The Wire: How U.S. Cooperatives are Helping Turn Lights on Around the World

March 2018 -

A leader of NRECA International describes the organization’s long involvement in international development efforts and the hands-on work of many co-ops and their members.

America’s electric cooperatives are famous for their transformative success in electrifying rural areas since the Great Depression. What may be less well-known is the role many co-ops have played for more than half a century in bringing power to every corner of the developing world. Since 1962, when it was created through an agreement between the NRECA and the newly established United States Agency for International Development (USAID), NRECA International has worked with local teams in 43 developing countries, providing electricity to some 140 million people. NRECA’s first project, a small electric co-op in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, has grown to become the world’s largest co-op, with 600,000 members.

In recent years, cooperatives around the country have joined these efforts, with more than 300 co-ops donating time and money and sending hundreds of linemen and other employees to assist on international projects. THE WIRE spoke with Dan Waddle, senior vice president of NRECA International, about those efforts.

The Wire: When did NRECA International begin its work of electrifying developing countries?

Dan Waddle: In the early 1960s, the U.S. government asked us to share our experience in rural economic development. That was directly in line with co-op principles – to help other cooperatives establish themselves and grow, and our program has always been aligned with those principles. From the start, we were able to use the knowledge and the resources that we used to assist U.S. rural communities in the 1930s and ’40s.

Over the past 55 years, we’ve established about 300 co-ops in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Bolivia and many other countries. 
THE WIRE: What kinds of services does your organization provide?

DW: We do consulting work, project definition, design, procurement, construction oversight and a lot of training in capacity building. Over the past 55 years, we’ve established about 300 co-ops in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Bolivia and many other countries. Those institutions now provide service to about 126 million people worldwide.

THE WIRE: What does it mean from a humanitarian perspective to have brought power to so many communities around the world?

DW: I don’t really think of our program in humanitarian terms. Humanitarian aid sounds like you’re giving something to somebody that they consume immediately, whereas the kind of development aid we provide transfers knowledge to countries that lack our expertise and resources to do things for themselves.

THE WIRE: What have been some signature successes of your program?

DW: In Bangladesh, we’ve connected 20 million consumers since 1978. The Philippines program, established in 1968. now has 119 co-ops that serve more than 11 million consumers. A project in Costa Rica that began in the late 1980s now has about 140 megawatts of installed capacity that combines hydro, wind and solar – a model for our partners in other parts of the world. We’ve helped establish a combination of programs and projects that have been quite important as demonstrations of what people can do when they work together.

THE WIRE: What in particular about the Costa Rican project makes it significant?

DW: It’s a generation transmission cooperative – the only one outside of the United States. It’s also significant because it has been able to attract commercial financing on the strength of its balance sheet that enables it to continue to expand its power supply.

THE WIRE: How important is the cooperative model in the work you do?

DW: We strongly support the cooperative business model, and in the countries that have the necessary legal and regulatory framework, that model has been instrumental. But our first charge is to establish sustainable institutions. Cooperatives don’t flourish by themselves, and they require access to affordable capital. Rather than advocating a particular model, we emphasize community engagement and participation.

THE WIRE: What parts of the world today are most in need of the services you provide?

DW: In Sub-Saharan Africa, 700 million people don’t have access to electricity. That has been our principal focus for the past 10 years. We’re now developing national electrification expansion plans in Ethiopia and Uganda, we just completed an expansion program in Kenya, and we started the national electrification strategy effort in Malawi. We’ve been working in Liberia for the past four years, and have worked in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Republic of the Congo. The projects vary but most have to do with preparing the ground for the rapid expansion of electrification service.

We strongly support the cooperative business model, and in the countries that have the necessary legal and regulatory framework, that model has been instrumental.
THE WIRE: How do NRECA member cooperatives contribute to the international program?

DW: That dimension of our program has become very important in the past several years. In 2012, Indiana Electric Cooperatives wanted to engage in a project that it would finance. The association would raise the funds and send crews of linemen to build the project. We selected a program in Guatemala, and over six weeks, Indiana sent two crews to work on it. It wasn’t a big project – maybe 10 to 15 kilometers of line that connected about 200 people in a mountainous community. But it was a project that the Indiana co-ops greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Our role was to identify the project and facilitate the logistics. But the co-op members themselves were responsible for the actual construction.

Since then we’ve had four or five member sponsored projects every year in which cooperatives, statewide associations or groups of individual co-ops have sponsored small projects that take three to four weeks for construction. At the end of the project, there’s usually a celebration, so the cooperative members are embedded with the community and there’s a lot of cultural exchange in that process – a lot of learning and sharing. For the co-ops and their members, there’s a feeling that this takes them back to their roots in providing electricity in this country.

THE WIRE: How do co-ops raise funds for these projects?

DW: In addition to CoBank and other primary sponsors of the program, the co-ops also engage directly in fundraisers. They don’t just send volunteers; they’re involved in every aspect of planning and execution. They support the projects through their intelligence and their hearts and minds.

THE WIRE: What would you say to an electric cooperative that is thinking about starting its own program?

DW: The first step is to have a discussion within the co-op to ensure that there’s a real groundswell of commitment. Then engage our team as soon as possible. Ingrid Hunsicker is our team leader for the volunteer program and she’s responsible for organizing and managing member sponsored projects. Ingrid has been doing this for more than a dozen years, and she’s extremely dedicated and talented; she has personally organized every single member-sponsored project. Our plate is full for 2018, and we already have several projects scheduled for 2019. So if you are thinking about starting a program, email Ingrid at ingrid.hunsicker@nreca.coop as soon as possible.

Also in this issue:

  • Renewable End 2017 on a High Note but May Face Headwinds Going Forward
  • What is NRECA International and why is it important to CoBank?
  • Case Study: Oklahoma's Electric Cooperatives Electrify Remote Guatemalan Village

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