Faster than a Creole woman can move her hips, my time at blueEnergy has come to an end! Filled with numerous stove installs, experiments, reports, presentations, and manuals, these last two weeks have been hectic, but of course, fascinating and rewarding.
The cookstove team undertook our most challenging install yet: three efficient cookstoves in rural farms close to Pueblo Nuevo. Besides the time crunch to finish three stoves in four days, this install proved especially challenging because of the distance from each farm to our central lodge. Each community was located 1.5-2 hours from our central point, which meant that we had to walk to and from each install carrying our tools and construction materials. Yet, the strenuous walk led to a great opportunity to spend the night with a local family, practice our Spanish, and get to understand life on the farm! The result was three happy families with new inkawasi style cookstoves and of course, four happy blueEnergy team members.
A family with their new efficient cookstove in Maya Creek
Upon our return to blueEnergy, the cookstove team continued to test possible construction techniques for stoves built with eco-bricks. Our final result was a manual, in Spanish, on eco-brick construction techniques, suggestions for further investigation, and a cost-benefit analysis comparison between eco-bricks and traditional cement blocks. The eco-bricks turned out to be more cost-effective and only slightly more time intensive than traditional methods! With this great news, we hope that eco-bricks will be incorporated into more blueEnergy projects in the future.
Our construction manual
Despite our progress with eco-bricks, long-term follow-up is required to know the true structural integrity and longevity of eco-bricks structures. Unsure how to perform these tests after we left, the team thought up some pretty unorthodox ideas that became a reality. Hence, with three days and no experience in the field, we set to build two benches made from our four different eco-brick test structures. These two benches now sit outside of the blueEnergy office and will serve as a reminder of eco-bricks’ potential, an active test to see which structure is successful, and of course, a comfy place to take a break.
Our eco-brick benches being put to use!
blueEnergy has given me the opportunity to see a new side of the world, a new side of the social sector, and a new side of myself (cheesy, I know). It has been enlightening working with people from all over the world to help achieve a common goal. blueEnergy’s success on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua is no doubt due to it’s unique approach to running a non-profit that requires much know-how, understanding, patience, adaptability, and purpose. I am lucky to have been even a small part of their ongoing mission.
Although my love affair with Nicaragua is not quite finished (I am traveling the western coast now for a few weeks), I certainly already miss the cheap taxis, great music, vibrant culture, and of course the irreplaceable people of blueEnergy and Bluefields!
July 5, 2014
Last weekend, a group of blueEnergy volunteers headed on a three hour bumpy panga ride to Wawashan, a local agroforestry reserve.
On the Rio Wawashan
We toured the farm and learned about their sustainable farming techniques. The trip wasn’t complete without a stop at their farm product store for some chocolates produced on site!After Wawashan and another panga ride to nearby Pueblo Nuevo, we hiked an hour through the mud to an ecolodge in Kahka Creek. Here, we met fellow volunteers from an organization called Nourish, who were building a maternity ward (in partner with a chapter from UC Berkeley) in nearby Pueblo Nuevo.
Hiking to the Ecolodge
Besides some of the biggest spiders and other bugs I’ve ever seen, Kahka Creek was gorgeous. We had the opportunity to see Batata, a tapir kept for research at the ecolodge. Beyond being unbelieveably cute, tapirs are an endangered species that look like a pig with a long snout. It was an incredible opportunity to see one in person.
Batata the tapir
Located at the ecolodge was one of the first eco-stoves built by blueEnergy! Still in great condition, it actually inspired requests for construction of three new stoves in the nearby area. The past two weeks, the stove team and I have been preparing materials for these constructions, which we install next week. Most of the stove is constructed on site, but the planchas (stovetops), chimneys, and combustion chamber must be made and transported beforehand (which isn’t always easy considering rural communities can be hard to access).
In addition to preparing for the next install, we have continued our experiments with eco-brick filling materials and construction methods. We’ve narrowed down the best few options and are in the process of creating a manual that will help continue the use of eco-bricks beyond our time here.
An eco-bricks test structure
June 19, 2014
Two weeks, a stove install, and three giant garbage bags full of trash later, my time here at blueEnergy is flying by. I’ve been thick into the jungle and into my work on efficient cookstoves. On June 11-12, I traveled by panga with other blueEnergy volunteers to the small Rama-Creole community of TikTik Kaanu in order to install an INKAWASI model cookstove. We built the stove at CETAF, an offshoot of a local university, which hosts university students and researchers throughout the year to study environmental subjects like sustainable agroforestry, botany, and food cultivation. The center, located in a protected forest and powered by solar panels, was beautiful and fascinating. Alongside the pigs and pollitos (what they call the baby chicks here), we set to work. In addition to help from CETAF groundskeepers, a few local community members who were interested in building their own stoves aided in the process. It was exciting to see their interest and therefore the potential for this technology’s expansion on a local level. The current stove on the CETAF property was highly polluting and a health risk to its occupants. Yet, the new stove will provide the ability to cook food more efficiently, healthily, and environmentally.
