: Jo Ann L.B. Duggins
: Cat(herine) Florence Laine
: Deputy Director of AIDG
: Usually, I'm hopping between Boston and Brooklyn.
Currently Listening to
: Audiobook: When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Corey Doctorow; Music: Brazilian Girls, BSG Soundtrack, Hotel Costes, Gogol Bordello; Podcasts: CNET's Buzz Out Loud, Slate's Political Gabfest'
When buying gifts for friends, I tend to get lost in the shuffle. I really don't like being that gift giver who gets asked for the receipt. Last Christmas, I had a hard time deciding what I should get this friend of mine. He stated he wanted nothing but if I was going for the sentiment that I could donate to AIDG. I had never heard of this organization or what their work consisted of. So, I did some research to find that AIDG does amazing work in underdeveloped countries.
One in 3 of us, roughly 2 billion people don't have basic services such as electricity, sanitation and clean drinking water. Access to these services is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries.
The Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) helps individuals and communities get affordable and environmentally sound access to electricity, sanitation and clean water. Through a combination of business incubation, education, and outreach, we help people get technology that will better their health and improve their lives.
When and how did you begin your work for AIDG?
My partner started AIDG in August 2004, though we got our official non-profit status in 2005. At the time, I was in the thick of an infectious disease PhD that I hated and was looking for something ... more engaging. Peter would pull me in now and again to do freelance web/graphic design work. In summer of 2005, a group of us went down to Guatemala to get things really rolling on the ground. My thesis involved a mathematical modeling project that essentially could be done anywhere. Have laptop, will travel. So in between simulations, I did more design work and pitched in here and there.
Somewhere around that time, I had been reading Mountains beyond Mountains and took a class with Paul Farmer at Harvard Med. That book changed my life. For a while I thought I wanted to work with Farmer's NGO Partners In Health. Later it dawned on me that what really captivated me about his story was how he started PIH. He, Jim Kim, and Ophelia Dahl were these young scrappy kids who wanted to change the world and went for it hell-for-leather.
The next year, I took a leave of absence from my doctorate to become AIDG's Communications and Marketing Director. This past year and after some angst-filled indecision, I dropped out of grad school altogether and became the Deputy Director.
You all do a unique thing in your charity work…how is that you all stand out among other organizations in this genre of non-profit?
I think we are what you would get if Engineers Without Borders and Acumen Fund had an NGO baby. We start businesses with local engineering and business talent in developing countries that provide their communities with renewable energy, sanitation and water systems. Like EWB, we do a lot of design work to create low-cost environmentally sound systems to serve the poor. There are a lot of great open-source appropriate technology designs that have been in use in the field for decades, but many need more vigorous testing, marketing and distribution help to get out to the masses. So like Acumen Fund, we lend small businesses capital ($10,000-$100,000 and not $1m like Acumen) to get products and services to folks who need them the most. We also provide technical, business, and logistical training and support for 2-3 years to each incubated business.
There are many groups that do one or the other, but not many that combine these two aspects into a cohesive whole.
You all have a really great and diverse team of people working at AIDG…how is it that people get recruited for such work and what’s involved in working for this organization?
Many young engineers want to use their skills to get out there an change the world, to create products that could improve the lives of the 4 billion who live under $4 a day. A lot of business students want to use their newly acquired business smarts to do more than just work for an investment bank. If you're young, hungry and want to break into international development, there aren't a lot of opportunities to get out into the field and do these things. The type of professional and personal experience AIDG can offer is in short supply. We've been lucky that for the most part our talented recruits have come to us.
That depends. For example, if you are a community outreach intern, a normal day could involve a community meeting, surveying folks about their needs and resources for potential projects, holding a workshop or helping on a community install. If you are a research and development intern, your days could be spent designing or constructing a technology, scouting out sites for future installs, or meeting with/getting feedback from the end user. If you are working on the business development end, you'll be spending your time with the incubated business on accounting or marketing or community relations, etc.
So it all varies.
What was your most recent project?
Currently in Guatemala, we're prepping to start our 2nd incubated business that focuses on water delivery systems (e.g. water pumps that don't require electricity), solar hot water, and water filtration. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation are two of the biggest killers of kids under 5 in the world. Helping the people we serve get water would be a major boon to the health of their communities. We're very much excited about those prospects.
