San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Quetsol: Turning the lights on in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY – When the sun goes down in rural Guatemala, approximately 2.6 million people living in remote parts of the country turn to kerosene and candles – expensive light sources that can lead to serious health problems. But with the traditional grid system yet to arrive, isolated Guatemalans have few alternatives.

Earlier this year, two toddlers in the northern department of Petén were killed when the bed in which they were sleeping caught fire from a nearby burning candle. Avoidable accidents like this occur far too frequently in the Central American nation, which is why a small company called Quetsol has developed a new way to transmit affordable electricity to some of the poorest and most secluded people in Guatemala. 

“The total cost of buying candles and walking to the nearest town to pay for charging a cellphone is Q130 ($16) per month. Our solution will cut this cost to Q90 ($11) a month, empowering families to sustainably develop,” says Quetsol’s CEO, Juan Rodríguez.

Since it was founded in 2010, Quetsol has distributed more than 3,500 solar-power kits throughout the country. The boxes are powered by the sun during the day and then generate light and electricity during the evening. The current model can supply a small house with up to six hours of light each night, allowing children to continue studying and parents to continue working.

The company’s original design involved customers taking out a small loan to cover the Q1,900 ($238) kit and paying it back in installments. However, over the next five years, Quetsol hopes to reach 100,000 homes with its new pay-as-you-go system, which cuts out banks and puts people in charge of their own accounts, enabling them to generate their own electricity via a single cellphone payment.

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The kits provide an estimated six hours of energy each night, which means that children can continue studying and parents can continue working. Courtesy of Quetsol

Earlier this year, Rodríguez spent four weeks living in a room in complete darkness, refusing to turn his lights back on until he had raised enough money to launch the latest pay-as-you-go model.

“The support of everyone was the light in my dark room, and the goal kept me motivated. I was very anxious before I started, but now I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life. My patience level exceeded my expectations. In general, I just feel more awake, as if a part of my brain that was asleep is now alive,” Rodríguez said.

He got the idea for the campaign from a man he met who had developed a therapy called “darkness retreats.” Following that initial meeting, Rodríguez gave a speech in the United States about Quetsol in which he turned off theater lights so his audience could get a better understanding of how it feels to live without electricity.

Rodríguez started the challenge in February in a sound- and light-proof recording studio, but had to move after 14 days.

“I was inhaling all the fibers from the fiber-glass walls, which can be very damaging, so we completely darkened my room, with black sheets covering the windows,” he said.

Although he had no access to light and electrical appliances, the Quetsol CEO still used his cellphone and laptop so that he could continue to run his business and push the campaign. During the day he hosted interactive sessions using a webcam where he chatted with followers and played song requests for $100. His campaign raised $40,000.

“We want to be more than just one little solar company trying to raise money. We want to be part of a new generation of utility companies that support rural development and protect the environment at the same time,” Rodríguez said.

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