects lack some of the necessary characteristics of appropriate technologies. I conclude that while the Mujeres Solares have benefitted from their participation in the projects, they will not be able to achieve their goals of income-generation and greater autonomy from Grupo Fénix through these particular projects alone. ( en )
General Note:
Awarded Bachelor of Arts; Graduated May 8, 2012 magna cum laude. Major: Anthropology

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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Copyright Corinne Gentile. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.


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2 2012 Corinne Gentile


3 This research would not have been possible without the generous support of the University Scholars Program, which funded my summer field research in Nicaragua. I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Carmen Diana Deere, who has provided invaluable insights to help me formulate my ideas. My sincerest gratitude goes to the Mujeres Solares for their hospitality and friendship especially to my homestay mother, Berta I would also like to thank Grupo Fnix for allowing me to participate in their intriguing progra m.


4 TABLE OF CONTENTS page CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION 2. BACKGROUND 3. CASE STUDY: SOLAR COOKERS ...... 13 12 Solar cookers as a s olution 4. IMPACT OF THE SOLAR COOKER S FOR THE SOLAR WOMEN 5. OTHER PROJECTS Volunteer home stays The solar restaurant 6. THE BIG PICTURE The benefits and problems of working with Grupo Fnix Incr Participatory deve 7. 48


5 Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Department of Anthropology of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the NICARAGUA By Corinne Gentile May 2012 Chair: Carmen Diana Deere Major: Anthropology This thesis presents a case study of the non profit Grupo Fnix (Phoenix Group) and their introduction of solar technologies into the rural community of Sabana Grande, Nicaragua. It considers the impact of these technologies on the environment as well as on the main project participants, the Cooperativa Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa (Solar Women of Totogalpa Cooperative). I argue that Grupo Fnix projects lack some of the necessary characteristics of appropriate technologies. I conclude that while the Mujeres Solares h ave benefitted from their participation in the projects they will not be able to achieve their goals of income generation and greater autonomy from Grupo Fnix through these particular project s alone.


6 INTRODUCTION The introduction of new technologie s in developing countries has helped people around the world find solutions to problems, become more efficient, and improve their lives. However, technology is not an end in itself, and many innovations that may seem exceedingly helpful in theory might res ult in failure in practice. The field of appropriate technology works with the grassroots approach to development, based on the idea that local people, who struggle on a daily basis to meet their needs, understand those needs better than anyone. Local people should define their biggest problems according to their own perceptions and be directly involved in the design and implementation of potential solutions. In addition, a central tenet of the appropriate technology approach is that such technology sho uld use local and renewable resources and decentralized, small scale methods. The technology should be built, managed and maintained by local people with local skills without the need for specialized education. The technology should be affordable to the g eneral community and its products should appeal to a local market. Lastly, the technology should not clash with existing cultural practices (Eckaus 1977 ). 1 Many non governmental organizations ( NGOs ) aim to use this grassroots, people centered approach for implementing the adaption of new technologies as well as for carrying out other development projects. Most literature in the development field emphasizes the need to directly involve community members in the design, implementation, and management of new projects or technologies. Otherwise known as participatory development, this concept assumes that people will benefit from their direct involvement in projects. Arguments for the merits of participatory development can be classified into two main categorie s: the efficiency argument 1 This criteria is based on an overall review of the literature concerning the characteristics of appropriate technologies.


7 and the equity/em powerment argument (Mayoux 1995; Cleaver 1999). The efficiency argument sees participation as an instrument for achieving better, more efficient project outcomes by involving locals and their knowledge, skills an d resources. The empowerment perspective sees participation as an integral aspect of enabling people to improve their lives and their social situation. Critics have emphasized, however, that participation does not automatically or necessarily lead to benef its. A large problem increasingly recognized in the development field is the limitation of NGOs and non profits to act as catalysts for participatory development due to pressures from international donors, time constraints, and a lack of appropriate skills to train beneficiaries in the areas most needed (Menike 2006). Projects aimed at fostering income generation for women, for example, have an especially high rate of failure dependence on donor support, lack of employees with technical skills and experience, and often, the lack of attention to potential markets for whatever these projects might produce (Buvinic 1986). This paper presents a case stu dy of the non profit Grupo Fnix (Phoenix Group) and the ir introduction of solar cookers into the rural commun ity of Sabana Grande Nicaragua In 1999, the presence of Grupo Fnix in the rural community of Sabana Grande sparked interest in several rural women in learning about these technologies to earn income and improve their own lives These women formed the group known today as the Cooperativa Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa (Solar Women of Totogalpa Cooperative). This thesis draws upon four main literatures generatio n projects -to discuss the experience of Grupo Fnix in im plementing these technologies, and its impact on the


8 general community, the environment, but most importantly, on the women directly involved, the Mujeres Solares. I will draw upon these literatures in turn as I address the appropriate issues below The first part of the paper uses the case study of the solar cooker project to provide an in depth examination of two q uestions. First are the solar cookers effective and sustainable and do they fit the description of have the Mujeres Solares benefitted from the solar cooker project, and if so, how, and what have been its shortcoming s, particularly in terms of attaining their goal of income generation and greater autonomy? The second part of the thesis examines the other main projects of the Mujeres Solares, expanding on the points made about the solar cookers. I then discuss the app roach of Grupo Fnix as a whole, and its merit s and shortcomings. Further, I utilize literature about NGOs and grassroots development to evaluate the overall legitimacy of Grupo Fnix Although Grupo Fnix is not technically an NGO it is comparable in its relationships with beneficiaries and in the issues of accountability, transparency, re presentativeness and legitimacy. Finally, I draw conclusions based on the points made above. I discuss problems with the projects and suggest h ow they might be overcome in the future to accomplish greater income generation, and ultimately, greater autonomy and empowerment for the Mujeres Solares. This thesis suggests that participatory development can benefit participants in many ways, but does not necessarily lead to if their product or service appeals to a substantial market and if the participants ar e capable of acquiring b usiness and management skills.


9 The analysis presented in this paper draws on eight weeks of field research from June 5 to August 4, 2011 in the community of Sabana Grande in the department of Madrz, a mountainous region in northern Nicaragua (See Appendix A 1 and 2) Information was gathered through participant observation, informal interviews with Grupo Fnix employe es, in depth interviews with all the Mujeres Solares members, informal interviews with a total of 35 women in the community, and documents of Grupo Fnix the Mujeres Solares and previous researchers. A home stay for the length of the research in the house hold of a Mujeres Solares member facilitated observation and understanding. BACKGROUND The history of Grupo Fenix is an integral part of understanding the formation of the Mujeres Solares 2 Grupo Fnix was conceived at the National Engineering University (UNI) in Managua. In 1995, Susan Kinne was teaching an electrical circuits class at UNI and teamed up with a group of students enthusiastic about gaining more hands on experience The student s wanted a way to help the greater community and chose to focus on renewable energy projects for their broad usage and inexhaustible resources. To facilitate the study and usage of renewable energy, UNI created the Program for Alternative Energy Sources (P FAE) and appointed Kinne as the head of the program. The group of engineers named themselves Grupo Fnix in 1996. After working with mul tiple rural communities on various solar projects including solar photovoltaic ( PV ) panels and solar cookers, the engineers realized the importance of social aspects of implementing new technologies and decided to concentrate their efforts in one community to achieve successful and sustainable results. 2 Most of the history was recounted by Grupo Fnix founder, Susan Kinne, and may be slightly biased.


