The Grupo Fenix consortium is fostering exchange between academic partners and a village in Nicaragua’s countryside, advancing solar technology and empowering women. The “edutourism” model helps rural communities, creates awareness of sustainable lifestyles through technical and cultural exchange, and promotes renewable energy research.
7 international courses offered yearly
Students from 6 educational institutions visiting rural Nicaragua community
20 volunteers stay for up to 6 months annually
Ten years of civil war followed by an economic crisis have contributed to making Nicaragua the second-poorest country in Latin America. Natural disasters have made life more difficult for the country’s poor, who live largely in the countryside where they lack educational and work opportunities, as well as access to electrical grids and other basic infrastructure.
Nicaragua’s rural poor, many of whom are indigenous, survive off the land as small-scale farmers or landless farm workers. Women in these areas are even more marginalized – traditionally, women were isolated in their poorly lit kitchens where they cooked on open-air fires. Women’s kitchens filled with smoke, harming their health, and they also bore the arduous and dangerous task of collecting firewood.
The Grupo Fenix consortium began in 1999 to connect rural Nicaraguan landmine victims to solar energy jobs. Women in the community of Sabana Grande warmed to solar cookers, which harness the sun’s rays instead of firewood, and organized a collective to produce such cookers. Grupo Fenix began facilitating technical and cultural exchanges among university professors, students, professionals, and female-led rural Nicaraguan groups.
The exchange allows Nicaraguan cooperatives, in conjunction with several United States universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to co-develop solar ovens, photovoltaic panels, improved wood-burning stoves, bicycle-powered blenders, and charcoal from agricultural waste. In 2011, Sabana Grande women completed construction of a “solar restaurant” to feed study and volunteer participants, who stay in the community for up to six months at a time.
Helping the planet
Sabana Grande’s production of solar products reduces carbon emissions, thus preventing climate change. Local use of solar technology not only reduces dependency on fossil fuel power sources, it also contributes to more sustainable management of the region’s natural resources, as for example women don’t need to gather as much wood to burn for fuel. One of the groups has focused on agro-ecological methods to restore and preserve water, soil, and forests in the community. Their “Solar Mountain” site models these practices, both for community education and edutourism.
Production of solar products generates much-needed income for rural communities, helping reduce poverty. Use of the products enhances quality of life, especially for women who no longer suffer in smoky kitchens or spend hours each day gathering firewood. Part of the income earned through edutourism is put toward getting women an education. Since edutourism has become an integral part of the community’s fabric over the years, it is building social capital that will continue to generate yields as the community transforms in the long-term.
The edutourism concept creates a feedback loop as an ever-widening array of education institutions and non-governmental organizations take part. The project has steadily grown, into offering a range of courses related to renewable energy, sustainable practices, and natural building. It has a burgeoning volunteer program, an average of seven study groups visiting each year, and more groups currently arranging long-term collaborations.
Edutourism’s emphasis on exchange and empowerment of women has led to both national and international recognition – the model is being replicated in its home country of Nicaragua, and women’s groups have also visited Peru, Colombia and the Dominican Republic to teach solar cooker construction to locally formed groups there.
Images owned by the activity partners, all rights reserved.