PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Khun Chantho, a 30-year-old housewife, spent most of her life without electricity until she bought an 80-watt solar panel two weeks ago.
Living in a small town far from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, she would have had to pay $200 to be connected to the electrical grid. Some of her neighbors choose to share electricity with those already connected to the grid, paying $7.50 monthly despite frequent blackouts.
Chantho’s photovoltaic system costs her a down payment of $100 and monthly installments of $11 for two years.
“Since we got electricity, my baby cries at night if we switch off the light,” Chantho said, pointing to the small energy saving coil bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Chantho isn’t the only beneficiary of the solar power system. It is the same story for a group of young men and women in Takeo, an economically dormant province in southern Cambodia that even NGOs pay little attention to. The group built, sold and installed a photovoltaic system and aims to set up a renewable energy firm.
In the past year, they have become a promising entrepreneurial sensation, thanks to a project funded by the state-run Small and Medium Business Administration (SMBA) and endorsed by the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), a soon-to-be international organization initiated by Korea.
The project’s approach is a departure from the traditional model of administering foreign aid that doles out goodies to the poor. It seeks to empower local people to engage in economic activities through tailoring appropriate technology transfer schemes to suit their needs, said Kim Ju-hern, program manager of ASEM SMEs Eco-Innovation Center (ASEIC) who coordinated the project.
The campaign to make a difference at grassroots level, a bottom-up approach, is proven to be the most effective way to administer and implement official development assistance (ODA), Kim said. The underlying logic behind this innovative approach is that failure to factor in the peculiarities of the local community often ends in failing to achieve the desired impact, not least leaving the beneficiaries in a vicious cycle of dependency.
Chantho’s case is a good illustration because her solar power system was made by Cambodians who earn a living from not just the production but also from everything related to it, including after-sales repairs and maintenance such a scheme has the potential for long-term sustainability.
Hong Seong-uk, a professor at Hanbat National University who supervised the project said, “The goal was capacity building. Every project has to have an exit strategy. A team of Korean technicians can come here and easily install 100 solar power systems in a month. But who will maintain and repair them after they have left?”
While a large portion of Korea’s ODAs have been criticized for being conditional, short-term or only beneficial to Korean businesses, the Takeo project suggests how foreign aid should be administered. It also shows that it is no easy job, requiring adequate strategic planning, experts in various fields and a great deal of patience.
On Oct. 9, the Cambodian deputy minister of environment visited Takeo for an opening ceremony of the Takeo Appropriate Technology Center at the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development (ISAC), a vocational school set up by Korean missionary Kim Gi-dae.
For both the villagers and the school, the deputy minister’s presence was a big deal that symbolized the crowning moment from a humble beginning.
In the past year, ISAC has transformed from an agricultural school with a pig farm to the province’s green technology center.
The story goes back to September 2011 when Energy Farm, a small Korean renewable energy products company, began teaching graduates and volunteers at ISAC how to build solar cookers, an upturned-bowl-like device made of aluminum sheets. It uses a technology that converts the sun rays into heat energy to cook enough rice to feed four people in 20 minutes.
It was funded and planned by ASEIC, a non-profit body approved by Asian and European heads of state to promote green growth among small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). ASEIC belongs to the Small and Medium Business Corp., a state-run entity supporting SMEs, and receives funding from SMBA.
One of ASEIC’s objectives was to set up environmentally-oriented startups in developing countries by offering assistance from SMEs in developed nations, Kim of ASEIC said.
It recognized that startups in developing countries wouldn’t need to acquire advanced technology but one that is basic, yet precisely addressing local needs. The technology does not carry any patents and is also very user friendly.
Two months after the project’s inception, ISAC presented the completed solar cookers to ASEIC and the GGGI. On a blazing hot day, they fried noodles, cooked rice, grilled bananas and heated irons on the solar cookers.
But uncertainty lingered on how would they make money from the bulky device? They didn’t want them to be bought by other NGOs and distributed for free. That wouldn’t be a sustainable business.
Energy Farm’s Kim still had hope. He said, “Some staff members couldn’t even read the scale on a ruler. For them, being able to cut metal sheets with precision and weld them is a useful skill that can be applied to many other jobs.” What Kim and the Cambodians needed was continued support.
Back in Korea, ASEIC tried to keep the project alive, presenting the case to the government with endorsement from the GGGI.