10 In 1999, Kinne heard about a grant available for victims of land mines planted during the Nicaraguan Revolution and civil war in the late 1970s and early 80s awarded by the Fallsbrook Center in Canada. She wrote a grant proposal in which land mine victims would be employed in the sale and installation of solar PV panel s to provide electricity to rural households. Although Grupo Fnix was awarded the grant, they ha d yet to find landmine victims To educate rural people about renewable energy and to find landmine victims, the students decided to hold a renewable energy fair in northern Nicaragua. In the department of Madriz, Grupo Fnix discovered an organization of war victims called the Comisin de las Victimas de Guerra Por La Paz y Reconstruccin de Madriz ( Commission of the Victims of War for the Peace and Reconstru ction of Madriz) and created partnerships with landmine victims in the organization Based on the number of landmine victims interested in participating, Grupo Fnix chose the community of Sabana Grande to implement the solar PV panel project Seeing that the community members were too poor to purchase solar PV panels, Grupo Fnix decided to help them gain access to this technology and improve their lives by creating jobs in solar energy projects. Community member Marco Antionio led the solar PV panel project in Sabana Grande. 3 At the renewable energy fair, Grupo Fnix showcased their solar cookers, which sparked the interest of a woman named Teresa L pez from the community of Unile. She then learned to build the cookers and began to train other women in Unile. One of the cookers in disrepair made its way to the nearby community of Sabana Grande, and caught the attention of Nimia, who then learned how t o construct the cookers. While the solar cooker project in Unile died out, it gained momentum in Sabana Grande, as a group of women formed, interested in developing their own 3 Marco Antonio is legally the only male member of the Mujeres Solares cooperative, and is the husband of another woman in the cooperative. However, I had observed and learned from others that he almost ne ver participated in Mujeres Solares events and projects.


11 solar cooker project. Thus, Grupo Fnix concentrated their efforts in solar cooke rs in Sabana Grande, and the group Mujeres Solares was formed. The women have been working on the solar cooker project and other renewable energy projects with Grupo Fnix since 1999. For a short amount of time, the solar PV project and the solar cooker project overlapped in Sabana Grande but the participants in the PV project lost interest while the solar cooker project continued to grow The group of women in Sabana Grande dreamed of one day having their own place to build solar cookers. Through their energy and ability to organize, this dream is now a reality at the Solar Center constructed in 2004 by the Mujeres Solares and Grupo Fnix in Sabana Grande In 2010, the women became a legal cooperative In recounting this history, Kinne emphasized that the formation of the relationship between Grupo Fnix and the Mujeres Solares was an organic process that grew and took shape that decision. That decision ma skills experience and an income Certainly, the presence of Grupo Fnix and its solar projects sparked cookers. The women would not have formed a cohesive organization if they were not driven by some incentive to do so. Currently, t he Mujeres Solares cooperative consists of twenty formal members. Labor responsibilities are divided up by committees, and each member is a part of at least one committee. Mujeres perform cooperative work as needed. Some weeks go by without any cooperative related work at all, and other weeks bustl e with activities.


12 The cooperative members do not receive a salary or any regular income. The hours of work for each member are recorded in a log, but rather than receiving money, the women receive horas verdes (green hours). In the past, members used to be able to visit the tienda verde (green store) once a month and purchase items donated by volunteers, such as school supplies and clothing, with their horas verdes. Due to a lack of donations and upkeep, the tienda verde no longer exists. This decline in donations could be due to a change in Grupo coordinator; the new coordinator does not believe in asking volunteers for donations. Before my own departure for Nicaragua, nobody requested that I bring items to donate. Without the tienda ve rde, women can only use their horas verdes to purchase solar cookers (when extras are available) or solar photovoltaic systems for electricity in their households. However, all except three members already have solar cookers and every member has a PV syste m. Women who do wish to purchase either of these things must submit a formal written request to Susan Kinne, who then decides which applicant gets first priority. More time is spent waiting for the request to be fulfilled, especially if the PV system need s to be built. The limited purchasing power of the horas verdes and the relatively small amount of cash generated through other means leaves some women feeling as if they are working as volunteers. Although they make some income, they want a higher monetar y return on their labor. When I asked the women what their aspiration was for the future of the Mujeres Solares, every member replied in a similar way: she would like to earn an income. This exposes a disjuncture between the vision and goals of Grupo F nix versus those of the Mujeres Solares. Grupo Fnix emphasizes its initial focus on renewable energy as a means to help the environment and improve rural ways of life, with a secondary focus on generating rural


13 employment. On the other hand, the Mujeres p ut the most emphasis on employment and income generation, the most immediate, practical need. The following case study of the solar cooker project examines the extent to which Gru po Fnix is achieving its stated mission and goals, and more importantly, the extent to which the Mujeres Solares are achieving their goals. CASE STUDY: SOLAR COOKERS The solar cooker project has become the cornerstone of the Mujeres Solares and serves as the best single project to represent both the merits and failings of the Grupo Fnix projects as a whole Firstly I will examine solar cookers, their benefits and shortcomings for the general community, and the extent to which they fit the criteria as appropriate technologies. Secondly, I proje cts of Grupo Fnix arguing that the women have benefitted through their involvement but some changes are needed if t hey w ant to fully achieve their goals of income generation and autonomy from Grupo Fnix Generally, technologies are introduced to provide a solution for a problem or improve an existing practice. Solar technology has developed i n response to the problems associated with the use of limited resources, especially wood, for energy. Wood is widely used in Nicaragua and around the world as the main energy source. According to the 2011 Human Development Report factor is the fact that a relatively high share of the population (38.5%) still uses fossil fuels as their primary energy supply, including wood, charcoal or du ng. In Sabana Grande and many rural communities in Nicaragua, wood burning stoves are the principle method of cooking. This


