blueEnergy was born out a commitment to a place, the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. This commitment to place implied the need for a flexible model that could adapt to the context. This is a fundamentally different approach than many organizations take where they develop a product or service and then go find the right “market” to implement it in.
By Mathias Craig - So what is the context of this place? Communities in this region are extremely isolated and poor, but more significantly than that, they tend to lack most basic services like electricity, roads, clean water, communication, financing, etc. These are the very services that entrepreneurs rely on and leverage to launch their ventures in market based economies and even poor, “edge of the market” or Bottom of the Pyramid communities. But here, without these services, entrepreneurialism is stifled. So the question is, how do you get things started in a place like this so that people can help themselves?
To make a long story short, blueEnergy started off as a wind power organization, building and installing energy systems on the Caribbean Coast. To be sure, we did a lot of training and discussing with communities, but our focus was on the technology. As our understanding of the context of this place deepened, it became clear that to have a real impact, we would need to broaden into energy services, meaning that in addition to energy production, we needed to get into energy management and end-use of the energy. Because of the context you couldn’t make the assumption that energy in = productive use out because so many links of the chain are missing.
After a couple more years, we looked around and saw that we had invested so much in relationships, infrastructure and processes in order to reach out to the most remote, marginalized communities. It didn’t make sense to make this investment and to be positioned as the “last 40 miles” (a la “last mile) service provider to these communities and limit ourselves to just energy. Better to leverage our up-front investment to create impact in the same communities in other areas such as clean water. In the end, system change requires a combination of services, not just one alone.
We had evolved into a holistic community development organization, using renewable energy and clean water, along with other services, as a way to stimulate local entrepreneurship.
But employing a holistic model in extremely harsh conditions has implications: for one, your work moves slowly. Everything is based on relationships and they don’t scale well. Also, the culture is not used to rapid change, so that limits how fast you can move forward. Finally, moving forward in these conditions, even slowly, is very resource intensive.
Our impact was growing, but mostly in the depth dimension. We shunned “community hopping” and focused on creating fundamental, deep change in a modest sized group of people (about 3,000 in 2010). But it’s hard to measure depth of impact, while it’s easy to measure number of beneficiaries, so our impact is sometimes harder to see. It’s easy to distribute a container full of solar lights and claim you have “impacted” 10,000 people; it’s a lot harder to work with people to understand their culture, develop joint plans, build infrastructure and work to link this infrastructure to life-changing activities. The latter approach, the one used by blueEnergy on Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, produces a good resource / ”depth impact” ratio but a bad resource / “number of people impacted” ratio, which is the one most understood by people.
The need for growth that could easily be understood by people (ie. number of beneficiaries) could be felt everywhere, from the staff to the co-founders to the funders to the general public. With our commitment to our “depth impact” model on the Caribbean Coast and the fact that the context of this place constrained our “number of beneficiaries” growth to be organic, we asked ourselves how we could scale our impact in other ways.
In our most recent evolution, in 2010, we recognized that we were having impacts outside of the most marginalized communities and that we had a role to play on larger stages where we could grow our impact very cost effectively, primarily through two mechanisms – imitation and movement building.