NPI Introduces Solar Lanterns to Belize (March 12, 2013)

Nina Hernandez, Director of the U.S. Peace Corps Office in Belmopan, Belize warmly greets Judy Greenspon, former Peace Corps Volunteer and founder of NPI Services, Inc.  Nina enjoyed hearing the Sam Goldman d.light design success story and how his firm’s low-cost solar lanterns inspired me to reconnect with my Peace Corps experience and integrate it into NPI’s corporate culture and philanthropic interests.

NPI builds innovative new products for advanced research engineers.  We thrive on the exhilaration of innovation.  When I introduced the d.light S10 solar lanterns to the Peace Corps volunteers and their Belizean hosts it was a special “new product introduction” experience. 

I owe a debt of gratitude to Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) hosts Taylor Munz and Mallory Michaelson for helping me create this new application for the spirit of NPI. They designed the program itinerary and managed the selection and distribution of the d.light solar lanterns. Taylor Munz lives in Belmopan tutoring students in math and science along with coaching a National Championship boys softball team. Prior to Peace Corps Taylor traveled to 25 countries, volunteered for Engineers without Borders and achieved a BS in engineering from USC.

Mallory and Heidi
Mallory Michaelson is a small business marketing coop specialist. After completing her host family training in a village outside Belmopan, she relocated to the southern Toledo District to work with Victor Paulino at the Ministry of Co-operatives. Mallory’s disciplined North Dakota work-ethic, extensive global travels for humanitarian purposes and a BS in International Business Management from Minot State University make her an outstanding business solution advisor to the Toledo Co-operatives.

Mallory’s training host family was the first to receive the d.light design solar lanterns. When we arrived mother and daughter were making four pounds of handmade tortillas from ground corn on an open wood fire and comal (authentic tortilla griddle). An extra pound of perfect tortillas was allocated for the father’s hunting excursion later that evening; he was “delighted” to take the S10 solar lamp on his hunt. The family shared how the lanterns will save them the cost of buying batteries and kerosene when walking at night, studying, cooking, etc. The lanterns also reduce fires from overturned homemade kerosene lanterns and environment damage from improper disposal of batteries.

From Belmopan we headed south to the Toledo District of Punta Gorda. I couldn’t wait to re-live the cultural experience of a five-hour ride on a local mass transit bus. There’s nothing like the sights, sounds, smells of the local culture as everyone squeezes into their seats. I settled into a window seat and within a few seconds a young mother with her adorable two-year old daughter joined me for the ride south. The conductor was a numbers wizard; how he remembered where everyone got on and off and then computed the amount and change was brilliant.

I marveled at the vendors as they came and went at various stops; the cinnamon bread vendor making 200 large buns daily and then hauling the large plastic container on her head until she sells out; or the freshly fried plantain vendor making math in her head as she squeezes by the unlucky passengers standing in the aisle. These are successful Belizean WOSBs (woman-owned small businesses) who plan their production like other businesses; they manage ingredients (BOM), mixing/baking (assembly), taste test (quality), packaging, schedule, logistics, accounting, etc…. NPI is a WOSB and is proud to support other female entrepreneurs as they struggle with barriers to markets.

Outside Punta Gorda, we celebrated the Grand Opening of the Marigold Restaurant, a Mayan woman’s coop with d.light lanterns for each of the members and their families. They plan to use the lanterns to extended business hours, to attract customers and many other routine evening tasks. The Marigold Women were so excited about the lanterns that they asked if we could supply more to resell at the Marigold Restaurant. Unfortunately d.light does not have distribution in Belize, but I admire their entrepreneurial spirit and vision. d.light is working on distribution in some larger Central and South American countries, so hopefully they will be available in Belize in the future.

The coop members prepared a feast of homemade tortillas, spicy chicken vegetable stew and a local chocolate beverage with an intense caffeine kick. The Marigold Mayan Women danced in beautiful woven skirts to traditional music playing on a generator powered boom box. The restaurant is situated on the only paved road connecting the capitol Belmopan to the southern district of Toledo. We wish them much success in growing their woman-owned-small-business by providing quality food services in their community.

The next day we visited the Rio Grande Fishermen’s Coop where Mallory trains and implements policies and procedures for better business practices such as packaging, accounting, marketing etc. Fishermen in Belize today face many challenges from intruders in local fishing areas to preserving ecological reserves to global increase in demand for fish for restaurant chains. A fisherman shared his family story with me and expressed his gratitude for the lamp that will provide savings over high-cost batteries and kerosene to light his nights on overnight fishing trips out of the Sea of Honduras. A Rio Grande member glides up to the dock with his daily catch.

No mission is complete without a little adventure in the lush bush to view some picturesque waterfalls. Our local Belizean host Victor drove his rugged Toyota pickup along the under-construction new highway to visit another PCV named Mallory Begley. This Mallory teaches in a remote Mayan Village and enjoys the minimal comforts of home.

In exchange, she is surrounded by a rich tropical ecosystem that makes Belize a naturalist’s wonderland from the largest barrier reef outside Australia to the birds and unique plants of its tropical bush and Mangroves. Kayaking quietly through the waterways you experience a splendid orchestra of exotic plant and animal music.

Preserving the natural beauty of Belize is a national priority. Many government organizations and NGOs such as TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment) are dedicated to research monitoring and protection of the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor. They work very hard educating the Belizean students and citizens about protecting its ecosystems. The director spoke with us about the successes and struggles of their organization. She was grateful for the d.light S10 lantern to use on their night patrols.

The mission to Belize touched many global issues I care about: connecting with Peace Corps, new product introduction, solar innovation, women helping women in business, clean energy, environmental education and genuine respect for ancient cultures. Those are just some of the values I developed as a Peace Corps Volunteer and am proud to hold them as close today as they were 32 years ago in the Philippines.