14 regular use of wood for fuel negatively impacts the environment and human health, and requires significant amounts of precious time and money to obtain. As a limited resource, continued wood use is environmentally unsustainable. Although in most regions, the clearing of land for agriculture accounts for the majority of deforestation, the use of wood for fuel contributes to diminishing local resources over time (Rudel et al. 2009). In Nicaragua, the national forest area decreased by 27.9% from 1990 to 2008 (HDR 2011). Deforestation contributes to problems such as soil erosion, landslides, reduced biodiversity and global warming. Furthe rmore, the large quantity of smoke produced when cooking with wood is detrimental to the health of household members, specifically women and children who spend the most time in the home and kitchen Many studies have demonstrated that smoke causes high le vels of indoor air pollution (Bruce et al. 2000, Smith 2000), which is associated with several respiratory problems. While not all women I interviewed cite d respiratory problems, they all agreed that smoke is unhealthy and causes burning and tearing of the eyes when cooking. Two women said their children were particularly affected by smoke and got sick if they were in the kitchen while the fire was lit. The fuel economy of wood demands a large amount of time, labor, and, often, money. The clearing of land f or farms and houses, along with a lack of reforestation projects, has caused deforestation in communities close to the Pan American Highway like Sabana Grande. Most e. As the quantity of wood decreases, it becomes harder for people to find dry wood suitable to use could take up to 6 hours round trip. Unlike the traditional ge nder division of labor in other parts


15 of the world (Agarwal 1986 Cecelski 1992 ), in rural Nicaragua collecting wood is usually a carga (wood bundle) on their shoulders, although some use bicycles or donkeys to transport it home. In Sabana Grande, an average household procured a carga (about twenty sticks of wood) two to three times a week. Some families gathered wood themselves, while others bought it in neighboring towns and many alternated between gathering and buying, depending on the bodied male who could gather wood. If a family buys wood, whether through choice or necessity, it is relat ively costly. Generally, a carga has about 20 sticks and costs C$2 per stick, for a total of around C$40 or C$50 per carga. Based on interviews and personal observation, families go through 8 16 sticks per day and a carga at least twice a week. If a family of five uses a minimum of 8 sticks per day, or 56 sticks per week, they must purchase at least 3 cargas of wood (60 sticks) per week. This amounts to C$120 per week, and C$6240 per year, (approximately USD$284). To put that number in perspective, a pound of rice costs C$10, which is less than what is normally consumed in a typical meal. A pound of rice consumed daily for a year costs C$3650, much less than the C$6240 paid for wood on an annual basis. Wood is indispensible for cooking, a task normally car ried out by women. Women in Sabana Grande cook on a fog n (wood burning stove). The fogn is a rectangular structure made of adobe bricks and a top layer of white clay The upper front end of the stove has a hole in which sticks of lea (firewood) are inserted and two openings on top of the stove where pots are placed. (See Appendix A 3 )


16 Based on interviews with 35 women, and participant observation in the kitchens of seven of them, I learned about cooking practices, wood use and time spent cooking eac h food item and each meal. The general cooking schedule of a woman in Sabana Gra nde consists of waking up at 5 starting the fire, putting on the coffee and beginning the daily making of tortillas. For a family of five, a woman makes 40 60 tortillas daily, which takes about two hours. In between the cooking has been completed, most women put out the fire to save on wood and move on to other household chores. Arou nd 11 or 11:30, the fire is re ignited and lunch is served around 12. Again, the fire is put out after its usage and left unlit until around 5 pm when it is re ignited to prepare dinner, served at 6. Altogether, the women I observed spent 4 6 hours in the kitchen using a lit fire Wood burning stoves are inefficient and consume valuable time that women could otherwise use for different activities. Simply igniting the fire can be challenging, especially in the morning for the first time. To aid in igniting the fire, women use highly flammable wood from the jocote tree, when available, but most of the time women simply light plastic on fire and use the burning plastic to light the wood. Once the fire is lit, it must be constantly tended. Women often push stic ks further in, add more sticks or blow on the fire with a metal tube to stoke the flames. The cooking process is prolonged because there are only two holes on which to place pots of food or tortillas. Women usually make 60 tortillas a day but can only cook a maximum of two tortillas at a time. The second hole, furthest back from the place where wood enters, never gets as hot as the front hole, which further lengthens the cooking process. Solar cookers as a solution


17 Clearly, there is a growing need to use less wood and find viable, alternative fuel methods. Many technologies have been developed that either reduce the amount of wood burned or use an alternative energy source. Some have been more effective than others. Below is a description of the solar cook er project as implemented by Grupo Fnix and a discussion about the effectiveness, sustainability, and overall se cookers, based on the criteria for appropriate technologies discussed above. Description of Desig n cooking area and dark interior walls that attract and retain heat. While there have been countless variations of solar cookers, the basic designs fall into four main cate gories : panel cookers; collector cookers; concentrating or reflector cookers; and box cookers, also known as solar ovens (Kimambo 2007). The Mujeres Solares utilize a relatively complex form of the solar box cooker design. In simplest terms, a box cooker is a box made of an insulated material that allows sunlight to enter the box through a transparent medium and then trap s box. The bottom of the outer box conducts heat with sheet metal and reserves the heat with a layer of silicon underneath the sheet metal. An internal box provides insulation with fiberboard around the inside and sawdust in the base. The box has a wooden to p, which can be propped open to show a shiny reflector frame on the underside that directs sunlight through the pane of glass and into the box. Food is placed in the box through an insulated hinged door on the front side. The entire cooker rests on a woode n stand with wheels so that it can be rotated throughout the day to


18 face the sun. Each cooker is equipped with a thermometer on the inside of the box. (See Appendix A 4 ) These materials are costly, particularly the zinc and plywood The Mujeres Solares originally learned and adopted this design from the cookers in Unile. The design was transformed as volunteer researchers made changes over the years in attempts to improve the beneficiarie s is an important aspect of appropriate technologies and participatory development. I am unsure of the extent of involvement of the Mujeres in deciding the actual design and changes. The available project documents lead me to believe that these volunteer engineers listened to any complaints the women might have had with their cookers and researched any problems by perfo rming tests on the cookers The design changes were most likely explained to the Mujeres so that they understood why the changes would be beneficial. T he women almost surely discussed the changes amongst themselves informally and at meetings, as they do with all things i nvolving the cooperative However, I am unsure of how likely they would h ave been to speak up if they disagreed a bout some change because they may have assumed that the engineers knew best. This issue might be worthy of further investigation. Are solar cookers a ppropriate? An analysis of solar cookers in Sabana Grande shows that they fulfill some of the criteria of an appropriate technology but fall short on others. Renewable e nergy Solar cookers and all solar technologies harness the renewable, unlimited resource of sunlight to convert it to energy. If utilized frequently, solar cookers could significantly reduce the amount of wood used per day, saving a family money and time in gathering more wood. However, reliance on the sun as energy has its limitations. One cannot cook early in the day,


