Fabio Rosa was very young when he became aware of the need to slow down the huge rural exodus, “synonymous with vulnerability, decline and dehumanisation.”. As he was convinced that this phenomenon was not inevitable, he sought a way to revolutionise Brazil’s electrification at any cost. When he was 22 and he had obtained his agricultural engineering degree, he was hired as a secretary by the mayor of a small village called Palmarès do Sul, in the South of Brazil. This region specialises in rice cultivation. “I quickly realised as I spoke to the small farmers, that they would be forced to migrate towards towns, sooner or later. These farmers often end up in shanty towns. I then looked for a way to change things.”
One day when he turned on the television, Fabio stumbled on the solution : “An electricity professor was suggesting that three-phase electric power should be turned into single-phase electric power – a smaller system that is a lot less powerful but ten times cheaper which would be more than enough for the small farmers’ activities- to lower connection and exploitation costs.”
All of a sudden, a light bulb came on in my mind ! » In the 1980s, it cost 7000 US$ to connect an isolated home to a three-phase electric system which was set up during the military dictatorship for industry in big cities. That represented eight years of a small farmer’s income! And it was a huge amount compared to a single-phase electric system which could be installed for 450$.
« Nobody took any interest in this believer in Science. And yet, his discovery was going to help us change the lives of a million Brazilians. I immediately decided to go and meet him. »
A long saga full of obstacles then began for Fabio Rosa. « For a very long time, I felt that I was taking one step forward, two steps back. I met the farmers and the mayors of numerous villages one at a time to convince them. But when single-phase electric power implantation became too visible and too widespread, politicians, often linked to the interests of institutions or electricity companies, started to put spanners in the works. I had to fight against the electricity monopoly and against certain political and economic interests. Each time I thought I was making progress, a change of political representative meant I had to start lobbying all over again!
For the first few years, regional institutions funded the Brazilian countryside electrification project put forward by Fabio Rosa. “I was completely dependent on their indulgence, recalls the environmentalist. As soon as my action became annoying, I was cut off and forbidden to continue.”
In 1992, the Brazilian electrification pioneer then decided to free himself from all public subsidies by creating STA (Agroelectric System of Appropriate Technology), a company that sells electrical equipment and services. The profits will be used to fund the actions undertaken by his association, IDEEAS (Institute for Development of Natural Energy and Sustainability), which is still working to supply electricity to the poorest people today.
Little by little, Fabio obtained the backing of some goodwilled political decision-makers and managed to convert many regions to the 025 norm: the single-phase electric system. “Things gradually became clearer over time. As the system’s viability and its positive impact on the small farmers of Palmares do Sul and surrounding towns had already been proven, it became less difficult to convince the people I was talking to.” Fabio Rosa even managed to make a newly-elected President Lula’s entourage aware of the situation. As a result, in 2003, a budget of 4 billion dollars was made available to supply single-phase electric power to 80% of Brazilians.
“I was exhilarated; I had finally reached my goal! But I gradually started becoming disillusioned when I realised that this declaration was a little populist. Because even if it was followed through to the end, it would not help the poorest small farmers who cannot pay for the connection, or the most isolated who are too far from big power lines to be connected. This represents 20 million people in Brazil !”
Fabio then started looking for solutions that could be applied to as many people as possible. He thought of solar energy which is available almost all year round in Brazil but the equipment was even more expensive than single-phase connections.
This is wherein Fabio Rosa’s genius lies: finding solutions to the most difficult problems. “Let’s start from the principle that a poor family spends an average of 11$ a month on kerosene and candles. I told myself that the maximum amount should not exceed this fixed figure to avoid excessive debt, and provide a feasible and lasting solution to millions of families.”
His demonstration was simple and his argument was well polished. He explained it like you explain a mathematical problem to a class of first year students. “It costs 400$ to buy a school kit from the manufacturer. This comes to a total of 700$ including installation costs. Small farmers will be able to buy it by paying 10$ a month for three years, and the installation costs. And for my idea to really be effective, I have developed a flawless after-sales service by supplying maintenance teams that don’t just come to your home to install the solar system and the electric circuit but also undertake the maintenance if the equipment breaks down. »
Fabio Rosa’s solution to make electricity available to the most isolated people is close to leasing, a lease with purchase option similar to the microcredit developed by Muhammed Yunus, the famous Bangladeshi economist. Thanks to the support of Ashoka (www.ashoka.asso.fr/), an organisation which supports innovative business people in the solidarity, health, educational and environmental fields, its business model, called “Luz agora” (Project Light) was validated by McKinsey, a leading international management consulting firm.
Today, thanks to Fabio Rosa, almost a million Brazilians have access to electricity. Moreover, the electrification of the countryside has increased the value of outlying land and farmers have significantly increased their yields. After thirty years of campaigning, this man who is changing things is now listened to and considered –in light of his numerous prizes and other international distinctions – as a modern day hero. The models developed and applied by IDEAAS are now used as a reference for national and international programs. His bright ideas have spread to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and South Africa.