The effort faced a major crisis in mid-December when Kim of Energy Farm was involved in a severe car accident, leaving him unconscious with a broken pelvis and ribs.
Kim remained in a critical condition until mid-January, triggering concerns about the continuity of the project. Kim’s first words after regaining consciousness was “How is the Cambodia project going?”
ASEIC succeeded in securing some 200 million won of its 2012 budget from the state for the Takeo project, compared to some 80 million won in 2011. It wasn’t an easy job to convince the budget panel that training several Cambodians to use average technology was worth the money.
With more funding came a renewed vigor for the project. In addition to solar cookers, ISAC would learn how to build a photovoltaic system for domestic use.
As electricity has no substitute and clearly has a high demand, the new project motivated ISAC’s employees. ASEIC planned to spend a large portion of the budget on an appropriate technology center, so ISAC could hire some of the graduates who had been volunteering.
Kim of ISAC started seeing hope in the face of staff members. The missionary and principal brainchild of ISAC was set to see the project succeed, in large part due to residents’ vote of confidence because of a decade of selfless community service he had offered.
“I started seeing a big difference. This year, we have more specific business plans, and the employees were no longer volunteers or temporary staff,” he said.
He added that the change in attitude made him think about the news he heard about contract workers in Korea who are unfairly treated compared to their full-time counterparts.
ISAC’s staff members worked in the day and studied at night with Energy Farm, which designed a textbook on electrical engineering. It was first written in Korean, translated into English and then to Khmer by a Cambodian engineer and a Cambodian translator.
The staff members built the center on their own and installed a 5 kilowatt solar panel on the roof. The center has a workshop, storage for raw materials and an office.
“The staff members now know how to build a house. If the income from solar business isn’t enough, they can use their construction skills,” Kim of ISAC said.
“ASEIC approached the issue from a software point of view rather than a hardware format.”
To manufacture the photovoltaic systems, imported panels were assembled by ISAC staff who will also maintain them.
They come in 50, 80 and 100 watt power levels. The 100 watt solar panel requires a down payment of $200 and $11 installments for two years. The International Monetary Fund estimates Cambodia’s per capita GDP for 2012 at $931.
When the system’s battery has been charged during the day, at night it can run a light bulb for four hours concurrently, a color TV for two hours and a small fan for three hours.
The project’s ultimate goal is to help the staff set up a firm. Kim Gi-dae said that ISAC’s next move will be marketing the product.
Even before the center officially opened, the solar power systems had already been sold to four households. Khun was the first customer and three are waiting to have their system installed, Kim Gi-dae said.
By late October when the project officially ends, ISAC and Energy Farm have to produce 100 solar cookers and 60 photovoltaic systems. The revenue from the products will be used as seed money to develop the business.
The appropriate technology center is, however, still in its infancy, and the officials involved in the project said it remains fragile without continuous support.
The GGGI, which will become an international organization Thursday after three countries including Denmark ratified the
conversion of its status, plans to be handed the baton and fund ISAC in 2013 via the Cambodian government.
The next project will be training ISAC on building Scheffler reflectors, a larger version of the solar cooker.
The GGGI has played a key role in publicizing the project to the Cambodian government, having closely worked with it in drawing the roadmap for green development. The institute advised the government about what Korea has done wrong in the past in terms of its failure to pursue environmentally conscious policies and in that regard charting a future path for green growth.
While the GGGI’s cooperation with the government may be typical of a top-down approach, Lee Myung-kyoon, the director of Green Growth Planning and Implementation at the GGGI, said that the Takeo project is its first attempt to integrate a bottom-up approach into a top-down method. If successful, the project can be replicated in other nations the GGGI has worked with and can have serious implications.
“If the project works out, it will help the government see what green growth can do and persuade them to do better. It’s a two-track approach,” Lee said.
Vannak Meas, a teacher at ISAC who helped with the opening ceremony, was ecstatic at the launch of the technology center. For Meas, who studied agriculture in Korea, seeing the deputy minister sparked his marketing ideas.
“Now powerful people know of our activity. They will be talking about our project, and this is part of promotion and marketing. It will help sales,” he said.
He added that the best part of the solar project was that it brought electricity to people who had been long deprived of it.
The second best part was “learning and doing” the work.
“As you know business isn’t easy in the competition phase. No work, no success. We still do our best,” Meas said.
“Before I never knew about solar cookers or a solar power home system. I now know what they are and we can make them.”
How they learned to build and sell
photovoltaic systems on their own