19 when much of the cooking is usually done, or in the evening around dinnertime During the dry season from November to April, the brightly shining sun provides sufficient energy for cooking. However, during the rainy season between May and October, the sun is often obscured by clouds, creating conditions unsuitable for cooking. During my stay from June to August, people rarely used their solar cookers, and if they did, it was only to toast coffee which does not require constant heat. Altho ugh many people attested to their almost daily use of solar ovens in the dry season, I was unable to observe such directly. Cultural sensitivity and effects on cooking p ractices Even on the sunniest day, cooking takes longer in the solar cooker than it wo uld over a fire. In ideal weather conditions, cooking an egg in a solar cooker would take about fifteen minutes, whereas cooked over a fire it would take less than five minutes. A potato requires about three hours in a solar cooker. During the wait time, h cooker to more directly face the sun. Although it takes some planning ahead, women can utilize their time for o ther tasks rather than tending to the food and fire. Furthermore, cooking food in solar cookers produces no smoke and ensures greater overall health and sanitation. Food cooked in the glass covered oven protects it from disease spreading flies and other p ests. When interviewed, many women, fully aware of how flies spread disease, mentioned this positive aspect before all others. The food is cooked with less oil, which decreases unhealthy fats that raise cholesterol and clog arteries. Several women also cla imed that foods such as meat and eggs have a better, fuller flavor when cooked in the solar cookers. Solar cookers can act as an oven, which baking bread cookies and cakes and provides the possibility of i ncome generation through the


20 sale of baked goods. One significant drawback is the inability of solar cookers to cook tortillas, a staple of every meal. Some women make over 60 tortillas a day in the morning. People also vens because it requires a longer cooking time and several steps in the process. Local materials but high costs and no local market The cooker design used by the Mujeres requires pinewood, ply wood, glass, smooth zinc coated sheet metal, fiberboard, silicon sealant, hinges and a door handle, among other things. All materials are available locally, ensuring the ability to readily produc e or repair the cookers. Most materials are bought in a hardware store in the town of Ocotal, only a twenty minute bus ride away. Although locally available, these materials are expensive, particularly the zinc, glass and silicon. The smallest size cooker in materials and transport alone. In addition, each member of the construction team gets paid 100 cordobas per day of labor. cordoba s, or US$234.64, including labor costs and incidentals. The budget for the largest cooker cookers even higher. Although many people admitted that they would l ove to have a solar cooker, almost nobody could afford to buy them. Most community members who owned solar cookers were the members of the Mujeres Solares themselves, who paid for cookers with their hours of work. Susan Kinne also owned several, as did two other women who received donated The cookers are available for sale to outside agencies and interested customers, but orders to buy them are infrequent and sporadic. The cookers do not appeal to a local market since


21 they are relatively expensive Many people I talked to who lived near the solar center had seen the cookers and thought it would be nice to have one, but nobody had seriously considered buying one. People are accustomed to cooking on th eir wood burning stoves, and the solar cookers are seen as an unnecessary luxury item. It is important to note that solar box cookers can be designed much more cheaply, using something as inexpensive as cardboard and plastic. However, a comparative study o f box cookers in Nicaragua has shown that plywood cookers retain high temperatures for a more prolonged period of time and are more resistant to temperature changes than cardboard cookers (Kammen and Lankford, 1990). The Grupo Fnix website is the main means for marketing the products of the Mujeres Solares. During my two transported to Chinandega, a city three hours away, from a Spanish based NGO which works throughout Central Ameri ca. When asked about previous orders, most people only mentioned an exceptionally large order for 35 cookers made two years ago from the mayor of Estel which were donate d to public schools, but never spoke of other large orders. The head of the solar co nstruction team declined to give me past sales records. Money to finance the construction of new cookers comes from interested customers or from groups of students from the US and Canada who pay to participate in a solar construction course which includes building solar cookers Their fee covers the cost of the materials, as well as their room and board. When the students depart, they leave behind the solar cookers, to be bought by women of the cooperative through labor credits or used in the solar restaur ant. When the Mujeres have no use for them, they are left unused on the lawn at the Solar Center, with no effort made to sell them in their own commu nity because of their high cost. They become the property of the cooperative, but generate no income for th e women and simply sit unused


22 Sustainability The Mujeres Solares lack a plan for the sustained production and repair of solar cookers. The cookers are always left outside, subjecting the wood frame, wheels and metal hinges to the rainwater can cause the glass to crack. A lthough still functional, cookers with broken doors or cracked glass do not retain heat as well and take longer to cook food. Some women cover their cookers to protect them, but not all take care of them so well. Even a protected cooker eventually needs re pairs. Of the 18 households of women in the cooperative, 15 of them had solar cookers, all in need of some sort of repair, and one was no longer functional. The average age of the 15 cookers was 6.1 years. When asked what they would need to do to repair th eir cookers, some women replied that there are no funds for repairs or that they needed to talk to Nimia, the head of the solar construction project, about getting a repair done. When I asked Nimia about the need for repairs, she said she had told the wome n that if they need ed repairs, they should talk to her and bring their cookers to the Solar Center because sometimes there are construction materials left over after a student group leaves. But all the cookers remain damaged and no woman has b rought hers t o the solar center. There may be some extra materials at the Solar Center to patch something minor, but there are no funds available for repairs, and there will never be, unless some volunteers decide to put money towards fixing solar cookers. Appropriate ? Solar cookers meet some of the criteria of appropriate technologies, mainly in local design and continued energy source. However, they fail to appeal to a local market and are not the most practical for everyday cooking Table 1, below summarizes my fin dings on the appropriateness of the Grupo Fnix solar cooker design.


23 Table 1 : Assessing the Solar Cookers as Appropriate Technology Criteria Findings Materials available locally hardware stores Uses local skills and does not require specialized knowledge Local women have learned to build cookers, and assembly steps are well documented Uses renewable energy sources Only requires the heat of the sun Not effective during the rainy season, e arly in the morning or at night Has a local market Unaffordable for most community members Takes cultural practices into account Cannot cook tortillas, a staple for meals IMPACT OF THE SOLAR COOKERS FOR THE SOLAR WOMEN For the Mujeres Solares, the solar cooker project has been more than simply an attempt to of The solar cooker projects were t he central point around which the women formed and began the Mujeres Solares. It has led to their involvement with Grupo Fnix as a source of income generation participation in the projects of Grupo Fnix regarding organization and leadership, skill acquisition and economic rewards. I argue that t his experience has benefitted them in many ways, but still falls short in meeting their aspiration of generating a steady income. Organization and l eadership As noted in the earlier history of the cooperative, solar cookers played a crucial role in technologies and in bringing them together as a cohesive group for a common purpose. As a cooperative, they h ave shown skills in formal record keeping, such as meeting attendance logs, hours worked, and tasks performed by each member for the volunteer groups. They hold an asamblea, or evaluation meeting, each year


24 over t he past year, talk about problems they encountered and evaluate successes, and discuss necessary changes for the next year. When they first came together, most of them were shy and did not like to express opinions at group meetings, leaving Kinne to do mo st of the talking. Slowly, they learned to At the meetings I observed, the proceedings were fairly structured under the leadership of the president, Myra, with Kinne largely silent or absent. The women were talkative and opinionated and had no difficulty voicing complaints, issues and other thoughts. The ability to speak publicly and voice opinions shows an increase in self confidence, which can carry through to other -in the home, in social situations or maybe even in procuring a future job. The five women who make up the solar construction team have organized themselves every time they have need to fill an order for solar cookers or do any other construction project. When asked why only those five worked on solar cookers, and not the whole cooperative, they replied that the construct ion of solar ovens only requires five people at a time When they began to learn to construct solar cookers, the five with the most enthusiasm and ability to learn became the solar construction team. From my understanding, construction team member selection did not involve any hierarchical decision making but rath er was a natural process of selection according to likes and interests. During my stay I witnessed the efficiency of the solar construction team in organizing themselves to fulfill an order of to be sent to another non profit in Nic aragua. The women were notified given a deadline of only a week to complete the order and transport it to the non profit The solar construction committee organized quickly and efficiently,