What are some challenges that you all face going into these countries and how do the locals react to your goodwill?
In Guatemala, the biggest challenge has been locating or developing financing strategies that would allow communities to afford our products and services. For instance, there are a multitude of micro finance options for an entrepreneur who wants to make money. If however you're poor consumer and want a product that will help you save money on fuel or what not, you're out of luck.
In Haiti, initially, our biggest problem was dealing with the serpentine bureaucracy and acquiring common parts and materials for our systems. More recently with the deterioration of people's living standards due to the food and fuel crises, we've been very concerned about security.
In both countries, the reception that we've gotten from local communities has been great because we have worked extensively with community partners to build relationships and trust.
What was one project you are particularly proud of or that was a life changing event?
For me, it was helping Comunidad Nueva Alianza get electricity. It was our first major project and my first experience with the worker-owned cooperatives that had formed throughout Guatemala after the civil war. CNA's story and their resiliency in the face of struggle are incredibly inspiring.
Their story in brief: In 1998, coffee prices on the international market tanked. Many long-standing plantations in Guatemala were sold off or went out of business. Not CNA though. The owner decided to stay in business by slashing costs, specifically by not paying his labor force. Zero, zilch, nada. The workers and their families subsisted by foraging wild plants and the farm went into default. After so many broken promises from the owner, the workers sued for 18 months worth of back wages. He declared bankruptcy and no back wages were ever recovered. Silver lining: Through a government program designed to help landless campesinos, the laborers obtained a loan to purchase the land their families have worked on for generations.
AIDG and our first incubated business, XelaTeco, helped this community get electricity into their homes for the first time. It makes me incredibly proud to have been able to participate in their struggle to build better lives for their themselves and their children.
How do you all get the equipment needed for your projects? How and who do you get funding?
Most of our equipment is either bought locally, carried in luggage from the States or shipped.
Right now, we get most of our funding from family foundations and private donors, people like you who hear about our work and are inspired to lend a helping hand.
What’s TecoTours? How does one go on it?
A TecoTour is a wonderful opportunity to get off your couch, get out there and make a difference in the community. It's a service-learning/volunteer trip in Guatemala where you get to learn about the local culture, experience the natural beauty of the country and participate in a project helping the local community. You don't already need to know Spanish. You don't need to super fit to be involved.You just need to be enthusiastic to learn and ready to work hard.
TecoTours come in 2 flavors. If you're in Guatemala already, we have short weekend long TecoTours that are very affordable for the budget traveler. We also offer an intense 10-day program particularly targeted towards groups of high school and college students. You can get more information by going to http://www.tecotours.com or emailing email@example.com. It's obviously totally biased, but it's awesome!
What are some upcoming things you all will be striving for in 2008?
2008 is a really big year for us and we have several ambitious projects that we'll be starting.
We want to grow our network of businesses so that we can reach more people and more communities. Like I mentioned earlier, we're prepping to a start business focusing on water technologies in Guatemala.
We also want to help XelaTeco (biz #1) get more micro-hydroelectric installations in. There are a lot of community cooperatives on old coffee plantations. Many of these farms have broken-down hydro systems that, if revived, could provide these communities with safe renewable energy. Not only could we help them get domestic electricity, but we could also save them thousands in energy costs. That would make a such a big difference as a good number of these communities are struggling to get by.
In Haiti, we're working to build a municipal biogas plant in Cap Haitien, Haiti's 2nd largest city. 60% of the city's residents don't have basic sanitation in their homes. By processing waste through a biodigester, we can create a renewable energy source, drastically improve sanitation, and reduce the release of the harmful greenhouse gas, methane. We're also partnering with a local NGO, SOIL, to create a municipal compost site using effluent from the biogas plant. Bonus! Recent events in Haiti, such as the food riots in April and the currents rise in kidnappings, have slowed down work on the project, but we're dedicated to seeing it through. We have buy-in from the municipal government, community, and local activists and we don't want to let them down.
An alien species comes to earth and decides that you're earth's ambassador - what would be the first activity you would show them to partake in?
Assuming that they are not Cylons bent on human destruction, I'd take them to see something musical. I reckon, math is a universal language and there is a strong connection between math and music. Maybe some Mozart to be safe.
Too bad this show at the Barbican is already over (Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=7038, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/jan/14/art.artnews). Otherwise it would have been my first choice.
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