Insolar: Democratizing Access to Solar Energy in Santa Marta and Beyond [PROFILE]

Sustainable Favela Network* Profile

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This article is part of a series of profiles of initiatives in Rio’s Sustainable Favela Network.

Initiative: Insolar
Contact: Website | Facebook |InstagramTwitter | Email
Year Founded: 2013
Community: Santa Marta and 14 other communities throughout Rio de Janeiro
Mission: To promote and democratize access to solar energy in Brazil.
Public Events: Insolar Academy organizes academic events and lectures at universities in Brazil and abroad. Events are also held in conjunction with ongoing solar energy projects around Rio.
How to contributeDonating to Instituto Insolar, volunteering via their platform on Atados, academic collaboration, and connecting to investors and sponsors that share their mission.

After spending significant time in the private sector, Henrique Drumond decided to leave behind a constraining work environment and follow his passion for social entrepreneurship and innovation. Born and raised in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Drumond pursued various projects during his sabbatical from the business world, including volunteering in Mozambique. It was there that he learned that even with limited resources, individuals can have an impact on the world.

“When we place technology, knowledge, energy, and opportunity at the service of the people, we allow their talents to reveal themselves and develop, helping out country achieve new levels socioeconomic development and prosperity for all families and society as one,” says the 36-year old entrepreneur. With this lesson in mind, Drumond returned home to Rio de Janeiro, motivated by the dream to improve his city and Brazil, he took to employing technology in the service of society. Drumond took interest in solar energy, reached out to social entrepreneurs in his network and began attending workshops, eventually receiving training at a non-profit organization in San Francisco, California. Once equipped with core skills, he co-founded (with Michel Baitelli) the social business Insolar.

Insolar reflects the experiences and aspirations of Drumond, who currently directs the organization. Drawing on his experience in the private sector and civil society, as well as education in administration, he created Insolar as a social business. Intersecting elements of non-profits and traditional business models, Insolar’s operational model focuses on providing solar energy to favelas of Rio de Janeiro and beyond. Profits generated from installing solar panels then fund the future installation of new solar energy generating systems.

As a social business, Insolar emphasizes the importance of empowering favela residents, offering low-cost financing programs for residents to purchase their own solar panel systems. “Even if in the beginning the resident’s financial contribution is symbolic, the person pays, let’s say, R$10 a month [US$2.50] and has a right to claim a functioning [solar energy] system,” says Drumond. Resident payments are always lower than the reduction in their energy bill, so they never pay more than the amount they save in energy costs. Thus, residents both invest in sustainable energy and reap economic benefits.

Insolar also, in partnership with other organizations, provides training and certification programs for residents, offering over 100 training hours in four different courses. “For us, it is important not only to bring technology but also to bring opportunities, knowledge, and training,” sums up Drumond. Electrician and solar energy training programs give participants the skills necessary to maintain their solar panels and install their own electrical systems and photovoltaics (the technology that converts energy from the sun into electric energy).

In training residents, Insolar looks to generate long-lasting benefits for favelas across Rio de Janeiro. To illustrate what he calls the positive “side effects” of Insolar’s efforts to share knowledge, Drumond recalls the experiences of one training graduate, Marcos, who put his newly acquired electrician skills to use for his family: “He did the whole electrical system for his wife’s beauty salon, and now she is an entrepreneur.”

Drumond believes that providing residents with the skills necessary to maintain their solar panels is essential because volunteers don’t stick around forever, and calling in outside solar companies can be costly, making maintenance infeasible. Although training involves a significant time investment, in the end, favela residents gain an invaluable sense of independence. That independence is vital for expanding the long-term impact of solar power in Brazil.

