Youth micro-technicians: TecAp’s second type of microfranchisees

TecAp is one of the first microfranchises or even commercial franchises worldwide to have two different types of microfranchisees. The two sets of microfranchisees mutually reinforce each other

The two types of microfranchisees are mutually reinforcing in selling solar energy 

TecAp has launched a second type of microfranchisees in 2013. These are underemployed youth from low-income farming families that TecAp is training to be able to assess, install and repair rooftop solar systems. The first type of microfranchisees, launched in mid-2011, is women who sell solar-powered products. Both the youth and the women have a catalog in which are featured rooftop solar systems and their components for replacement parts..

These two sets of microfranchisees complement each other. The women find the clients who want the rooftop systems, TecAp acquires the materials, and the youth install or repair the systems. In this way, the women earn by making the sale, and the youth earn by installing the system. If the youth find a system that needs repair, they encourage their client to buy the parts locally from a woman microfranchisee. Also, if the youth micro-technicians find those who are interested in solar but cannot afford a rooftop system, they refer the clients to the women microfranchisees who sell the hand-held solar products. It is a win-win earning system among women and youth who are often under-employed in rural areas off the grid.

TecAp’s annual youth solar training is government certified and has set a precedent

IDEAS has now trained 76 youth as solar installers and repairers. The program graduated 27 in 2013, 23 in 2014, and 26 in 2015. This enables rural youth to find work in a new technological field that has not been available to youth in the communities of northern Nicaragua. In each annual course, the youth are recruited from different rural municipalities where there are plenty of areas that lack electricity, so the demand for their services will be strong.

It is an intensive learning program including 110 hours of instruction. It is carried out over a two month period so that the youth can learn while still continuing their weekly activities that provide income or labor for their families. The basic requirement was that they have a high school degree and live near areas without electricity away from the national grid. While mostly in their 20s, students range in age to their 40s. There is always more demand by youth to be trained than there is money to train them so TecAp is quite selective to make sure that they are training persons who put their new skills to work. After the training, TecAp continues to mentor the youth while they do installations.

TecAp and the rural leaders planning the program wanted to have a training that was nationally recognized so that youth could show their diploma when they sought either formal employment or contractual work. IDEAS and the professor worked for several months with the national government’s Technical Institute (INATEC) to get the new curriculum approved so that the graduates would be certified. The national institute is very pleased with the IDEAS initiative since it is the first time that they have certified a solar installers’ program that has such a substantial amount of field work which gives students practical experience. Now that the program is officially approved, it can be taught elsewhere in the country, so IDEAS created another precedent.

Several types of entities cooperate to make trainings successful 

IDEAS has created a new model of local governments, the national Technical Institute (INATEC), Nitlapan, NGOs and coffee cooperatives working together in a new level of cooperation on behalf of underemployed youth. The community groups, NGOs, cooperatives and governments nominate potential students. Some groups commit their own resources as matching contributions.

INATEC helps pay for the professor, sends a supervisor to oversee each training session, oversees the testing and grading. Finally, INATEC certifies the graduates and the diploma is valid nationally. Often the municipalities donate the training space. The municipalities recruit students and provide logistic support. Each year the training is held in a different municipality so that it can better draw students from surrounding areas.

The adult leaders are interested in having local youth who know how to install systems as this is one of the services that they provide for the very poor. Also, some of the systems that previously have been installed for projects paid by local governments or NGOs have fallen into disrepair and having trained local youth allows these systems to provide light again.

Youth solar micro-technicians’ activities

The youth technicians, once trained, are prepared to assess a family’s electrical needs, plan and build a home solar system, and diagnose and repair faulty systems.  While there are a few solar companies in Nicaragua, most of these companies and their workforces are located in the larger cities, far away from the areas where solar power is most needed and most utilized.  In contrast, these youth technicians are located in those isolated areas and, thus, are willing to visit a family’s home when technicians from a city find it economically not feasible.

The youth are a valuable resource for TecAp and their neighbors with electricity. Over the years, it has been proven that the youth in coordination with TecAp will install systems in the most remote areas where other solar companies are unwilling to work.

The trained micro-technicians:

                    • Assess the needs of rural families for solar energy and other appropriate technologies. They learn to assess the buyer’s needs and recommend the appropriate system size.
                    • Provide on-site diagnostics of systems that are no longer working. They order the parts from TecAp and make the repair.
                    • Be able to determine if a family has misused their system and advise them on better usage and maintenance strategies.
                    • Troubleshoot and repair or install their own community members’ solar systems and generate income by selling their new skills.
                    • Earn money by finding clients and also earn by installing the system. A single micro-technician could earn money for each of these.

