Kopernik: Lifting Indonesians out of Poverty By Bill Dalton
Ten years ago, Ewa Wojkowska remembers driving at night in complete darkness through a remote town in East Timor. Located in one of the poorest districts of that new country, the town had no electricity and there was a total lack of any nighttime activity. “When night fell, the population of 60,000 had very little to do,” she told me on a recent visit to her office in Sayan near Ubud. “That was the situation up until about two years ago. It would be pitch black. In the last year and a half we have distributed more than 4,500 solar lights to that community.”
Now after dark you’ll see lights all over the place with people socializing, children studying and women weaving in the evenings. Now they are able to produce more goods for sale at the market. You may not think that solar lights or water purifiers would mean that much for a poor community, but these simple devices can really make a very tangible improvement in people’s lives.”
The same drama has been played out in a number of outlying locales throughout Indonesia – from Kalimantan to Papua – where Kopernik, an international NGO that Ewa co-founded in 2010, delivers life-changing technologies to the poor. Kopernik achieves this by connecting companies manufacturing the utilitarian equipment with local organizations working on the ground. Kopernik has already implemented 41 projects in 11 countries, reaching more than 80,000 people.
In June 2012 Kopernik chose Ubud as its new headquarters because of the area’s abundant human resources and reasonable living costs. “It’s also quiet, so we can focus on our work,” Ewa said. Inside the leafy complex just south of Kedewetan, a showroom sells a number of energy saving solar lights and lanterns, fuel-efficient biomass cook stoves and affordable water purification filters.
Kopernik also has a strong online presence, a virtual marketplace designed to help find solutions for the developing world. Requests and proposals for new technologies are posted on the website by people who are actually living with the challenges. After funding by corporations and individuals, the technologies are shipped directly to local organizations that in turn distribute them to the end users.
A critical component of Kopernik’s philosophy is that the technologies are not given away free. Kopernik’s local partners sell the technology to villagers either at full cost or at subsidized cost. “It depends on the local situation and how much people can afford. We have this policy in place because we don’t want to create dependency. It’s more of an equal partnership if end users pay for the technology.”
A Fair Go for All
Co-founder Ewa Wojkowska, who is also the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, has led an adventurous life working to improve the lives of poor people in developing countries across Asia. Ewa was born in Poland and immigrated to Australia in 1984. She grew up in Canberra where she volunteered for the human rights organization Amnesty International. In 1998 she moved to Melbourne where she earned a Masters in Politics and Public Policy at Deakin University.
Ewa says moving from Poland to Australia made her appreciate the egalitarian nature of Australian society, giving her access to all sorts of opportunities that she would not have had otherwise. In Australia, she learned the concept of a ‘fair go’ for all. Now it’s her turn to give others less fortunate than herself a ‘fair go’ as well.
Ewa spent ten years working for NGOs, the United Nations and the World Bank in New York, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia, focusing on the empowerment of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups living in the “last mile” of civilization. She has extensive experience working in the field of human rights and justice, election and public sector reform, and in disaster recovery efforts in the tsunami-stricken province of Aceh. In 2000, she travelled to Timor-Leste as an Australian volunteer in the aftermath of the tumultuous East Timorese referendum.
It was during her formative years with local grass roots NGOs that Ewa realized that aid groups even with the best of intentions often fail to effectively connect on the ground with the communities that need their help. She quickly learnt that all work has to be grounded in local culture, in local knowledge and in the solid relationships and trust that must be nurtured with members of the community. “If you don’t have these, you’ll get nothing done.” This was the motiving force behind the establishment of her venture, which she named ‘Kopernik’, the Polish name for the great Renaissance astronomer Copernicus.
The shortcomings that she found in advancing poor communities were in large part due to the lack of innovation and adequate technology. “The big aid organizations such as the UN tend to do things the same way year in year out. There’s little innovation taking place within the tight-knit community of development experts, bureaucrats and diplomats. This type of environment is just not conducive to spurring innovation,” she claimed.
While still at the UN, Ewa became aware of very simple but excellent existing technologies that could have a very tangible impact on people’s lives, yet do not need much technical expertise to install or maintain. “But these products were not reaching the people who needed them. I saw this gap and decided to do something about it. Now we make sure that our products reach the folks that they were developed for, which are mostly women.”
