“What could be so special about some shipping containers that you would travel more than 11,000 km to see them in a small community located in the Amazon jungle?”
Standing there on that hill looking at the containers, now converted into the Solar Community Hub, I wondered briefly. Behind me, the hill dropped steeply toward a small branch of the Madeira River, the largest tributary of the Amazon River. It was just after 9 a.m. on June 1, and the heat was already sweltering. I spent the last few hours traveling by plane and riverboat to reach Boa Esperança, a community of about 20 families, which overlooks the banks of the Madeira River.
It quickly became clear how important the Solar Hub was, not only for the people of Boa Esperança but also for the nearby communities. In all, the center helps provide health and education services, technology, and more to some 1,500 people in nearby riverside communities, as well as the indigenous Mura, Tenharim, and Apurinã ethnic groups.
“We don’t see the Solar Hub as benefits, but as opportunities,” Luziete Mar, supervisor of the Solar Hub, said through a translator. “Through the Solar Hub, we can study, have medicine, medical attention. It’s an opportunity.”
The Solar Hub is a joint project between Fundação Amazônia Sustentável (Sustainable Amazon Fund, or FAS), Dell, Intel and Computer Aid. Intel and Dell provide funding and technology for the project, while the idea for the Solar Hub itself comes from Computer Aid, which has similar projects in South America and Africa. Meanwhile, FAS works with the community in a number of ways, employing some members to work at the Solar Hub. It also facilitates communication between the community and the government to help them gain access to supplies, equipment, and other benefits.
in the jungle
To fully appreciate what the Solar Hub enables, it’s important to understand where you are in relation to other cities. I started my trip to Boa Esperança in Manaus, the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Manaus is near the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River and is home to more than 2.2 million people.
I flew from Manaus to the city of Manicoré in a small Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. (An interesting aside: That plane uses a PT6 turboprop engine designed by Quebec-based Pratt & Whitney Canada.) The approximately one-hour flight took us about 330 km southwest of Manaus over stretches of rainforest, rivers, lakes, and other waterways. Manicoré has a population of more than 56,000 people.
From Manicoré we took boats west along the Madeira River. By river, it was barely 40 km to Boa Esperança; the good conditions allowed us to save some time on the trip, which lasted about 45 minutes. However, Boa Esperança is not always as accessible by river as it was when we made our trip. During the dry season, usually from July to September, the community becomes inaccessible the way we went. During the rainy season, the Madeira can rise more than 15 m.
Combined with the modes of transportation available to people (not everyone can afford planes or boats as fast as the one I took), getting from Boa Esperança to Manicoré or Manaus can be difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Some I spoke to said the journey could take hours or even days, especially if what they need isn’t immediately available.
From shipping containers to opportunity
As for the Solar Hub itself, it’s made from two repurposed shipping containers flanking a central wooden structure. In total, the structure is about 60m2, slightly larger than the typical portable classroom you would see in Ontario schools. In the central wooden structure, there’s a desk with a couple of Dell laptops, one of which is ruggedly built for off-site use, and a printer. There was also a screen on the wall showing a slideshow of images.
Shipping containers are accessible through doors and are air conditioned. The container on the right side features a small computer classroom where students come to learn, while the left side is used to care for the health of people in the community. FAS employees can provide an initial assessment and help connect people with doctors via laptop. By leveraging telemedicine, Solar Hub enables faster care and often saves people a multi-hour or day trip to nearby cities by stocking common medications on-site.
While the benefits of healthcare are more immediately clear, the educational aspect is just as important. Having computers and Internet access through the Solar Hub creates greater learning opportunities in the community rather than young people leaving for school.
Community member Isais Costa is one such example. Through a translator, Costa explained how he started teaching basic education and digital literacy in the community, but had to leave for further training and become a professional teacher. Costa is back and is now teaching from the Solar Hub: He was teaching a group of kids about Microsoft Office applications when we met him.
“When I was in college, they didn’t have the Hub here,” Costa said through a translator. “So I needed to go to another place, to another city… that would be cheaper to study and (finish) the university. Now, in the afternoons and evenings, they can do university here at the Solar Hub”.
To get people online, Solar Hub relies on Internet radio over Realnet, though there are plans to transition to Starlink in the future. (However, while I was there, it seemed like the connection was already over Starlink.) The center also relies on 18 550W solar panels that provide a total of 9.9 kW of power, enough to run two air conditioners, one for each shipping container, as well as all the computers, laptops, and other technology on the site.
More than a classroom
While health and education were a focus of the Solar Hub, there is more on offer. The Hub also supports a water filtration system and a bathroom. According to Lorena Jezini, leader of the community infrastructure agenda at FAS, the Hub uses two filters to clean rainwater collected from the roof; Naturally, it rains a lot in the Amazon.
“Half the community uses the water from the (Madeira) river,” Jezini explained. She held up a glass of river water, which was slightly yellow in color. “This water probably has some mercury and mud in it.”
The mercury is the result of illegal small-scale mining operations that take place along the river. As I was sailing towards Boa Esperança, I saw several mining ships anchored in the river. They looked like small houses and were used by gold prospectors, or garimpeiros in Portuguese, to dredge the river for gold.
The miners separate the gold by mixing liquid mercury with the sediment. Mercury coats gold, forming a mercury-gold amalgam. They then burn or boil the mercury to concentrate the gold. However, the process leaks mercury back into the river, affecting water and food sources for riverside communities like Boa Esperança.
The addition of the water filtration system at Solar Hub gives the community access to a source of clean water for drinking and cooking, and has also become a larger project that FAS wants to bring to other communities in the area.
A Canadian solar center?
The community was a main focus of the Solar Hub project. Several people I spoke to during my time in Brazil said that it was one of the most important factors in selecting Boa Esperança as the location for the Hub. The people there were very involved, which was integral to the long-term success of the project.
The community and FAS work together to develop skills and place people in various roles related to the Center; without strong community involvement and the efforts of FAS, it is likely that the Center would not have performed as well.
Strong community involvement and organizing will be key aspects if a similar project ever comes to Canada, something that could be on the cards.“This is something we’ve had some conversations about, but it’s very early,” Leonardo Tiarajú, Dell Latin America’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) manager, told me when asked about a potential Canadian solar hub.
“We will have to identify potential areas, potential beneficiaries,” Tiarajú said. “The indigenous people of Canada are an example. We need to brainstorm…we need to identify organizations. There is a lot of work to be done, but Canada is definitely on our radar. It could be a potential country for our next Solar Community Hub, I can say that.”
Header Image Credit: Intel