I spoke with Ryan Brinkerhoff, a co-founder of Thrive Project, a Syracuse-based sustainability organization that is currently working on several projects in Nepal.
Part I of II
Karuna: Where are you from originally?
Ryan: I grew up in NJ just outside of NYC
What do you do with Thrive Project?
I’m one of the co-founders and technically I guess the treasurer, I handle most finances, but being a small organization, we all do kind of everything. And so being out here right now, our mission is mainly in educating rural communities on sustainable energy and providing them with renewable energy systems.
So tell me where you are right now.
Right now I am in Kathmandu, Nepal.
How long have you been there?
Actually, this is Day 60 of our trip, so a little over a month and a half now.
What project are you working on right now?
Right now we’re working on two pilot projects, one in the village of Siddhipur, which is in Lalitpur, Nepal, the other in Matathirta, which is also in the district of Lalitpur, Nepal. And there are two separate projects going on, one with youth and one with the elderly. Both are along the same lines, teaching them how to build their own energy systems to leverage against load shedding and lack of access to regional infrastructure, things like that.
Does it also involve repairing infrastructure that was damaged in the earthquake?
During the earthquake obviously a lot of people lost power, but what is also a problem in Nepal is just that on a daily basis they suffer from what they call load shedding, which is just that the grid is not capable of supplying enough power to meet the demand and so they just shut down power at regular times in different areas of Kathmandu and the surround areas.. Additionally, 80 percent of the population here is rural and lacks access to the grid entirely. And so that’s 20-plus million people who do not have power on a daily basis.
So what we’re providing is not just a solution to the damage from the earthquake but it’s also a supplement to the struggles of daily life. So we are not necessarily providing repairs to the national infrastructure that was damaged, but an independent solution that solves the same problem.
The early inspiration came from our primary founder, Brian Kam, he’s a former Marine and he was actually doing relief work in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Only two days after he was in-country helping with a small NGO doing recovery work, a lot of relief work, some people had gone missing, he was even doing search and rescue. But he ended up staying out here for three months, all of last summer, and just fell in love with the people of Nepal. They’re very hospitable, very kind and welcoming people and he just felt compelled to do something to help. And so he learned how to build our system, this box, from a good friend of his who is a computer scientist at UC-Santa Barbara and so he brought it off to Syracuse and started recruiting people who had the same idea as him, who just wanted to help people who are less fortunate. And it kind of snowballed bigger than we ever could imagine.
Could you explain the system, the box, and how it works, briefly, and what it is?
So the short form version is: the SPARK System (Solar Powered Auxiliary Relief Kiosk) is a renewable energy system built entirely from locally sourced parts. It’s very simple, easy to build and it can be used to power lights and charge cell phones when communities suffer from load shedding. We also use it as a platform to teach our students energy concepts and vocational skills.
So far, where has Thrive Project taken you? You mentioned a few places already . . .
Primarily we’ve been focused on the suburbs around Kathmandu, and so I mentioned Siddhipur & Matathirta, two communities in Lalitpur Just from a traveling standpoint, we took a week and went to Pokhara, which is a really nice kind of touristy area in Nepal. We (hard to understand) the Anapurna circuit, all the trekking routes and the mountains and everything. So we’ve been there, but for work we’ve been pretty much on the outskirts of Kathmandu looking at a couple of more remote villages that we might be visiting over the next couple weeks.
So when you meet with people in a community, how do you usually go about that, what channels do you go through?
Actually, that was one thing that we ran into issues with early on, was how to navigate village politics. So the way we were introduced into the first community, into Siddhipur, was through a friend of ours, a contact that we made in the States and he knew people in this community. And so he introduced us and what we did was targeted community groups. So they were establishing a new community group to specifically work on this project and we partnered with the Unity Group, which is kind of like their Youth Club, so we kind of brought those two groups together and they signed an agreement that said that they would cooperatively take part in the program and manage the systems after we leave. So that kind of set us up so that the project is sustainable. And now the members of the youth group who were the first ones that we trained, we trained about 12 students in the first program, and now they’ve become the teachers for future classes, so they’re going to continue the program after we’re gone and just coordinate with us and our local team to make sure that things continue.
