by Sara Eisemann
When EarthSpark launched the first grid electricity in Les Anglais, Haiti, Jean-Jean Charles was afraid he wouldn’t be able to afford the $30 connection fee. For years, he had used kerosene lamps to light the blue house where he lives with his three children, an 8-year-old girl and two boys ages 5 and 13. Sometimes, he would charge a 12-volt battery at his church’s diesel generators and bring it home so that he could charge his mobile phone and power a small radio with a system of bare wires. He knew he needed a change, but his small income from growing peas and breadfruit and helping his father run a small school wasn't enough.
Even if he hadn’t been able to pay up-front, on-bill financing would have allowed him to pay the connection fee over time. But Jean-Jean was determined to be among the full-fledged initial customers. “I will get the money before the deadline,” he told the EKo Pwòp organizer. “And you’ll see, I’ll be your best customer.”
EKo Pwòp — short for Elektrisite Kominote Pwòp, which means “clean community electricity” — is EarthSpark’s micro-utility, currently serving 54 customers in Les Anglais and preparing to expand to a town-sized solar-powered microgrid this summer. The EKo Pwòp model is based around a pre-pay system in which customers pay for electricity before they use it. People are already well accustomed to pre-payment since most mobile phones in Haiti work on a pre-pay basis. EKo Pwòp's upfront billing structure allows customers to pay for electricity in small increments, spending only as much as they can afford and eliminating the fear of a big bill at the end of the month. People in Les Anglais typically buy kerosene every few days for a few days' worth of evening lighting fuel. With the EKo Pwòp connection, customers have access to clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week while paying far less than they would for kerosene or candles.
Jean-Jean did find the money, and he has put away his smoky lamps and dangerous wires. At first, he would check in with his local EKo Pwòp vendor almost every day to make sure he wasn’t using more electricity than he had on his account, but now that he has a better understanding of his electricity consumption, he has started to space his visits to the store. Now his children study by the light of the efficient lightbulb provided with the EKo Pwòp installation, and he powers his radio with electricity that’s safe for his home and his family. He reads alongside his children, too. Already fluent in Haitian Creole and conversant in French, he is working on learning a third language: English.
At his own rhythm, through the easy months and the hard, he is adamant that will be a faithful EKo Pwòp customer for years to come — and hopefully the clean, safe electricity now powering his home will help bring him more easy months than hard.