25 procuring materials right away and beginning the process. They ded icated a great deal of time tp constructing the cookers, working from 8 am to 6 pm at the Solar Center for six days. This responsibility was somewhat taxing for them, especially for those who did not have help at home. Many of them had to wake up early and make food for the entire day to leave for their families. T he activities of the Mujeres Solares have helped the women increase their organizational abilities, social cohesion and self confidence. These skills can serve them well in the future to become a fully indepen dent cooperative, as well as to organize for other purposes, whether for religious celebrations or political issues. Labor skills a cquisition traditional, sex segregated skills that are supposed to be familiar to them, such as making food or clothing (Yudelman 1987, Mehra 1997). These skills train women to make go ods for which there are limited markets and little profit (Mayoux 1995). In contrast, learning to build the cookers has given the solar construction team skills not traditionally attributed to women using power tools, making precise measurements, pricing out items at the hardware store. The participation of the Mujeres Solares in construction and manual labor challenges these traditionally held ideas and perpetuation of male dominance. Learning these skills has given the women a sense of pride in their ne wly acquired skills and knowledge and has increased their confidence in themselves and their abilities En la comunidad, hemos crecido creyendo que las mujeres no podamos hacer


26 se agarraba un martillo o un serrucho, y he aprendido. Ahora puedo fabricar una cocina solar. Nosotras no sabamos que el sol se poda usar para hacer comida. [ I use a hammer or a handsaw, and I have learned. Now I can make a solar cooker. be used to make food. ] Rumalda Lopez Lopez ( La Casa Rural Mejorada 2009: 80 81) This sense of confidence and pride cannot be underestimated. It can give the women the confidence to realize that they can do things that social norms previously told them the y could not do. Realizing their potential, the women gain the courage to tr y new things. It is important to note, however, the existence of some unequal power relations within the cooperative and the solar construction team, with a woman named Nimia taking on a leadership role. Although in theory all members of a cooperative should be equa l an d share equally in the benefits, Nimia enjoys an elevated position in the cooperative, which has caused some conflict She is the only cooperative member who is formally employed and is paid by Grupo Fnix for her administrative services, performing cleric al duties for the cooperative. She also had the privilege of travel ing several times to other countries for workshops on the solar cookers, with expenses paid by Grupo Fnix Nimia is also the only member to have complete d a formal college education. Some members of the cooperative feel that Nimia l ooked down on them or bosses them around because of her university degree and employment position. However, Nimia has recently made the decision to refuse payment from Grupo Fnix and receive money only from the cooperative, a significant pay cut but a show of her loyalty to the cooperative.


27 Economic r ewards When there is an order for solar cookers each member of the solar construction team benefits by earning 100 cordobas per day of labor. More significantly the solar cooker project has indirectly benefitted the entire cooperative by attracting international volunteers who generate the The solar cooker project initially sparked the interest of uni versity students and began the practice of the Mujeres Solares hosting students and volunteers in the community. On their website, Grupo Fnix advertises the Mujeres Solares and the solar cookers as a unique, progressive effort by rural women to save the e nvironment with renewable energy. Although the solar cookers have indirectly generated money, the actual sale of cookers has been largely unsuccessful, partially because of the high costs of the cookers and the lack of a local market. Further, the women h ave no skills in business, finance, or marketing to go out into different communities advertising the solar cookers and making business partnerships. T he women have also tried to generate income by using the bake cookies, and they also make jam and toast coffee. The women do not attempt to sell these products in the community or at markets and only make them when volunteers are arriving or a solar energy fair is coming up where they can showcase their goods. They do not make a nd sell these goods regularly because of the high price of materials and low price of conventional cookies, jam and coffee on the market. The money and time it takes to make 100 cookies is not worth the price people would pay for them in town. Although the profit from their baked goods and coffee is small, it is a reliable way to make a little more money when volunteers come to stay. Even a small profit can go a long way for people who have very little access to cash and who subsist mostly on farming. Rumal da


28 Lopez gives a powerful example of what this small amount of money has done for her and her children: Hemos aprendido a hacer pasteles, pan, galleta, pinol, cacao, la comida diaria en ellas. El poquito de fondo que ganamos asi, vendiendo pinolillo, galletas o cacao, en el Centro Solar o en casa, es un beneficio para que nuestros hijos vayan a clase. Mas an [ We learned to make pastries, bread, cookies, pinol, cacao, daily food in the cookers. The small funds we make this way, selling pinolillo, cookies, or cacao, in the Solar Center or in our houses, are a benefit so that our sons may go to class. alpa because of the [bus] fare.] Rumalda Lopez Lopez ( La Casa Rural Mejorada 2009: 81) OTHER PROJECTS The in depth examination of the solar c ooker project has offered some valuable lessons about what is working and what is not. In this section, I discuss the other main projects of the Mujeres Solares in order to further examine the appropriateness and sustainability of these projects as well as the extent to which they have ben efitted the women through skill acquisition and income generation. The projects discussed here are volunteer home stays, organic charcoal, and the solar restaurant Many of the same benefits and problems encountered with solar cookers also present themselves here, including a gaining of self confidence and pride but a lack of a local market and skills to expand these business es


29 Volunteer home s tays Throughout the year, the Mujeres host international volunteers and student groups in their homes. Individual volunteers generally stay for at least two months, and groups of university students o nly stay for one to three weeks. They pay a fee to Grupo Fnix part of which goes to the Mujeres Solares for tra vel, room and board Volunteers are drawn by an interest in the solar technology activities taking place in this rural community. Many are engineers who come to work on new project s or improve upon existing ones, and they work with the Mujeres in the development and implementation of these projects at the Solar Center. As discussed above, hosting international volunteers requires a great deal of organizational skills, particularly for hosting student groups, which number anywhere from 15 to 30 peo ple I witnessed the hosting of a large student group during my two month stay. The women held a meeting to discuss how many volunteers each household could host, and which ones preferred to host females, males or had no preference. The volunteers eat din ner with their homestay families but they eat lunch with other volunteers at a di week, allowing volunteers to touch base with each other as well as to become more familiar with all of the Mujeres members and their ways of living Susan Kinne and several of the women emphasized the benefits of cultural exchange between international volunteers and the Mujeres, learning about different lifestyles and values. Grupo affiliation with the National Engi neering University (UNI) in Man agua gives it credibility and allows it to more easily forge important partnerships with international universities However there is a tradeoff b etween that credibility and the complicated administrative processes and costs involved in operating through UNI. Because UNI is a national