And the other community in Matathirta, we were introduced by another organization that worked with the elderly there, so they’ve kind of been our connection and our platform in the community because they already have long established ties. So basically when we go in we make sure we get together with local community groups or that we go in through another organization that already has community ties.
Have you ever met with resistance in any way?
A little bit. I think in Siddhipur, with the two groups there was kind of a bit of a power struggle and so they we had to have a meeting between Thrive and the two community groups and just air all of their concerns and just talk about it, put it all in writing and then sign an agreement that clarified everyone’s roles and what they would be doing, so that way no one had any mistakes, no one was overstepping boundaries, but between us and our team of translators, our local team here, we were able to navigate it pretty well, and now the community seems to love the project and Session 2 should actually be starting next week. So it’s been fairly successful.
“they invited us into this makeshift
house and shared everything that
they had, which is not much”
What are some things that you’ve learned so far?
The biggest thing is, just on a personal level, it’s a constant reminder of just how lucky I am and how privileged I am to have grown up in the U.S. What surprised me was, even from the first day, we landed at 6 a.m., got off the plane and went directly to Siddhipur, straight to the village where we were going to be working, and just walking around and seeing … it’s a year later and there are still buildings that are caved in, still houses that people can’t live in, they still lack power on a consistent basis. all the wells for drinking water are contaminated, and this is a year later, after the government has received billions of dollars in aid.
But, besides that, these people are still living in temporary shelters, they’re living in houses that are basically made of sheet metal and supported by blocks of wood, and they invited us into this makeshift house and provided us with lunch and tea and snacks and shared everything that they had, which is not much, with us. And so that is really the human aspect that has been driving us, and it was, I don’t know, it was such a surprise to see people acting like that because that’s not something that you would see in the United States. People who often have a lot in the United States are very reluctant to give it up, yet people here who have almost nothing are more than willing to share all of it. And so that was a very big learning thing for me, a very sobering reality.
What have you learned about people’s view of the United States more broadly and in Nepal?
Actually people here, their dream is to go to the U.S. Actually 250,000 people every year leave Nepal to go find work elsewhere just because there are no jobs, there’s not enough income, they leave and try and find work and their dream is just to come to the U.S. They still see it as this land of great opportunity, this place where they can accomplish anything, where they can support their family. So their view, they still think it’s the greatest place – that if they get there, they’ve made it. That’s like everyone’s dream here.
And since the government there hasn’t effectively used the aid that’s received, do you hope that your program could serve as a model for future government programs?
Absolutely. That’s something we have definitely considered. We want to be a model for the alternative. The government approach and the big aid organizations, they typically follow a top-down approach, where they go into things, they just throw money at the problem or they throw a product, but they never actually address the underlying issues. And a lot of the problems here are just basic poverty, energy poverty, and a lack of education. And so we’ve taken a bottom-up approach, where we go into communities and we establish strong community ties. We get to know the kids, we get to know the elders, we get to know everybody, and they welcome us as family. And then they are much more inclined to follow along with the program, to take pride in the system that they are building, and it makes it a much more sustainable project just because they feel very invested in it.
Could you give us a little bit of background on the government of Nepal and the politics as they relate?
Well, without talking too negatively of the government of Nepal, it’s still built around a new democracy. The civil war here ended not much more than a decade ago, so there is still a lot of infighting, a lot of corruption, which is part of the reason that – I mean bureaucracy exists everywhere, don’t get me wrong – but when you want to get registered as an NGO or when you want to get a certain designation or a request funded, there’s typically bribes, there’s certain channels that you have to go through, and so it has certainly slowed down the recovery effort and it’s made it difficult for us just to get registered and to try to figure out how we’re going to make sure that we follow their rules, because the laws on the books aren’t necessarily always the ones that you need to be worried about.
Part II of this interview will be published separately. I’ll ask Ryan about a few of his travel experiences. To find out more about Thrive Project, visit http://thriveproject.org/