The founder of an MCC partner organization shares his fascination with solar power and how it is improves families’ lives in rural Nicaragua.
First Person: Jaime Muñoz
(as told to Emily Will)
From the first time I had heard about solar energy as a child, it intrigued me. When I was in school, I wanted a career that was different, out of the ordinary. Now, at 41 years old, I’m able to spend my days seeing families in rural villages like the one where I grew up meet some of their most basic needs through solar power. As the director of Asofenix, I see firsthand how solar energy can be made available to even the poorest of families and families that live in mountainous areas very far from cities.
MCC helps support our efforts to install solar power systems in isolated communities that never had access to electricity before. I love the hands-on work of developing and installing these systems. We also work in other areas of renewable energy such as microhydroturbines (that use the force of water to create energy), biodigesters (that produce cooking fuel from cow manure) and wind turbines (that use the force of wind to make energy).
Some communities call me ingeniero, the engineer. I’m always quick to explain that I’m not an engineer — in fact, my family didn’t have the money for me to continue my education beyond secondary school.
My best “university” has been to work with people with a lot of experience in the field of renewable energy. It’s true that my educational level is low, but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge through people, through reading and through hands-on experimentation.
I was the oldest of six children. We lived in Esquipulas, a community of about 15,000 in the rural province of Matagalpa, in central Nicaragua.
When I was 14, the Sandinistas imprisoned my father in Managua, the capital, and he remained there for four years. During these years, I traveled to Managua to try to get my father released. I knew nothing of the city and very little of the world, and I was on my own in a highly charged political environment. Finally, a political group helped me get him out. By then, I had gotten my first taste of community work through a literacy campaign when I was 15. I’ve been at it throughout the 26 years since, the one continual thread in the many ups and downs of my life.
I began teaching when I was still a student in secondary school, working with vocational classes in metal and woodworking. It may seem incredible that they would hire someone so young and inexperienced, but I was very motivated, and the directors noticed that I was gifted in mechanical, hands-on work. I spent three months in the shops learning how to handle the machines and equipment and reading the manuals and instructions.
I’ve always been the type of person who wants to figure out how to do things, even if I’ve only read about doing them. When I was drafted into military service in 1984, my map-making ability kept me out of combat, for which I was grateful. Still, I was glad when I finished the year and a half of service and dismayed when the Sandinista government, just a few months after my release, ordered me to work with them in a civilian position or join the Army Reserves. So at 22 years old, I found myself the director of the Sandinista Youth in the town of San José de los Remates.
Over the next decade or so, I worked with a range of organizations, from international reforestation brigades to a first-time government program to provide national identification cards. What I liked in all my positions was working with people and forming relationships.
In 1997, I lost my job due to federal budget cuts. I went to Managua and opened a pulpería, a little grocery shop. It was a huge change. I had never had my own business. But now I’m very appreciative that I was able to learn another way of living and working.
I earned enough to support myself and to do some studies, so I looked into studying solar energy. In the 1970s my father had taken an auto mechanics correspondence course from Hemphill Schools, which is based in California but offers courses taken by students throughout Central America. When I talked to the school’s representative in Managua, I was surprised and delighted to learn they had a course in photovoltaics, or solar-cell technology.
I also attended solar power trainings and seminars offered by the engineering university in Managua, including a course taught by Dr. Richard Komp, a U.S. solar tech expert. I built a solar oven during that course and afterward I experimented with building other solar cookers, as well as water heaters, solar dryers and other equipment.
The university saw my interest and invited me to join Grupo Fenix, a new group working on solar power. I volunteered for three years with Grupo Fenix, even helping Dr. Komp teach workshops and courses. I came to realize that my passion lies not in research as much as in hands-on work with solar projects in communities like the one in which I had grown up. Through Grupo Fenix, I got to know a foreign visitor, who offered to financially support such community-based work. In 2001, I began Asofenix. It started small, but in 2007, I received a major 10-year grant from a Dutch humanitarian organization.
Today, I live in a house in Managua, the capital, and my office is there, but I am devoted to being out in the rural communities where Asofenix is working. I travel outside the city several days each week to help install renewable energy systems, meet with communities and train young technicians. Seeing rural families meet some of their most basic needs through renewable sources of energy is rewarding. And I am happiest traveling out to villages, spending time with people, sleeping in a hammock at their homes. This work, which draws on my technical know-how and also allows me to relate to people, deeply fulfills me.
Jaime Muñoz is the founder of Asociación Fenix, or Asofenix, an MCC partner organization that is using renewable energy to improve lives in rural Nicaraguan communities. Emily Will is a freelance writer in Tucson, Ariz. Melissa Engle is an MCC photographer