30 entity belonging to the state Grupo Fnix must complete rigorous proced ures and complicated paperwork, which slows progress and implementation. Three Grupo Fnix employees at the UNI office are dedicated to this ad ministrative work, and their salaries eat up about half of the fees paid by the volunteer s, reducing the amount that goes directly to the Mujeres Kinne and Suyen Cordoba, the national education coordinator, are paid through u niversity funding However, volunteer fees pay the salaries of the overall administrator, project coordinator, and project collaborator. By operating through Grupo Fnix the Mujeres Solares lose about 50% of the fee paid by volunteers and students for home stays to pay th e administrative staff at UNI. I paid $500 a month to stay as a volunteer through Grupo Fnix and only about $250 of that went to the cooperative and my home stay family for living expenses. As the main source of income generation, volunteer homestays de pend heavily on the administrative work of Grupo Fnix The Mujeres do not currently have the resources or skills to communicate with universities and volunteers. They do not know how to maintain the w ebsite or publish news updates, and h ardly any of them even know how to write emails Only one of them has a computer, and Internet service there is unreliable at best. The Mujeres depend heavily on the communication, financial and administrative services provided by Grupo Fnix for the smooth operation of the volunteer program. Without the necessary skills, the Mujeres will continue to need Grupo Fnix and will continue to lose money that goes towards paying the salaries of administrative employees in Managua. In my interviews, t he Mujeres were unaware of how much volunteers paid per month and where the money went. Some of them were under the impression that the volunteers were getting away with a bargain because the women themselves saw so little of what they paid This


31 indicates a lack of transparency between Grupo Fnix and the Mujeres Solares As part of their accountability to both their donors and their beneficiaries, NGOs and non profits should be transparent about the use of funds (Najam 1996). Part of this would be making sure the M ujeres understand how volunteer funds are distributed. Organic c harcoal A professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a process to make charcoal using the excess waste of caa de maiz (corn stalk) and millo (a variety of millet) after harves t. Four of the Mujeres Solares, who displayed enthusiasm and aptitude for this project, formed the charcoal team. After much repetition, they memorized the complicated process, in which one wrong step could ruin the entire product. The long, labor intensive charcoal process requires at least four people to carry out its numerous steps. Further, the process involves dangerous burnings, and one woman almost got badly burned when a barrel caught on fire. The difficulty of the process, as well as the end product of a unique, organic, useable fossil fuel, has made the four charcoal construction members very proud of their work. One woman, Glenda, boastfully told me that a company wanted to buy their recipe, but they would not sell it. Their goal is to make most of the charcoal in the summer and sell it in the winter. However, they realize that it will be difficult to make enough charcoal at a low enough cost to compete with wood charcoal in the Nicaraguan market. The organic charcoal must compete wi th wood charcoal, which is sold in town for only C$10 per bag. Moreover, the process is very labor intensive; it requires three days of work to produce only 18 one pound bags of charcoal. The revenue made from sales is then split four ways, effectively dec reasing the return to labor to only 45 cordobas after three days of production work and at least one day of selling


32 As with the solar cookers, local consumers seem unwilling to pay a higher price for this product. Perhaps people in other locations would be willing to pay more to know that their charcoal is organic and does not use wood. In the United States, for example, the charcoal might appeal to the growing market for organic, environment friendly products. To make this conjecture a possibility, the women would again need marketing, communications and business sk ills to advertise their product make partnerships with middlemen and sellers in the US, and keep track of their finances. The solar r estaurant The Solar Restaurant is a relatively new building built in 2010 on the grounds near the Solar Center. The restaurant was built with the idea of serving people passing by on the highway, between the towns of Ocotal and Somoto, looking for a place to get a good meal for a decent price. The restaurant is attractive, furnished with handmade wooden tables and chairs and clay bowls made by local craftsmen and is equipped with 12 solar ovens, 2 Prole a eco fogn s, and several charcoal cookers. As of mid 2011, it was being used to serve visiting student groups and has not opened commercially because the women needed to meet all health regulations and receive a health permit. However, I have recently gotten word from Susan Kinne that the restaurant is now officially op en and is generating a small income. U nlike the solar cookers, the restaurant caters to a potentially large local market of Nicaraguans looking for a traditional style meal for a reasonable price The restaurant has the possibility of generating a steady income for the women, who can trade off on cooking duties throughout the week. However, it will have to find a way to compete with restaurants in the nearby towns in more convenient locations. Why should people stop and eat at the Solar Restaurant in the midpoint between two destinations with nothing else surrounding it ? The


33 restaurant is unique, with its local furniture, fresh locally grown ingredients, and its use of solar cookers to cook meals. It offers a healthy, traditional meal at a good price as w ell as the novelty of seeing your food cooked in a solar cooker. If the women had some outside help in marketing its unique features perhaps people would be enticed to stop and try it. However, a rural Nicaraguan audience might not find this idea too appe aling or exciting. The question of how to market the restaurant is an interesting one, which will hopefully be taken up by future volunteers specializing in marketing and business. THE BIG PICTURE The examination of these projects provides us with insights about how the Mujeres Solares have been affected by their involveme nt with Grupo Fnix. Here I summarize the key points discussed for each project appropriateness, organizati on and leadership, labor skill acquisition and income generati on. I then use this information to examine the broader question of whether the Mujeres Solares could sustain these projects on their own and whether the direct participation of the Mujeres has led to a changed consciousness and contributed to a process of empowerment. Appropriate? My purpose is not to provide an in depth evaluation of Grupo Fnix My observations, suggest that their projects are not always appropriate in regards to the goals of the Mujeres Solares. The solar energy technologies are reproducible at a local level and use renewable energy, but the products are not affordable to the local community or do not have a large enough market in which to sell the products. Some of the Grupo Fnix technologies co st far more than the average Nicaraguan family can pay. Further, most projects rely heavily on the presence of


34 foreign volunteers and their funds. Projects require high capital and labor inputs and yield low returns, only minimally helping the women achie ve their goal of monetary gain. Some of the technologies developed by Grupo Fnix might not be appropriate in the sense that people are not interested in them or they require too much work, causing some projects to be abandoned after the departure of the researchers Kinne cited the example of the biodigestor project, driven primarily by the interest of funders and which was taken up by the only male member of the co op, Marco. However, the women were unenthusiastic and uninvolved, and the project essentia lly was abandoned. Labor Skill Acquisition The Mujeres Solares have acquired various skills that defy the sexual division of labor For example, although they had little or no previous experience in construction, they have helped build the solar restaurant and can now form bricks, lay a foundation and build a building. Members of the solar construction team -some of whom had never before held a screwdriver are experts in the precise measurements and extensive constructio n of whole solar cookers. Women without a formal lesson in chemistry have memorized the minute details of a complex chemical process and can produce their own organic charcoal. Cecelski (2000) discusses the recent trend of women adopting nontraditional wor renewable energy projects is that male roles are not fixed but are increasingly being undertaken by women household h ead s, as well as by other women (16 ). The women can utilize these skills throughout their live s to repair their homes, giving them less dependence on a man and less inclination to hire s omeone to do construction work, possibly saving them money and incre asing self confidence. However, construction skills may not be transferrable to employment opportunities elsewhere in their community where men take


35 up most manual labor jobs Moreover, the women have learned to make goods that involve high labor requirements and a very limited market in the community. Organization and l eadership As discussed with the solar cooker project, all projects require organization, task delegation and leadership skills. The organic charcoal requires extensive cooperation and planning to complete the complicated process. The solar restaurant requires the ro tation of cooks during the week and the organization of who will buy food, what food to buy and keeping track of money spent. The international volunteer homestays require the most organization, with the whole cooperative pitching in to accommodate the stu dents. Potential for income g eneration As the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the average standard of living is very low, averaging $2,430 gross national income ( GNI ) per capita in 2011 ( UNDP 2011). Both w omen and men have limited opportunities for formal employment According to the National Institute of Development Information, in 2005, 65.6% of men and 68.6% of women were employed in the informal sector The informal sector includes self employment, informal wage employment and s ubsistence agriculture. Although not all informal workers are poor, most poor people work in the informal sector A total of poverty worked in the informal sector, including 81.7% of women in extreme poverty (Nati onal Institute of Development Information 2005) Opportunities in rural areas are even more limited, and many people I met made their living solely from subsistence farming. W omen from Sabana Grande can travel to the nearby towns of Ocotal or Somoto to find informal employment such as washing clothes or selling goods but opportunities are scarce and limited Also, the commute to a job in town is difficult for many women, who walk for hours to


36 save money on bus fares. The time spent traveling and the distance from home complicate domestic responsibilities such as cooking meals on time as well as child care. In this context, Grupo Fnix has provided the women with opportunities for informal income generation, which would not have othe rwise been available especially not so close to home Further, in a community in which farming is the primary male occupation, and hard cash is difficult to come by, the money made by the Mujeres is contributing to the economic wellbeing of b oth their families and the community overall. The generation of income can alleviate the stresses of poverty and can potentially ben efit the women, their children and the entire household. T he income earned through Grupo Fnix which reflect their socially ascribed obligations and responsibilities, including provision of food, healthcare and education for their children. The Soci al Safety Net ( Red de Protecci n Social RPS) program in Nicaragua provides conditional cash tr ansfers to women and has found that increased income and spending pow er correlates with a greater share of household resources devoted to children ( Gitter and Barham 2008). However, as emphasized throughout this paper, the women feel that the income they make through the cooperative is insufficient in relation to the amount of hours they work. They want to earn a decent compensation to further improve their quality of life. T he benefits and problems of w orking with Grupo Fnix The NGO movement in Nicaragua largely began as a consequence of the earthquake of 1972 in the capital of Managua, which caused over 100,000 mortalities. International donors sent aid money to the government, only to find that the ruling Somoza Party was ho arding much of it Donors began to look for alternative channels for their funds, less prone to government


37 corruption (Fogarty 2009). In response, NGOs sprang up throughout the country and eventually turned from disaster relief to development projects. The presence of non governmental organizations (NGOs) in Nicaragua has played a significant role in aiding impove rished people around the country in diverse ways, from installing wells and clean water systems to providing healthcare for pregnant women Altho ugh Grupo Fnix is not legally an NGO, but a non profit with administration through the National Engineerin g University its operations, relationships and obstacles are comparable to those of many NGOs allowing a discussion of Grupo Fnix using literature about NGOs and grassroots development when applicable. Along with many other NGOs, Grupo Fnix attempts to practice grassroots development encouraging a bottom up development model that works with the community and beneficiaries directly. Even those with good intentions find the grassroots development approach difficult in practice. One problem encountered is the difference in the goals of the organization, donors, and beneficiaries. The employees of the NGO may be trained in cert ain development asp ects or have technological expertise, and can easily fall into thinking that they know better than the p erhaps uneducated beneficiaries, as we have seen in the diverging goals of Grupo Fnix and the Mujeres. As stated on their website (, the mission of Grupo Fnix sustainable lifestyles through technical and cultural exchange, promotion and research in the field of ren ewable energy (Accessed March 1, 2012). Grupo Fnix aims to well being of rural communities. While being cannot be uniformly defined for impoverished people, it consists of achieving the


38 goals of survival, security and self esteem (Kabeer 1994 ) definition of whose well being is being planned rather than by the definitions of those who are doing the 1994 : 229 ). In other words, outside agencies such as Grupo Fnix should define their projects and goals based on the goals of community members directly affected by those projects, the Mujeres Solares. However, Grupo Fnix failed to do t his from the beginning when they came into the community with a predetermined idea that introducing solar technologies would contribute to the well being of the community. The primary purpose of these technologies was never to generate income, but to get r ural people to start using renewable energy, thereby helping the community and the environment. The employees of Grupo Fnix do not have the time, professional expertise or technical skills to implement income generating projects or teach the Mujeres about how to run a business. From my observations, Kinne truly cares about the women and desires to see them succeed. When the women said they wanted a central place to call their own, for example, all of energy and resources were directed towards the making of the Solar Center. The difficulty in practicing grassroot s development and participation arises in maintain ing a balance between overseeing projects and controlling them. NGOs and non profits are a lso limited by a constant need to fundraise and often depend on money from international donors or grants to sustain projects and operations. Th is dependency allows donors to gain greater decision making power over the projects and how they should be carri ed out when ideally, the beneficiaries of the projects should be the main voice making these decisions Donors provide an unreliable source of financial support, which can be and money towards reassuring their donors rather than improving the lives of their beneficiaries (Najam


39 1996) Many NGOs feel pressure to present quick, quantifiable results to satisfy their donors, although many aspects of development take time and make p rogress that is not easily quantifiable (Jaggar 2005). Grupo Fnix differs from most NGOs in that it depends on institutional grants and does not do fundraising among private individuals. Thus, it does not have a donor base of individuals nor an apparatus for communications While this allows Grupo Fnix to be free from accountability to donors and time spent on communications such as newsletters and progress reports, it also makes it harder for them to procure sufficient funds to financially sustain the o rganization. The number of grants received and volunteers hosted varies in a given year, which could leave Grupo Fenix in debt some years and making a small surplus other years. Kinne confessed that she has dipped in to her own personal savings to keep Gr upo Fnix afloat even though she herself earns a modest income Although Grupo Fnix does not have donors influencing its a genda, international volunteers partially influence the types of projects they will work on because they are the ones providing the funds for materials. However, Grupo Fnix attempts to push projects that are most desired by the Mujeres by suggesting a variety of projects volunteer grou ps could work on. When asked how new projects are chosen, Kinne replied that half of the ideas come from the community, and half come from the volunteers. Grupo Fnix Susan Kinne, interview June 29, 2011.


