<i>By Diana Zileri, GVEP International</i>

The SalvaSol Basic is a small, portable charging station generating photovoltaic energy intended mainly for homes in rural areas without a connection to the national electricity grid. This simple device, which can be charged using a 5W solar panel, is able to operate an LED Lamp for up to 14 hours, charge mobile phones, power a radio and charge AA batteries for use in torches and radios.

The multi-purpose solar kit brings a range of benefits to poor rural households: from savings on costs incurred to purchase candles, oil lamps or disposable batteries, to the ability to enhance their businesses (and so to increase their income) through more frequent mobile phone usage. Students can also study longer hours at night thanks to the clean, bright, white light generated by the LED lamp, which doesn’t have any of the harmful effects of the traditional oil lamp on their eyes and lungs.

Through this initiative, project leader Rainer Mutschler-Burghard aspires not only to provide socio-economic benefits to homes affected by extreme poverty in El Salvador, but also to create job opportunities for the most disadvantaged, as the manufacture of the product is carried out by disabled people.

A group of young people, 17 to 35 years old, from the Association for Support of the Mentally Disabled, in Salvador (ASPAPREM ) led by a supervisor, have been trained to assemble the equipment, whose components are being built by students of the Don Bosco University of El Salvador on a voluntary basis. At this stage of the project, ASPAPREM earns a commission for each product that its members assemble, but in future “we’re planning to investigate the possibility of directly employing two or three of these young people”, assures Mutschler-Burghard.

The SalvaSol Basic product is the brainchild of ENFOCA: Photovoltaic Charging Stations against Poverty in El Salvador – one of the 26 winning projects of the IDEAS Energy Innovation Contest of 2009, sponsored by GVEP, the Inter-American Development Bank (IBD), the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) and the South Korean government.

With the SalvaSol Basic, the project is tackling four on the eight Millennium Development Goals: education, health, environmental sustainability and the eradication of poverty. It combines access to energy, for lighting (through LED lamps) and communication (mobile phones charging), with access to information (radio connections).

Although the lack of access to energy is not as severe as in neighbouring Honduras or Nicaragua, in El Salvador an eighth of the population – about 150,000 households – is not connected to the grid, according to studies carried out by Mutschler-Burghard’s team. Many of these families live in the district of Morazán, in the east of the country, where ENFOCA is focusing its efforts to promote the solar powered product.

The Basic SalvaSol was recently introduced to the market in the country's capital of El Salvador thanks to an advantageous microcredit loan system. During an inauguration event, ENFOCA, along with strategic sponsors, delivered the first finished products to representatives of los Gramales City, in the Caluco municipality. The town has no electricity and is located in an area plagued by extreme poverty.

The key strategic partner, essential to the project’s success, is a local financial credit institute (SAC Integral S.A.) that offers microcredit loans with advantageously low interest (10%) to poor households. The loan repayment rate is considerably lower than the average households spending on oil lamps, candles, disposable batteries and mobile phone charging. Families in these areas light their homes very basically, with candles or oil lamps that they purchase on a daily basis.

Over the next months, Rainer along with representatives from Integral Bank have planned a series of visits to rural areas to help people calculate their current energy expenses and what they could save if they invested in the Basic SalvaSol, by taking out a microcredit loan.

“On average, a rural family spends between US$15 and US$20 a month on candles, oil lamps, disposable batteries and charging mobile phones, while the monthly rates of the microcredit loan for this product would be between US$12 and US$13”, points out Rainer. The repayment rate is based on the purchase price of the product: approximately US$140.

The advantage of a microcredit loan, compared with a micro-savings system, is that the client can use the solar kit as soon as the loan is disbursed and start saving straight away. This occurs after the bank carries out an evaluation of the potential client, including a visit by an advisor to the applicant's home. Once the agreement has been signed, the bank sends a cheque directly to the manufacturer and the client can choose whether they want to have the product sent to their home or to collect it from the factory.

“Many people in countries such as El Salvador are afraid of taking out loans,” explains Rainer. “But one of ENFOCA’s aims is to help people, who do not have a connection to electricity realise that they will not only make monthly savings but will also see a significant improvement in their quality of life”.