Because of the dearth of women’s representation in Indonesia’s government bureaucracies, women have become more involved in the community and spend a much larger part of their disposable income than men on education, nutrition, health care and sanitation - things that directly benefit families. Because they hold the key to sustainable development in this country, our special focus is on women.
Though Bali is more developed than the country’s eastern provinces, there are still areas that are underdeveloped and can benefit tremendously from the technologies that Kopernik distributes. The NGO started working with a yayasan to help poor mountain communities in Karangasem, East Bali, which relies on generators for electricity and where living conditions, are still way below standard.
In July, Kopernik initiated an education program in partnership with the Japanese company Benesse. A joint team visited a grade school in Ubud to conduct an interactive class on energy and biology. During the presentation the students had the opportunity to test out a range of educational toys such as microscopes and hand-cranked generators to get them excited about science and technology. Even though it was a school holiday, about 50 enthusiastic kids showed up.
The new showroom at Kopernik - the first K-Store (Wartek – warung Teknologi) in all of Indonesia – specializes in selling practical appliances that are being used to improve household needs. Out of a menu of about 60 technologies listed on the Kopernik site the room contains a carefully selected number that are particularly suitable in the Balinese/Indonesian cultural and economic environment. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the store help fund Kopernik projects.
These amazing ‘off the shelf’ devices address the most common problems faced by real people who are living with such realities as the shortage of clean drinking water and the lack of power. One typically ingenious device is the LifeStraw, a slender tube that effectively filters water, even if the user is sipping from a bucket of dirty water. Kids sometimes take a LifeStraw to their school, which often doesn’t have a clean water source nearby.
The low-tech round Q-drum rolls water easily even over rough ground or up an incline from a river to the house. Another gadget are manually self-adjusting eyeglasses called AdSpecs for the poorest segment of society who aren’t able to afford eyeglasses or a visit to an optometrist. I tried them in the showroom and they actually work! Kopernik is also involved in appropriate agricultural technology, i.e. drip-irrigation systems, corn shellers, milk pasteurizers and paddy threshers. On another shelf a pair of solar lanterns enable students to study or their parents work at night in off-grid rural areas. Several models of solar lights have proven to be extremely handy during power blackouts and can even be used as bicycle lighting and are far superior to paraffin lamps on overnight boating trips.
Patricia Miklautsch, who is building a completely self-sustaining retreat center deep in the countryside of Tabanan, needed lamps that must illuminate pathways all night long as well as reading lights in the rooms that give intense light for short time periods. “I’m so grateful to Cindy at Kopernik who’s been incredibly efficient and informative with choices, lifespan, specs, warranty, etc., Patricia told me. “The solar lights I’ve bought have tested out exceptionally well.”
No testimony as to the efficacy of Kopernik products carries more weight than that of Ibu Cat, the doyen of Bali’s environmental movement who writes Bali Advertiser’s Greenspeak column. Cat informed me that her remarkable Navanza water filter saves money and the water tastes sweeter. “I will never buy water again. They are even effective if water contains visible suspended solids - though in that case you have to change filters more often. For expats who want to help their staff, their improved fuel-efficient wood stoves are very helpful in compounds that now use kerosene or gas. These stoves not only save on fuel costs but also reduce exposure to harmful smoke if staff is still using traditional brick stoves. With so much biomass around, the fuel is free. Kopernik does great work. I love their stuff!”
But perhaps the ultimate test is to depend upon a piece of equipment in a life-threatening situation. Staff member Cindy Nawilis did just that when she set at 2 am to climb Bali’s mighty 3041-meter Gunung Agung. Once she and friends broke out of the tree line, the terrain became so rocky that the more inexperienced hikers were forced to scramble up on all fours. “The Nokero solar lights were a huge help all the way up through 4-5 hours of darkness,” Cindy told me as she pointed out the lifesaving lamp in the showroom. “We loved the fact that they were small and lightweight so as to not burden our load. Since they could be clipped on our backpack or jacket, the lights were hands-free, which made them also hassle-free. They were bright and absolutely indispensable as we passed our two dogs to the person ahead over the steep rocks.”
To celebrate the establishment of Yayasan Kopernik in Bali, Kopernik will be having an open house event from 10 am to 6 pm at their offices in Sayan on August 23rd, 2012. There will be fun activities, a silent auction, live music, refreshments and technology exhibitions where people will have a chance to see the products in action and try them out. Each station will have a staff member ready to share information. For directions, access their website http://kopernik.info/en-us/page/opening-ceremony.