How solar energy can change lives

Henrique Drumond suffered a crisis of confidence in his early 20s. His father, Antonio, had just died – the man he looked up to, an engineer whose mind produced many brilliant ideas – at the age of 65. He left his son a rather unusual watch: it was powered by the sun.

At the time, Enrique was working his first job outside of the family business after receiving a degree in business administration from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. He had spent an intense two years with Brasil Brokers, a public real estate company based in Rio, the bustling city where Enrique was born and raised, between expensive apartments overlooking Copacabana Beach and economically deprived favelas.

The informal settlements, home to more than one million people, arose when people from the northeast of Brazil moved to the southeast. They came looking for work and ended up creating these “unique urban environments,” says Enrique. “They are spaces that are very creative, very hands-on, very entrepreneurial — people have to make money to survive.”

Something is missing

The would-be entrepreneur couldn’t shake the feeling that he was on the wrong path, but he had one problem: “I realized that I was missing something in this environment, but I didn’t know what. I had a few ideas in my mind, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

He looked to his family – his father, an inspired engineer, always a problem solver; his mother, a literature professor; his grandfather, a “very successful” businessman; his grandmother, a teacher known for her “good heart”. He felt “lost somewhere in the middle” – a young man with both a business mind and a strong social conscience. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy to be,” he says today. “When you’re building your personality and career at the intersection of the business world and the social world, it can be challenging because they’re often in conflict.”

He took time off to consider his future as part of the healing process after his father’s death. He was thinking of doing an MBA but had no ultimate goal. “I just knew I lacked entrepreneurial experience and didn’t feel like I knew enough about myself to start a new chapter.”

Gradually the connections came together in his mind and a promising career became clear: “Being born in a city like Rio shaped my future as a social entrepreneur. When you live in an environment where social division creates mistrust, it’s not healthy. But it also motivates me to ask, “What can I do to inspire others who haven’t had access to education or resources—how can we empower them to be the best version of themselves?”

Key to the future

Then he realized that there had been a clue to his future all along: the solar-powered watch his father had left him. The result was Insolar, a startup dedicated to empowering the people of Brazil by bringing solar power to low-income communities.

“With Insolar, we’ve brought high-end technology to the bottom of the pyramid—people in the favelas who don’t even have access to bank accounts. They have almost no credit and live with challenging electrical infrastructure in a dynamic urban landscape,” he says.

Everything in the favelas is a challenge. For example, Henrique can install solar panels in a public building one day, and the next neighbor will build another floor so that the panels are in the shade. “It’s the most challenging scenario so far,” he admits, “but also the most collaborative once you’ve earned the trust of the community.”

Solar power is an abundant source of energy that anyone can tap into – especially in Brazil, which has 2,000 hours of sunshine a year – but there were fewer than 100 solar power installations nationwide when Insolar started. Now, thanks to collaboration between various stakeholders and Insolar’s pioneering approach, it has grown to 8% of the country’s energy mix.

“To me, Insolar is more about empowering people. The solar panel itself is not very sexy,” laughs Enrique. “I wanted to offer people more than just solar – knowledge, technology, opportunities, connections – all the things that people with talent or potential need to succeed. When everyone can be the best version of themselves, the whole city wins.”

For Enrique, the democratization of solar energy production is essential – everyone should be able to afford it. By listening to favela residents, he discovered that energy prices were the third largest expense for a family – and that energy was not only expensive, but also unreliable, with frequent outages. “Every time I went to the favela, people asked, ‘How much will it cost me?'” I said, “Let’s say you spend BRL100 (£17) a month on energy. If you instead pay BRL20 to the energy company and BRL50 for your roof panel, it will save you money. We knew the savings had to be greater than the monthly costs.”

Life goes on every day in the favelas, and residents tend to take a short-term view, so promoting sustainability and solar energy is a challenge. “‘Why put it on my roof?'” they ask. “Will it save me enough energy tomorrow to justify it?” You can be long-term in views, perspectives, philosophies, dreams, ambitions, but you must be very pragmatic in promoting short-term impact, as this is the most the necessary.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *