Salud Del Sol: Students saving lives with sustainable technology
It started as something simple: find a project that would satisfy the requirements for an honors thesis. But what came out of a simple summer internship has grown into a nonprofit business that has the potential to impact lives across the globe.
Lori Hanna ignited the fire for her nonprofit, Salud del Sol, in 2006 when she became interested in pairing solar-powered oven technology with an autoclave--an appliance that sterilizes medical equipment. Solar-powered ovens (called solar cookers) were already being built and used in a small community in Nicaragua. The idea for a solar-powered autoclave had been dreamt up and abandoned by another engineer. Because the solar autoclave would make a huge difference in the quality of medical care in rural Nicaraguan clinics, Lori took on the challenge. The resulting nonprofit, Salud del Sol, has been snowballing ever since.
Lori was just finishing her sophomore year at the University of Dayton when she applied for a volunteer internship through ETHOS--a Dayton School of Engineering program founded on the belief that engineers can better serve the world when they gain experience with alternative, non-traditional technologies and see the immediate impact on the lives of those who need them.
So that summer in 2006, Lori found herself in Nicaragua working with a small group of local women, Las Mujeres Solares (translated “the solar women”). This group was started with help from Grupo Fenix, a local organization dedicated to researching, developing and applying appropriate, renewable-energy technologies in Nicaragua. Grupo Fenix taught them how to build and use the solar cookers. The solar cookers made a big impact in the community, because they save fuel (firewood), are a safe place to store food between meals, and can be used to bring in extra income.
“A couple women discovered that if you roasted coffee in [the solar cookers], it was really good,” Lori says. The coffee was so good that they made more money selling solar-roasted coffee than from traditional open-fire roasting.
Though the solar cooker was already a success, Lori and the other ETHOS intern worked with Las Mujeres Solares on improving the cooker’s design and learning more about how the community was using the cookers. Meanwhile, the ETHOS internship coordinator knew Lori was looking for an honors thesis idea and suggested that she might be interested in a research project that was abandoned when funding ran out. The project had tried to adapt the same solar cooker technology to power autoclaves for medical equipment sterilization.
“These poor clinics in Nicaragua… don’t have electricity. So they have to travel really far to sterilize their medical instruments,” Lori says. “They only have one set of instruments usually, so if more than one birth happens in between when they can go get their instruments sterilized, they’re out of luck.”
Back in the U.S., Lori took over the design research in the fall of 2006, but it became clear that it needed to become more than a school project. “I realized that even if I got the design going, it would just drop when the project ended, kind of like it had in 2004,” Lori says. But if there was a business to sustain the research and distribute the product, then it would have a much better chance of getting to the people that really need it.
With the goal of developing something to sustain the autoclave project, Lori consulted with professors from the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration. Through these contacts, she learned about their business plan competition and ultimately recruited a team of three fellow students (four, including Lori) to develop a nonprofit business plan. In the fall of 2007, after weeks of work, the team entered the competition with the plan for Salud del Sol--an appropriate technology assistance nonprofit dedicated to harnessing sunshine for sustainable business and better health.
The Salud del Sol team wasn’t in the competition for the win. They wanted access to the free business resources, like software and a mentor, available to teams in the competition. Nevertheless, Salud del Sol won the $10,000 first-place prize.
In the end, all four group members committed to Salud del Sol’s long-term plans: Daniel Hensel, a mechanical engineering major; Anna Young, an economics and finance major; Lauren Dokes, an accounting major; and finally Lori. Together they founded Salud del Sol to design the solar autoclave and assist Las Mujeres Solares in finding suppliers, business planning, grant writing, networking and marketing, with the goal of creating a sustainable business in that community.
“Right now they sell solar cookers, but they have no marketing, so they don’t sell very many.” Eventually, Lori explains, “as solar cooker sales increase, and the clinics are provided with autoclaves, we guess that in seven years we could cut off donations, and that further solar cooker sales would subsidize all further creation and maintenance of autoclaves for the clinics.”
Until they reach that point, Salud del Sol will set up a donation system--in addition to their donation page at globalgiving.com--on their website (saluddelsol.org) that will allow individuals to donate autoclaves to rural Nicaraguan clinics. Salud del Sol will funnel the donations directly to Las Mujeres Solares, who will build the autoclaves, donate them to clinics, and provide any maintenance they might require.
The long term goal is even more enterprising. When Las Mujeres Solares is self-sustaining, Salud del Sol will take what they’ve learned and start again somewhere else--Central or South America, Africa, Asia--anywhere there is a need.
“That’s the vision,” Lori says. “Get them going, self-sustaining, then go somewhere else, either with the autoclave, or with some other appropriate renewable energy technology.”
Though the business was coming together, they still needed the product--the autoclave. In addition to the work she was doing for her thesis, Lori utilized a course that all engineering students at the University of Dayton have to complete to graduate--the design and manufacturing clinic.
“Normally big companies come in and sponsor projects,” Lori explains. “So they pay $4,500 to have a student team of four or five people work on this project for two semesters. [For example,] it will be an appliance company that wants an improved-efficiency dishwasher--that’s all they say--and then the students come up with [the design]. The company benefits because it’s really cost-effective labor, and the students fulfill their capstone requirement.”
Rather than participating in a project for another company, Lori secured grant money to sponsor the autoclave project for the design clinic. The first semester began in January 2008, and by that summer, they had a couple of designs ready for testing. Three of the four Salud del Sol partners went to Nicaragua to test two different prototypes, and came back that fall with enough data to decide which design to move forward with.
Though Lori graduated from the University of Dayton in December 2008, and Daniel graduated in May 2009, both have continued working on the design. With the help of a second group in the design and manufacturing clinic; an engineering team at the National Engineering University in Managua, Nicaragua; a student team in Nicaragua; and a growing list of contacts and supporters from around the world, the work on the design and the business is constantly moving forward.
“It’s so good to get the encouragement,” Lori says. “To hear these people that work with these social entrepreneurs all the time still get so excited about all the right things we’re doing, and all the good ideas and good direction that we have.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done--finishing the design, gathering resources and building connections. But with continued hard work, dedication, and the support of other social entrepreneurs and donors, they’ll soon be successful in meeting their goals in Nicaragua with Las Mujeres Solares. Salud del Sol is well on its way to setting a standard for appropriate technology and sustainable entrepreneurship around the world.
udayton.edu, grupofenix.org,saludd elsol.org, m-w.com, ethosud.com