By: Rebecca Arno Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile
One billion children live in poverty. Half of the world’s population subsists on less than $2.50 per day. The numbers are paralyzing. What can anyone do to make a difference?
Fortunately for families on five continents, one visionary couple didn’t let these and the rest of the overwhelming statistics about global poverty keep them from taking action. Instead, they decided to put the resources they had, experience in the cable industry, knowledge of connectivity and relationships with an international network of business leaders to work to make a difference. The result is Connect the World.
Just over a year old, Connect the World is a small organization in terms of infrastructure, with two paid staff members, a volunteer board of directors and virtual offices. Yet at a time in the non-profit life cycle when most organizations would be building staff and testing out a program or two, Connect the World has projects underway literally all over the world.
The mission is this: work with individuals and families throughout the world to build sustainable communities.
So, what are the elements of a sustainable community on any continent? As Connect the World sees it, the keys are housing, connectivity, energy and education. Through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the development of ultra-low-cost systems for broadband connection and clean energy, Connect the World is opening the doors of opportunity to families around the globe.
The visionaries behind Connect the World are cable-industry leaders and philanthropists Bonnie Gray-Matourek and Peter Matourek. “We’re not wealthy, but we’ve always done whatever we could to help people,” Bonnie explains. The couple has aided high school kids in going to college and sponsored families who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. With Connect the World, they decided to take their charitable work to a new level, putting the power of the industry they know so well to work for families below the poverty line.
The concept came to them as they were going through the process of adopting their daughter from an orphanage in Kazakhstan. “During our time in Central Asia, we saw that it was more and more evident that the basics were not being provided for people,” Bonnie remembers. “We met children who were the second or third generation to grow up in the orphanage. We started to speculate about ways to help break this cycle.”
Bonnie and Peter both work in leadership roles for a major worldwide cable company in Europe. They know the cable industry, understand the incredible power of connectivity, and have seen it transform economies. They thought that, somehow, they should put this power to work in communities like the one where their daughter was born. Without basic connectivity, many local economies simply can’t develop to the point where talented people will stay in the community and build for the future.
It soon became apparent that a key missing element to the equation was the energy necessary to power the broadband systems that Connect the World sought to put in place. In many third-world countries, energy provision consists of the burning of wood, coal, or kerosene, all of which have horrendous environmental and health consequences. However, home energy needs in third world countries are generally much lower than in the U.S. where air conditioners, freezers, and other appliances suck up huge amounts of power. Therefore, current solar and wind technology that can provide small amounts of energy at a very affordable cost are perfect for deployment in the third world.
With these concepts in place, Connect the World quickly made contact with people who were already working in the communities they wanted to target: Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity International is a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to the cause of eliminating poverty housing. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built and renovated more than 300,000 homes worldwide, providing simple, decent and affordable shelter for more than 1.5 million people in 90 countries.
“We thought if we could expand on Habitat’s work by providing clean energy options and access to the global information system, this could help put their families on track to a better future,” says Bonnie. Through a unique partnership, Connect the World is bringing very low-cost solutions for solar and wind technology and data connection to five current and proposed Habitat projects.
Heather Alner, Manager of Corporate Engagement for Habitat for Humanity International says that the organization is constantly looking at ways to improve its programs and the benefits it can provide to its homeowners.
The partnership with Connect the World will support the provision of a safe, decent and affordable home to 8,365 adults and children in the five identified locations.
“Connect the World is helping us branch into a relatively new area of service provision - alternative energy and digital connection, creating a 3-tier program for every homeowner within the partnership,” Heather explains. “The partnership with Connect the World and Habitat for Humanity will be sustainable, locally and culturally appropriate and developmentally sound in every way. We are very excited about this partnership and its potential to exponentially add to and improve our homebuilding programs.”
The partners are working with local governments, manufacturers and aid agencies to bring together the resources to surmount the barrier of initial investment in these infrastructures. According to Bonnie, “There’s no reason that all parts of the supply chain can’t come together on this. The premise we’re testing is that if we each give a bit, then we can get the resources to families at a level they can afford.”
A key to the Connect the World philosophy, as with the Habitat for Humanity philosophy, is that people need to have a personal investment in the assets they own. Connect the World offers renewable energy and broadband resources at a level that people can afford, and then provides training and education to help people maintain the resources in their communities, putting in place the seeds of a local economy.
“We’re even finding that we can sell energy back to utility companies in some cases,” explains Jim Anderson, a former cable industry executive who is serving as Connect the World’s Executive Director. “We’ve also created a partner entity, e:Telesis Energy and Data, a low-profit, limited-liability corporation (also termed an L3C) that can hold assets and sell or lease them within communities as needed.”
Based in Denver, Colorado, Jim works with Chief Operating Officer Jim Digby in New Jersey, Bonnie and Peter in Amsterdam, the Habitat staff in Slovakia, and an international board of directors. Connect the World’s projects are in Macedonia, Tajikistan, Chile, Malawi, and even in the area of the Mississippi gulf coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “Each site is completely different, of course,” Jim explains, “but we look for common denominators, such as a local government that is stable and interested in partnering with us, community leadership, accessibility for development and commitment from families who want to be part of the project.”
In Tajikistan, Connect the World and Habitat are working in partnership with local Khujand University, building 330 homes where earthquakes and rapid urbanization have caused a severe housing shortage. Across the world in South America, the involvement of the Chilean government, Connect the World and Habitat are facilitating the construction of 600 homes plus a solar farm in the Caldera area where earthquakes have caused a severe housing shortage. Macedonia, which faces the highest rate of homelessness in Europe, will receive 90 multi-family units fitted with a combination of solar and solar thermal energy sources. In Africa, Connect the World had considered starting in Madagascar, but the stability in the government was a challenge. So they shifted to Malawi, one of the poorest countries on the continent, where they are building 500 homes and four water kiosks to serve the whole community.
The Pascagoula, Mississippi area in the U.S. may be Connect the World’s most challenging project, because energy demand and the costs associated with it are so high. But Bonnie and Peter were insistent on launching a project there. “It’s appalling that in the wealthiest country in the world, four years after the hurricane thousands of families are still without adequate housing,” says Bonnie. Habitat and Connect the World are partnering on 50 homes with passive solar energy systems.
Heather from Habitat for Humanity conveys her organization’s excitement about the future of the project. “I think both sides see the four-year partnership we are currently implementing as something of a pilot program. Based on the success of this initial partnership, I can see the program not only expanding within the current countries we are working in, but to more countries and areas throughout the world. When the concept proves itself we would ultimately one day like to see every Habitat homeowner to have access to the internet and get affordable and reliable renewable energy.”
Bonnie has an even bigger vision. “If we can take these ideas and develop them in a modular, scalable way, it could be that these products and solutions can be adaptable for the mass market. Why should renewable energy and connectivity be restricted to just a few types of homeowners?”
In the meantime, Connect the World is just over a year into development and according to the organization’s founders, about a year away from finding out if their projects really do provide the juice to jumpstart local economies. In the meantime, thousands of people on five continents are working hard to make the vision a reality. For more information, visit www.connecttheworldus.org.
Rebecca Arno is Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation. www.denverfoundation.org.