Training micro-technicians lowers youth unemployment and reduces migration. 

The leadership of many farming cooperatives and NGOs are very excited about this aspect of the TecAp project, as it will allow youth to learn a new trade that will earn them money.  When the land to till is small and the family has many children, some will not inherit land or be able to become coffee farmers like their parents.  As a result of this higher tech training, fewer of those youth will be forced to migrate to the cities or other countries to look for jobs.

The TecAp microfranchise provides youth in rural areas with marketable skills. The demand for those skills is only going to grow (expanding rural electrification by way of solar power is both a short-term and long-term goal of the Nicaraguan government and is supported by many international entities). With the world prices of solar components like panels dropping every year, there will be increased demand in the future from those families who are scarcely able to afford a roof top system now. The type of DC installation skills the youth learn also serve to do other electrical (AC) work.

Women being micro-technicians changes their life opportunities

Some of the youth that have been trained are women in their 20s. This program is an excellent opportunity for young women in coffee communities, as they are even less likely than their brothers to inherit any of their family’s productive land.  Many young women in remote areas are limited by their parents to work in or near their family’s home until they marry. Afterwards, then women frequently are constrained by their husbands, many of whom want their wives to only work in their own home and farm.  There are few employment options in the rural areas aside from farming, so girls who want to work outside the home, and boys that have no land to work, are effectively forced to leave the rural areas for the city or another country, separating families that often rely on each other’s incomes to survive. The women micro-technicians are offering a skill set in their communities that neither men nor adults have so they are valued as having a vital contribution to bring solar electricity to the area.

Donations provide scholarships: annual funding needed

The first donation from IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) was used to plan the curriculum, get it certified, develop partnerships, recruit the professor and students, and hold the first training (2013). The program provides a lot of hands on experience in the countryside, which is expensive in terms of materials and time. Now that the course is ready to be repeated, its costs will be lower. The International Foundation, complemented by the New England Biolab Foundation, provided a major part of the funding for the second year (2014).

The First Solar Corporate Charitable Fund of the Toledo Community Foundation provided a major part of the grant funds for the third year (2015) of youth training. This is the core seed funding that leverages additional donations that are needed to make the trainings so successful.

Matching funds as well as in-kind donations are needed in order to fully execute this important initiative for youth in additional communities. Your donations allow for an increase in youth employment in rural areas, increase income to households, keep some youth from migrating, and provide a strong foundation for the growth of solar energy throughout northern Nicaragua.

In addition, TecAp provides annual trainings for active graduates to teach them new technologies and improve their skills. TecAp provides on-going mentoring as the youth make installations and tackle bigger projects like installations and repairs in rural clinics. One of the new technologies that is now being taught is using solar electricity to pump water for irrigation, animals, and for drinking water. These additional aspects of TecAp’s continual training need donations.

Financing of systems by microfinance institutions makes it possible for families to buy

In order for youth to have a steady supply of systems to install, the families must have money to buy the systems. There are very few poor families with $500 to $2000 in cash to buy a rooftop solar system. Therefore, they must borrow part or all of the money. Fortunately, IDEAS has had 20 years of experience in financing. This has allowed it to negotiate with different microfinanceninstitutions or farmers coops to finance the systems on favorable terms. After the youth technician finds a client who needs financing, he or she contacts TecAp, which makes the connection with a financial institution that sends its field staff out to the farm to assess the family’s credit worthiness. Once approved, the youth installers proceed to install. TecAp has found that many times it is the first time that a family has had credit. Once having credit for solar, the family can borrow for other activities. In this alliance facilitated by IDEAS, the family gets electricity and a credit, the institution gets a new client, and the micro-technicians are able to earn by installing. The presence of the micro-technician nearby means that the family can call in case of need of repair. This TecAp system has eliminated situations so common in the past when a buyer would refuse to pay because the purchased system quit working and an urban-based commercial company would not return to repair. The microfinance institution knows it can count on TecAp to maintain the system so that the borrower will continue to be satisfied and keep paying. This is yet another instance in which IDEAS has forged an new alliance amongst actors so they all win.

Click here to support the empowerment of youth earning funds by solar installation through TecAp.