May 27, 2013

Lessons From The Developing World


Story by Karyn Boenker Contributor and Kopernik School Partnership Fellow

Less than five months ago, I was living off the grid in a remote region on the big island of Hawaii, performing research on the future of energy technology throughout the island state. I was living by catchment water and a dying solar panel.

Living off the grid was not easy, but it changed my life and inspired me to seek out others in the developing world who were living in similar circumstances without the choice to leave.

Upon discovering several humanitarian organizations helping with energy access challenges, I felt at a loss for one that had a sustainable impact – until I found Kopernik.

Students on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste, who will benefit from Kopernik's Lights for a Brighter Future. Photo: Karyn Boenker

Students on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste, who will benefit from Kopernik’s Lights for a Brighter Future. Photo: Karyn Boenker

Within last-mile communities, Kopernik collaborates with local partners todistribute, monitor, and sustain projects that distribute simple, life-changing technologies such as solar lights, clean cookstoves and water filters. Kopernik also trains local entrepreneurs to sell these technologies within their communities.

I immediately knew that Kopernik was revolutionary and I had to be apart of their movement. For more than a week, I worked hard on my application (which required a video), running it through my colleagues from graduate school, editing, and nitpicking, until one day I got the fateful call and was accepted into Kopernik’s fellowship program.

Since beginning my fellowship I have traveled around the world and back. I was gifted with the chance to learn from Kopernik experts in Bali and to visit the young students we aim to assist on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste.

I am grateful, I am determined, and I am changed, once again.

Worlds within the developing world: Bali, Indonesia and Atauro Island, Timor-Leste

Upper: Motorbike riders in the tourist center of Ubud, Bali. Lower: Rice paddies in Amed, Bali, a rural fishing town. Photo: Karyn Boenker

Upper: Motorbike riders in the tourist center of Ubud, Bali. Lower: Rice paddies in Amed, Bali, a rural fishing town. Photo: Karyn Boenker

My fellowship began with a month in Ubud, Bali. My mission was to make the dream of a project called Lights for a Brighter Future a reality.

I was to learn about Kopernik’s development model, visit a group of Timorese students whom I would help replace kerosene with solar lights, and take my lessons back to children in San Francisco, who would lead the charge in reaching our goal.

The transition from living off the grid to living in Bali and traveling to Timor-Leste was minimal. Bali is modern and fabulous, but still limited by numerous developing issues like water sanitation and public utilities. My experience in Hawaii, living off catchment water and an outdated solar panel prepared me for much worse.

Timor-Leste, on the other hand, is war torn and its small islands, like Atauro, have little access to electricity or clean water, especially in the mountain regions. Yet, the people there are strong, determined and inspiring.

I visited Atauro to capture the lives of kids my campaign would help. After a week of filming, I was brought to tears by the beauty of the local people and the kindness they had shared with me during my short visit.

On Atauro, I witnessed a harsh way of living and yet never heard a single complaint. Every person I met spoke with hope and pride, excited by the opportunity to work with Kopernik to bring solar energy to their community. There is a lot to learn from their stories.

Working together: one world for learning and communication

Life on Atauro is demanding, but locals are happy to have access to an education and are optimistic about the future. Photo: Karyn Boenker

Life on Atauro is demanding, but locals are happy to have access to an education and are optimistic about the future. Photo: Karyn Boenker

Returning to the developed world has been strange. Sitting on cramped city buses in congested streets, I long for the Kopernik motorbike and find myself reflecting on how much traffic could be reduced if they became common among San Francisco’s driving residents.

I am grateful for the city’s many public green spaces, although I cannot resist occasionally closing my eyes and imagining Indonesia. Thinking of my Bali friends and Atauro students while sitting in my office in California brings a warmth to me not unlike the hugging, equatorial heat ever present in Bali.

Surrounded by skyscrapers, I sometimes feel a loss in the absence of rice paddies, streets dripping with living canopies, warm rain, and the deafening sounds of wildlife.

There is a lot to be learned between the developing and developed world. So much of what industry has created through advancement has moved quickly, without considering the small, intricately beautiful details left behind as we grew. Additionally, missing many causes that stand to change the face of humanity if given the time.

While speaking to the TEDxTokyo audience in 2011, Kopernik’s co-founder Toshi Nakamura showed a picture of toilet that plays music and pronounced, “the bad news is that innovation in Japan has been misplaced, we’ve been focusing on the wrong things. But the good news is that we are now in a better position than ever to focus on things that matter and to innovate where it counts.”

In the developed world, the last few hundred years have left behind massive industrial efforts. In the face of global climate change we are trying to catch our breath, step back, and readjust our long established habits.

At the same event, Nakamura complimented the creativity behind singing toilets and smartphones, careful to encourage that such innovative energy should also be used to address problems that affect large portions of humanity.

“I can’t help but compare the degrees of innovation taking place to meet the needs in the rich countries [..] and the innovation to tackle the problems in developing countries. It’s like night and day… It is a challenge of the aid industry as a whole,” Nakamura proclaimed while explaining his motivation for founding Kopernik.

Simple, life-saving technologies can overcome problems all over the globe by keeping solutions simple, affordable, easily adaptable, and portable (see my story on d.light design for more).

Lights for a Brighter Future aims to replace petro candles and lamps (left) with small solar lanterns (right). Photo: Karyn Boenker

Lights for a Brighter Future aims to replace petro candles and lamps (left) with small solar lanterns (right). Photo: Karyn Boenker

In 2013, opportunities are completely different in the developing world than they were for the developed countries, like the United States when it began industrializing 200 years ago.

Unlike developed countries with established consumption habits the developing world is a blank state, building itself at this very moment.

Humanity determines the definition of progress

In many parts of rural Indonesia, especially those in Kopernik’s ‘last mile,’ solar is the only choice and makes more sense when planning for a healthy, less expensive, and more prosperous future.

Among the students I met on Atauro, solar lanterns were considered an obvious replacement for dirty, expensive and dangerous kerosene lighting.

“In the evening, we normally burn the waxes [and] petro lamps. But it has given bad impacts for our health and examination values. [..] If we got some d.light [solar lanterns] it [would] facilitate us to study, to [light] our house and to prepare [for] our future,” the students of Atauro wrote Kopernik’s Lights for a Brighter Future.

And why not the same for American students currently using hot, high voltage desk lamps? In the US, citizens traditionally use small solar technologies for camping and disaster relief, when they could also be used more generally for everyday lighting. Simple solutions make sense everywhere.

Where the developed world sees risk in changing our established consumption trends, the developing world sees opportunity and growth. There is a middle ground and innovation can get us there if we all take part in the movement.

The first step is solving global challenges on a long-term scale by creating sustainable impact. Then by taking the resulting technologies and lessons home and following the lead of our new allies.

Kopernik’s Lights for a Brighter Future offers a number of free services to youths, schools and informal education programs in order to promote solar lantern distribution on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. Contact for more information or donate here.

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.