Backstory: Lighting Up the Andes

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Last May, IEEE Spectrum dispatched Contributing Editor Peter Fairley to a remote corner of the Bolivian Andes to accompany a group setting off on a challenging mission. Led by two Canadians, the group was to light up homes and schools in remote, rural villages not connected to the electric grid.

Other projects are also striving to bring electric light to isolated places, but the Canadians--Anthony and Faith Harckham, both 62-year-old retirees--have a unique approach. First, there's the technology: not incandescent or fluorescent lamps, but rather white light-emitting diodes powered by solar panels. Then there's the financing, which depends on a mix of tourism and charity. The Harckhams' funding comes not from governments or corporations but from adventurous people who like traveling to out-of-the-way places. They pay for the lighting equipment and their own travel expenses, and then help install the hardware themselves. So far, this grass-roots system has brought light to hundreds of homes from Peru to Pakistan.

Peter Fairley [rear, in glasses] helped bring lights to these residents of rural Tahana in Bolivia.

An avid outdoorsman, Fairley says those six days in the Bolivian Andes had plenty of ups and downs--in more ways than one. Several times the group narrowly missed roadblocks and raucous demonstrations against government policies favoring export of the country's natural gas.

Born in New York City, 37-year-old Fairley has lived in nearly 10 different cities in the United States, Canada, and Japan. He is now settling down in Victoria, a small, scenic city in western Canada, from which he contributes regularly to Spectrum.

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