Story by Samantha Kuhn; photos courtesy of Indiana Electric Cooperatives
Around half of all businesses don’t survive more than five years, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But not all new businesses have Steve McMichael on their side — or the cooperative principle of “Cooperation Among Cooperatives.”
Hoja Blanca and Aqua Dulce are the only two electric cooperatives in Guatemala. Still in their development stages, they have been trying to establish solid groundwork, trust, and financial practices so their services can take off, bringing much-needed electricity to the nearly 11,000 people in their service territories.
Since 2015, Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative, along with other electric co-ops from both Ohio and Indiana, have put in the work to set electric poles and string the wire to make electrification in these rural, mountainous jungle areas of Guatemala possible. But what comes after that?
A new co-op’s struggle
Start-ups of any type are tough, let alone in Guatemala. It remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with more than 75 percent of Guatemalans living below the poverty line. In rural areas, it’s worse. Rural residents make up two-thirds of Guatemala’s population, yet they only comprise one-third of the country’s income and consumption. Many residents stop education at sixth grade. Here, getting a new cooperative off the ground, especially with little knowledge of the co-op model, technical aspects of electricity, and how to manage the company, can feel impossible. With the well-being of the community resting on the success of these co-ops, the burden on the board members’ shoulders must be shared.
Enter Steve McMichael, a six-year Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative board member from New Haven, Indiana, who also serves as PPEC’s designated representative on Indiana’s statewide electric co-op board. McMichael, along with staff from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International Foundation (NRECA International) and Indiana Electric Cooperatives, went to Guatemala in June on behalf of Project Indiana to train the new co-ops’ boards and connect them with resources.
“We aim not only to provide electricity to the rural villages of Guatemala, but provide the residents with the true power of using electricity for more than just lights — to make their villages self-reliant,” McMichael says. “We want to release economic freedom to them so they can prosper.”
Training self-reliant trustees
Jumping from village to village over the course of eight days, McMichael says the first obstacle to overcome was the language barrier. Equipped with a translator, McMichael dove into his two-day course, which broke down the basics of a co-op and its principles, bylaws, annual meetings, and general operation practices.
McMichael admits he was initially worried about being able to relate with the overseas trustees, but within the first few hours of speaking, an undeniable bond was formed.
“I was one of their co-op brothers,” McMichael says. “We were united as elected officials committed to serving our communities, and we could all tell that. The power behind what we were doing and looking ahead to was tangible.”
The residents were so touched by McMichael’s efforts that they offered to sacrifice a chicken on his behalf – a common practice in Guatemala. Though McMichael politely declined, he says the experience was further evidence proving they are “the most grateful and gracious people I have ever met.”
More than a volunteer trip
When McMichael discovered the village of El Zapatillo had no refrigeration to keep school lunches or perishables cold, but the villagers dreamed of starting a business selling chocolate-covered bananas, he knew he owed his new cooperative friends a cold one — a refrigerator, that is. After meeting at an appliance store in Huehuetenango, McMichael helped a group of men carefully load the refrigerator into the bed of a Toyota pickup to haul back to the village, a more than three-hour drive over rugged terrain.
The PPEC Board of Trustees also came together on their own to purchase a solar panel system for a local family who bent over backward to help crews during Project Indiana’s electrification efforts, even though their home was so remotely located on the mountainside that it could likely never sustain traditional electric service.
“Faustino and his family treated us like their own with hugs and embraces as if they had known us for many years,” McMichael says. “Now, they have light at night, some use of appliances, and, much to their enjoyment, they can listen to music. It really is those little things.”
Newly certified boards
After two days of growth, idea-sharing, and training, 30 directors and committee members (including one woman) between the two co-ops “graduated,” earning their signed director certificates from NRECA International.
Assisting in the training was Jennifer Rufatto, vice president of communication and human resources for Indiana Electric Cooperatives, who felt this trip was a fulfillment of the promise Project Indiana made: to connect the dots for these new co-ops who went out on a limb trying to better their lives.
“What we know how to do is electricity. We bring electricity to places that don’t have it, but we can’t stop there,” Rufatto says. “Expanding on that vision, we must help them get up and running and be sustainable so they can go forward and grow to eventually get to the point where they can help start other cooperatives in their country.”
“Connecting the dots” includes linking the cooperative-based communities with resources that will improve their standard of living. For instance, one problem is the wide-spread use of large, unsecured cook fires, which cause numerous burns. Here, Project Indiana works to connect these villages to nonprofits that build cook stoves, install water pumps, supply medical assistance, and provide education services. It all circles back to the cooperative responsibility of mutual aid.
“When we can assist on our level of expertise, we have every single time,” Rufatto says. “This is just extending it to places that don’t have that resource. Places like Guatemala, which look a lot like rural America did in the 1930s before we had electricity. Their story is ours 75 years ago…it’s a sense of paying it forward.”
As word gets out, Rufatto expects the third cooperative to form (and potentially more) after Guatemalans see Project Indiana coming back to help pave the way.
They won’t have to ask McMichael twice.
“I’ll have my bags packed and ready to go as soon as I’m needed,” he says. “Those days in Guatemala were some of the most meaningful days of my life. The more you give without wanting or expecting anything in return, the more you’ll receive. And I’m ready to give.”