40 Increased a utonomy as a c ooperative? The Mujeres Solares have grown as an organization, but they continue to rely heavily on Grupo Fnix for many aspect s of their operations W hat would happen if Grupo Fnix ran out of funds or moved on to a different community ? T o what extent have the skills gained and money earned led to greater independen ce of the cooperative and ability to survive on its own? During my fieldwork, t he Mujeres Solares were at an interesting stage, desiring independence but still dependent on the involvement and assistance of Grupo Fnix To establish the Mujeres Solares as an independent entity, t hey recently become a legal cooperative in 2010 and are just becoming accustomed to the legal and financial rights and responsibilities that come along with that organizational category When they began to discuss legal independence from Grupo Fnix, a former volunteer coordinator proposed that they become a cooperative. I spoke with many Mujeres women who felt the decision was made quickly and was not under their control Many of the women did not understan d that they would each have to pay a membership fee of C$2000 to the government to declare themselves as a cooperative This is a large sum, and one woman said it represented everything she had saved from working w ith the Mujeres Solares. She felt like eve rything she worked for was taken away from her in an instant. As a legal cooperative, the women do feel more entitled to make their own decisions, but they still depend on and are controlled by Grupo Fnix to a large extent. They need Grupo Fnix to maintain contact with universities, bring in new volunteers maintain the Grupo Fnix website and emails and fill out administrative paperwork required by UNI Nobody in the Mujeres Solares knows how to maintain a website and most do not even know how to send emails or have access to a computer. Without the volunteers, the Mujeres would have no projects to work on, nobody to sell cookies to, and no income from hosting students in their homes.


41 In order for the Mujeres Solares to become truly autonomous as a cooperative then, they need to learn to market themselves and their products on their own. They need to learn computer and website skills, along with marketing and public relations techniques. They would need to have ready access to technology such as computers, fax machines, and the internet which is unlikely in their rural community. Alternatively, they would need to train a cooperative member willing to live in the nearby city of Ocotal or Somoto and who could perform administrative tasks there. They would also need a way to make their program credible without going through UNI and payin g administrators to work for them. Participatory d evelopment : l eading to e mpowerment ? By directly involving the Mujeres Solares in community projects, Grupo Fenix practices the model of participatory development, which emphasizes the need for greater control by community members in project design, implementation, and decision making. It inv olves community members as agents rather than clients and argues that direct participation will increase the efficiency of project outcomes and the empowerment of project beneficiaries (Mayoux 1995; Cleaver 1999). The empowerment perspective sees participa tion as an integral aspect of sparking a change of consciousness and giving participants the resources and ability to improve their lives and their social situation. Empowerment lives and defining their own agendas; it is usually associated with the interests of those disposed of power and assumed to be an expression of desired change without specifying what that change Rather than a state of being, empo which people, organizations or groups who are powerless (a) become aware of the power dynamics at work in their life context, (b) develop the skills and capacity for gaining some


42 reasonable control over their lives, (c) exercise th is control without infringing upon the rights of Women are often in inferior positions of power, and much empowerme nt literature focuses on women Sen (1988) discusses empowerment as a strategy championed by Third World women to change their own lives at the same time that it generates a process of social transformation. However, empowerment is not a fixed state and cannot be achieved through one process only, but must gradually be gained through changing power relations in all aspects. Participatory development is an integral aspect of the gradual process of changing a empowerment Participatory development has allowed women to beco me agents in the development process, giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility self esteem and self worth, as seen with the Mujeres Solares (Kabeer 1994, Rowlands 1997). Belonging to a group gives women a sense of solidarity, which is also seen in the Mujeres Solares Having a place to work, such as the Solar Center, gives women a sense of ownership and an environment in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves, as seen in meetings. Kabeer (1994) sums it up well when she says, n ew for ms of consciousness arise out 6). The Mujeres second part of the definition of empowerment, in that they have developed skills that allow them to work for income. Although this work is time consuming and does not pay much, it gives them the opportunity to get out of their homes and feel useful because they are working for money. The generation of income can for their own survival and that of their children. Women in volve themselves in income


43 generating activities, not simply to make money, but also to be able to have more control over their own lives by having the purchasing power that comes with that money. Ideally, the generation of income could lead to an increase d accumulation of assets, which allows for increased bargaining power and a stronger fallback position, ultimately increasing their economic autonomy and empowerment. The generation of income has certainly helped their families, but has it changed the wom making power and accumulated assets? The women earn small amounts of money at irregular intervals, which is not enough to support themselves and their children independently without the support of a husba nd or other family members. I could not study in depth who made the decisions about how the money earned from the cooperative was spent in individual households, as I did not have that kind of access and trust. But I surmise that many Mujeres did have the opportunity to spend at least some of their income at their own discretion to purchase groceries or send the ir children to school. Of course, each household varies depending on the dynamics between the husband and wife, with some husbands being more domine ering and controlling. However, most of the husbands I met improvement it had on their quality of life, whether it went towards purchasing a new TV or purchasing more nu tritious foods. household decision making power, the small amount of money is most likely insufficient to support themselves and their children without the help of their husbands or family members, so they do not have full economic autonomy. By increasing self confidence and income generation, the Mujeres Solares have moved forward in the process of empowerment, but it can not be said that this process has been


44 completed. Many scholars emphasize th at a complete empowerment process involves not only changes at the level of individual consciousness or individual economic situations but also structural changes in the political realm CONCLUSIONS Overall, the involvement of the Mujeres Solares with Grupo Fnix has benefitted them by giving them increased skills, the ability to earn some money and a sense of pride and ownership for their accomplishments. For the Mujeres Solares, renewable technolog ies were exciting as a concept, but have proven less beneficial in practice The solar cooker project itself cannot help the women meet their goal of generating a steady income because of the lack of a local market. Further, the solar cooker project relies too heavily on Grupo Fnix for funds, operations, and communications, which will never lead to self sustainability and independence of the cooperative. The Mujeres Solares need technical assistance to develop their busi ness skills to market their products nationally. Alternatively, to meet their goal of income generation, they need a new product that caters to a local market at a competitive, affordable price, leaving behind and pursuing the goals and interests of the Mujeres Solares. More than anything, this experience has shown me how a non profit can begin a process of transformation. through renewable energy has sparked something unique and exciting for the women has increased their self confidence and has raised their expectations They are now very much invested in the cooperative, have benefitted from it, and are proud of what they have accomplished, but they want to see it become more successful. I n this study, I have tried to highlight the


45 accomplishments but also underscored the problems they have cooperative self sustaining.


46 APPENDIX A 2 Close up map of Sabana Grande A 1 Map of Nicaragua


47 A 4 The Mujeres Solares solar box cooker A 3 A traditional wood burning stove cooking tortillas A 5 The Mujeres Solares building solar cookers


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