Beneficiary with her traditional cookstove
Only stopping work to watch a World Cup match, the construction spanned over two days. At the end of the installation, we sat down with CETAF members to discuss how the stove works, should be used, and matters of upkeep. blueEnergy also left behind a poster which outlines the components of the stove and its benefits. Long after I leave Nicaragua, blueEnergy will return to do a follow up, performing efficiency tests and talking with users about its effectiveness, ease of use, and cultural appropriateness.
Almost finished cookstove
The next week was spent designing and performing experiments on the use of ecobricks (plastic bottles filled with trash) as construction material for the base of efficient cookstoves. Traditionally, concrete blocks are used to build the base. However, these can be costly and difficult to transport to rural communities. Ecobricks would allow for the building materials to be sourced on site and foster more community involvement in the construction process. But first, it must be determined whether ecobricks are strong, practical, and time efficient.
Without hesitation, a few of us set to the streets rubber gloves and garbage bags to pick up trash. After a couple hours, many weird stares, questions, and giggles, we had collected enough trash for our tests. The trash was washed, dried, and stuffed into bottles. You’d be amazed at how much trash it actually takes to make one ecobrick! Although a long process, we are also looking at how to implement this process into local infrastructure, whether that is involvement in schools, creation at dumpsites, or implementation in homes. Ecobricks have the ability to prevent the adverse effects of either burying or burning trash and the ability to create a new local commodity.
I have been enjoying my work here in Bluefields and the ability to travel to areas nearby on weekends. The other Cal Energy Corps interns and I have explored Kahkabila, Pearl Lagoon, and the Corn Islands, and it is very interesting to see the different cultural relationships to the environment.
On a hike in Kahkabila
June 5th, 2014
We’re all familiar with Berkeley time, that extra ten minutes of pure glory: the opportunity to sleep just a little longer, to walk just a little bit slower, or to grab a coffee before that all important quiz. But here, in Nicaragua, there’s Nica-time, which allows for people to be an hour or more late to everything (if they show up at all). As you can imagine, that makes keeping appointments, planning your day, or you know, running an NGO difficult. Yet, that is by far the least of blueEnergy’s, an energy and water nonprofit here in Nicaragua, worries. In the short amount of time here in Bluefields at the main headquarters of bE, I have learned a few of the the obstacles it has taken to make and continue an impact here on the Caribbean Coast. However, what is more striking than the immense undertaking of such a company, is the vibrant and dedicated people who work to make that end goal a reality. In the office, murmurs of Spanish, French, Creole, and standard English can be heard at all times. A hodge podge of different backgrounds and nationalities, the volunteers and employees here are as diverse as the town itself.
The Palo de Mayo Festival
Bluefields is composed of six distinct main ethnicities, each who has their own culture and language. We arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of the annual Palo de Mayo festival, which marks the beginning of the rainy season here, but also celebrates production and new life. The other volunteers and I have been thrown into the culture here, with dance classes, exploration challenges, Spanish class, and homestays. However, beyond it’s vibrant culture lies serious infrastructure and unemployment problems. The Cal Energy Corps team spent the first week learning about these problems, along with the history and dynamics of the area and blueEnergy itself in order to better understand the projects we would be taking on in the future.
My work here will be focused in the energy sector on efficient cookstoves. Despite the lack of public knowledge surrounding the issue, an efficient stove can foster a more gender equitable, economically viable, and sustainable household. I have spent this week building an inkawasi style stove for a home in the community of Pueblo Nuevo. As well, Kareem (another Cal Energy Corps volunteer) and I have been looking into the possibility of using Ecobricks (building blocks made of garbage filled plastic bottles) to build a base for the cookstoves in order to decrease materials and travel cost, as well as keep more garbage from landfills.
blueEnergy’s distinct approach of working closely with locals, sans expectations or judgments, has allowed it to make significant change here in Bluefields and has set a surmountable example for others in the social sector. I am excited to continue my work here and to join the blueEnergy mission of creating a more equitable and sustainable world.
The beginnings of a stovetop!