In rural areas of Haiti, residents have trouble accessing cheap and reliable electricity. Limyè Pa w – founded by three social entrepreneurs – is trying to change that by setting up an electrical grid that uses discarded corn cobs as its fuel source. Ben Shell, one of the company’s co-founders, talks about the technology, the Haitian people and the challenges of building a sustainable enterprise in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge@Wharton: Our guest today is Ben Shell, co-founder of Limyè Pa w — a rural electrification social business startup in Haiti. Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.
Knowledge@Wharton: What does Limyè Pa w mean?
Shell: In Haitian Creole, it means “your light.” We wanted to give our business a name that people would understand immediately. Light is probably the most important use of electricity in rural areas of Haiti.
Knowledge@Wharton: Can you tell me a little bit about the rural electrification situation in Haiti and how that led to the genesis of your project?
Shell: Sure. Three of us co-founded the business — myself, another American named Dan Bierenbaum and a Haitian American named Duquesne Fednard. Duquesne grew up in a rural area of Haiti, went to the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and worked and went to school there. But after the earthquake, he came back to Haiti [in order to] help develop – and heal — the country. He had a vision of access to energy as a really important way for that to happen.
Haiti has the lowest rate of electricity use per capita in the western Hemisphere. It’s estimated – it’s very difficult to get good statistics – that less than 10% of people in rural areas in Haiti actually have access to a grid. So there’s a huge, huge need there, a need that Duquesne was looking for ways to meet. A couple years ago, Dan, who went to grad school with Duquesne, started talking to him about some emerging technology that could contribute to this. I actually knew Dan from before, so he brought me in, and we started our business.
Originally Published April 29, 2014, by Knowledge@Wharton.