The idea came to Weston native Peter Haas on a pig farm in Cuba. Haas was studying urban agriculture while traveling on a U.S. Department of Treasury permit, and this was the first farm he visited. He was surprised to learn that the farmer had installed a “biodigester” (a mechanism that collects animal waste and, through a process, promotes a controlled buildup of methane gas for heating, cooking, and lighting) built by his nephew, to treat pig excrement. The organic fertilizer generated by the biodigester enhanced the farm’s productivity. And amazingly, the farm was relatively clean, operated efficiently, and lacked the typical foul odor one would expect from a pig farm. The well was also clean and the kitchen was spotless, thanks to the biogas stove.
The second farm Haas visited provided a stark contrast. The place was literally a pig sty and a “sanitation nightmare,” as Haas put it. Pig excrement was everywhere, contaminating a nearby stream. The kitchen was filled with black smoke from inefficient wood fires, created by chopping down surrounding trees. To light the house, the farmer was paying way too much for kerosene. It wasn’t the farmer’s fault: he couldn’t have purchased a biodigester if he wanted one. There just weren’t any businesses selling (let alone servicing) them.
Throughout his global travels, the story kept repeating itself, as Haas discovered a tremendous need for the spread of appropriate technology. He also realized some simple, basic truths about the state of systems installed by well-intentioned aid organizations. As he journeyed through countries like Burma, Cambodia, Botswana, Thailand, Chile, and Panama, Haas says, “I kept on seeing infrastructure and development projects that had failed because of a lack of simple maintenance.” He noticed pumps in Thailand that were broken because of a simple gasket, and a hydro system in Chile that wasn’t working due to a single breaker.
Haas decided to make it his goal to help people in rural villages in developing countries gain access to affordable and environmentally-sound technologies to meet their basic needs, such as clean drinking water, electricity, and proper sanitation. In 2003, he put his ideas into action, and formed the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), with the mission to help break the cycle of poverty in developing countries by providing access to technology that will improve their lives. To accomplish this goal, the group uses local materials to leverage a potent combination of business incubation, education, and training to empower local people with the physical tools and practical knowledge to solve infrastructure problems in their own communities.
“AIDG is trying to solve rural infrastructure problems for populations living on two to four dollars a day, using market-based methods combined with business incubation of small-scale manufacturing facilities for renewable energy technologies,” Haas says.
Turning Grassroots Into Reality
Haas found support for his idea back home in Weston, where he found Adam Hyde, Benny Lee, and Gray Lee, former classmates and friends who share his environmental ideals. “We all grew up close to either Land’s Sake Farm or Gateways Farm in Weston,” explains Haas, now AIDG’s Executive Director. “Many of our down-to earth, grassroots values came from growing up in town. We’re part of a close-knit group of Westonites who have kept in touch during the years, and we share the same commitment to environmental goals and issues,” says the 1993 graduate of Weston High School.
A graduate of Yale who has worked with water and electrical systems, masonry, drainage control and irrigation, Haas works alongside other WHS alums: Adam Hyde, AIDG’s chairman, who graduated with a B.S. in environmental studies from the University of Vermont and has worked with government agencies on land stewardship initiatives; and Benny Lee, the group’s education and outreach director, who has an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts, and has worked as a field geologist and environmental scientist. Also part of AIDG's team is Grey Lee, who worked in Brazil as an extension agent with a peasant’s movement and is now the executive director of Land’s Sake Farm, which showcases organic farming and promotes environmental education.
Two years ago, the AIDG colleagues began to scout for a location, relatively close to the United States, to launch a pilot project where there was already an established supply of infrastructure-related materials. “We did research in Southern Mexico and Central America, and we discovered that Guatemala had a real need and proximity to supplies and materials,” Haas explains.
Not many local residents have welded together windmills in old barns in Weston, and then carried those windmills in ski bags to rural villages in Guatemala and put them up. That’s exactly how the AIDG team started taking their eco-values global, with just a $5,000 budget. Jamie Burns, a Weston sculptor, lent the group his metal shop, and the idea came to life. The windmills were brought down to Guatemala in parts, and today the organization supports a ten-person workshop in the town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short). Tech-minded Guatemalans build eco-friendly devices, like windmills, low-cost generators and small-scale hydro appliances that are used to bring survival basics like power to poverty-stricken villages in the Mayan highlands.
“These appropriate infrastructure tools can be built and used without harming the environment, and don’t need prohibitive levels of financing,” Haas notes. “With proper tools and knowledge, communities of limited means can solve their own problems.”
In Xela, the AIDG-supported workshop is currently building a hydroelectric system that will serve 40 houses over a several-mile area, sustaining the community’s agro-industrial, ecotourism, and water purification projects. For the project, the workshop, known as XelaTeco, is producing the electronic ballast load controllers, pelton turbines, housings, and safety features, as well as connecting the transmission to all of the houses.
Since XelaTeco’s founding in 2005, it has produced windmills, high efficiency stoves, pumps, water filters, solar LED lighting systems, micro-hydro products, and biodigesters. It is staffed by ten Guatemalan engineers and four Americans.
“While Americans are part of the XelaTeco effort right now, our goal is to step aside,” Haas says. “We hope that arming rural communities with certain skill sets will help break a cycle of poverty, disease and malnutrition.”
AIDG provided the seed capital for XelaTeco in the form of a recoverable grant, as well as comprehensive technical and logistical support over a two-year incubation period. After this period, interest-free repayments of the recoverable grant are paid back over 15 years and are used to start new businesses in other geographic areas and regions. The organization’s objective is to use this self-sustaining replication model to create a global network of micro-manufacturing facilities, known as “workshops.”
“There are a lot of resources in the US, both fiscal and educational, to start a business,” Haas points out. “But in many countries, that simply doesn’t exist—barriers are so high. Even well-financed residents who are fairly educated encounter so much legislative paperwork and bureaucracy.”
XelaTeco has presented unparalleled career opportunities for its local employees. José Alfredo Ordonez, an electronics expert, was forced to leave a university electrical engineering program to support his family before joining the workshop. He is now financing his siblings’ university educations. Maria Natalia Poz joined XelaTeco after finishing a drafting and technical drawing degree, one of the few women in a highly competitive technical school for boys. While she had always been interested in mechanical engineering, her family stopped her from studying it. But since joining XelaTeco, she has excelled in engineering, design, and implementation, and has become the most skilled metal caster in the shop.
Thanks to the success in Guatemala, and the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of this Weston-based group, future projects are already in the works for expanding AIDG’s agricultural industrialist values to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “We’re examining rural needs, as well as local engineering talent we can train,” Haas concludes. “Overall, we’re operating on a five-year program, where we hope to produce a shop per year in a new country. We’re working right now to standardize our equipment and manufacturing procedures so we can roll out future shops in a few months and have an incubation period of one year to eighteen months.”
From Land’s Sake Farm in Weston, to pig farms in Cuba, to windmills in Guatemala, these enterprising Westonites, along with a capable team at AIDG, show no signs of slowing down as they take their eco-values worldwide. To learn more about how AIDG is building environmentally-friendly technology to help break the cycle of poverty in developing countries, visit www.aidg.org.