Ultimately, Drumond and Insolar aim to provide solar energy to favelas with the idea of creating substantial financial benefits for residents, which, in turn, can be directed toward professional, familial, and community development. This involves a three-step operational model that includes an initial pilot project, an expansion phase, and the ultimate objective of democratization. In the initial phase, Insolar enters a favela by establishing a pilot project in a community space. The pilot project serves to demonstrate the purpose of Insolar’s solar energy program, show how the program operates, generate further interest in solar energy, and build trust within the community. Insolar then moves into an expansion phase, initiating additional projects in other community spaces. As the number of solar panel installations begins to increase during the expansion phase, Insolar begins to involve residents in training programs.

In the final phase, democratization, Insolar seeks to broaden access to solar energy throughout the entire community, involving all residents. The key to the democratization of solar energy is demonstrating that the individuals who acquire solar panels pay less than save on energy. Crucially, democratization gathers local professionals who can install and maintain the solar panels, engaging community leaders, continuing to capacitate residents, creating employment and income-generating opportunities, and expanding knowledge of solar energy.

In addition to counting on a broad network of trained residents, local businesses and professionals, Insolar works with larger sponsors such as Shell, the German Consulate in Rio, and the CAIXA Socio-environmental Fund, among others. Today, Insolar’s team is composed of 11 people, including business-owners from various Rio favelas, such as Leonardo Almeida (nicknamed Léo Elétrica), Salete Martins, and Verônica Moura, who also hold the title of Insolar Ambassadors. This title is awarded to residents of other favelas where Insolar works as a means of assuring favela leadership in the promotion of solar energy in Brazil.

Insolar first began installing solar panels in the community of Santa Marta, in Rio’s South Zone, and have installed or approved more than 700 solar panels in Rio de Janeiro alone. For the pilot project, Insolar planned to install a solar energy system at a local daycare center. The project fell through, but what first seemed like a failure proved to be an unexpected opportunity: the Insolar team, in partnership with local leaders, found another nursery (Mundo Infantil) willing to install solar panels. This particular nursery had been founded by residents themselves, and the new location gave the project an even more community-led nature.

By assisting this thirty-year-old community institution, Insolar was able to build trust with and ultimately grow closer to many Santa Marta residents. Despite initial obstacles, the residents of Santa Marta were able to mobilize resources and persist. “The solution for Santa Marta is within [the community],” says Drumond. This belief in finding solutions within the favelas is rooted in a “mindset of valuing the locale and valuing the potential of the locale.” Drumond illustrates this mindset by describing how residents used photography equipment to light the nursery rooftop for the solar panel installers during the pilot project, thus allowing them to work into the night.

Moura, a longtime resident of Santa Marta, believes that the solar panel projects have changed the community in a profoundly positive way. “[Insolar] changed the lives of many people for the better,” she explains. “It opens opportunities for youth, for entrepreneurs, and for female entrepreneurs. And it achieves something that I would never imagine. I would not have imagined having solar energy in my house. Today, I can have it through Insolar.” Since the installation of those first solar panels at the daycare center in Santa Marta, Insolar has expanded its operations, and is now in the process of democratizing solar energy in fifteen communities throughout Rio de Janeiro and other cities in Southeast Brazil.

As the organization’s current director, Drumond takes pride in Insolar’s constant pursuit of originality. By cultivating innovation within the organization, Insolar has developed multiple operational fronts, from solar panel installation and educational programs to the development of new solar technologies. In order to adapt to the challenges posed by working in so many different fields, Drumond follows the pragmatic mantra of “whatever works.” At the same time, Drumond and the rest of the Insolar team strive to honor their initiative’s guiding values, including promoting collaboration; finding joy in work; choosing what’s right; maintaining transparency; strengthening human relationships; and respecting differences while seeking commonalities between cultures. In the end, Drumond hopes to improve favela access to a technology critical to solving some of humanity’s most pressing environmental issues. “Sometimes the only thing missing is this connection, connecting the technology with the people.”

*Insolar is one of over 100 community projects mapped by Catalytic Communities (CatComm), the organization that publishes RioOnWatch, as part of our parallel ‘Sustainable Favela Network‘ program launched in 2017 to recognize, support, strengthen, and expand on the sustainable qualities and community movements inherent to Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities. Check out all the profiles of mapped projects here.