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Unplugged: Andes Communities Face Life Without Electricity

Nurses, teachers, and craftsmen say electricity would be a life-changer

Luciano Zambrano, 63, gazes toward Ventana Mountain, which looms over the community of Kewinal, Bolivia. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)



Drive an hour on a rugged, narrow dirt path snaking up into the Andes Mountains, and like an opening flower blossom, you will reach Kewinal, Bolivia, with spectacular views, pristine air, and 154 families who have been pleading for electricity for 15 years.

A horse grazes in the small Andes community of Kewinal, Bolivia. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Living beyond the grid, they say, means their children are left behind in a world that demands technological prowess. Healthcare is limited, and livelihoods stunted.

Some warn it threatens the very future of this tightly woven community, as young people abandon familial ties for places with laptops, power tools, and X-ray machines.

Kewinal is home to the Ragaypampa Indigenous People, an ethnic group in Bolivia’s Andean region that has resisted assimilation. Culturally, they have a rich tradition of music, dance, and oral storytelling. The community’s spirituality blends Indigenous animistic traditions with Catholicism brought by Spanish colonizers.

Work is underway, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and GEAPP and overseen by the Inter-American Development Bank, to bring electricity to a remote community in the Andean Mountains and other rural locations.

Due to its remoteness, bringing electricity to Kewinal will not be a simple project.

But good news is on the way.

Bolivia’s Rural Electrification Program, supervised by the InterAmerican Development Bank and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation through the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, is gearing up to bring electricity to 56,000 households, either by installing solar and photovoltaic panels, extending the grid, or doing a little of both.

This is the program’s third stage, and the most ambitious. Kewinal is on high the list, with work anticipated to begin this summer. And Fernando Quinteros, the project’s implementing supervisor, couldn’t be happier.

Schoolgirls in Kewinal, Bolivia (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
Schoolgirls in Kewinal, Bolivia. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
  • Mothers and children sit on the rocks in the hilltop community of Kewinal, Bolivia (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Mothers and children sit on the rocks in the hilltop community of Kewinal, Bolivia. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

“My biggest challenge is the isolation of places like Kewinal,” Quinteros said. “But the most satisfying thing? To see people’s excitement the first time they flip the switch. They often tell me they thought they would die without seeing the white light.”

Though green energy is the goal, even energy that comes from extending the grid will be better for the environment with fewer carbon emissions than the current options of diesel fuel, kerosene, and wood first, Quinteros noted.

“We applaud this locally transformational work that is essential to accelerating progress towards a zero-carbon pathway and universal access to renewable energy,” said Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President of Power at The Rockefeller Foundation.

  • As we race to address the largest challenge of our time, the world’s most vulnerable must be prioritized. We cannot afford to leave the people of Kewinal – or anyone – behind
    Ashvin Dayal
    Senior Vice President, Power
    The Rockefeller Foundation

Isabel Beltran Villavicencio, GEAPP’s Managing Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, agreed: “There cannot be a just and equitable energy transition if communities like Kewinal are excluded from economic and social opportunity because they don’t have access to reliable, affordable, sustainable electricity. At GEAPP, we are excited to work with the IDB to support governments and regional partners in achieving this goal to the last mile.”

What does electricity mean to those who’ve been without it? Hear these voices from a nurse, a principal, artisans, parents, and others from unelectrified communities.

No Electricity = House Fires

Elizabeth Cordero eased into bed, a candle flickering in her unelectrified home.

She intended to stay awake, but it had been a full day of tending crops and caring for her three young children. “The secret to growing onions,” she said, “is to have a good back.” Weariness enveloped her, beckoning sleep before she could extinguish the flame.

In a near-disaster, an exhausted Elizabeth Cordero fell asleep with a candle lit in her unelectrified home. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

The candle toppled, setting her mattress ablaze.

“Thankfully, I woke up,” said Cordero, who lives in the tiny community of Chiutara in the foothills of the Andes. “Only my mattress was blackened—this time.”

Cordero is not alone. One study showed almost one-third of families living without electricity said they or someone they knew had suffered a home accident due to the use of candles, fires, or kerosene lamps.

  • Kewinol School Principal Rodrigo Puyal stands in the school kitchen. He says once they have electricity, a projector is his first priority (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Kewinol School Principal Rodrigo Puyal stands in the school kitchen. He says once they have electricity, a projector is his first priority. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

A School Principal Longs for a Projector

Principal Rodrigo Puyal oversees a team of sixteen teachers responsible for educating 208 students in Kewinal.

Despite the absence of basic resources like computers and copy machines, Puyal is determined to bring a glimpse of the wider world into his classrooms. Using photographs of everyday objects—a washing machine, a laptop—he sparks their curiosity and imagination.

However, the lack of electricity also means limited study time at home for the students, frustrating Puyal, who sees the potential for greater opportunities with access to technology.

“When we get electricity,” he said, “the first thing I will bring is a projector, so I can show my students more of the world beyond here.”

One graduate, Jhovany Arce Rejas, 21, wants to study engineering.

Though that isn’t possible in Kewinal, Rejas doesn’t want to leave his community. So he’s holding on. Waiting to see if the electricity arrives.

Children Grow, and Leave

Others, though, don’t stay.

Luciano Zambrano, 63, was born in Kewinal, and has watched the progression of change. “Years ago, life was more complicated. We had no road at all,” he said. “Teachers came in on horses, but it was not a very good school. My parents never learned to read. They sent me away to study.”

Zambrano was educated in Aiquile, the nearest town of about 9,000 people. The Ragaypampa culture highly values communalism and collective decision-making, and he later returned to his home in the mountain range sometimes dubbed “the spine of South America.”

Kewinal’s residents, like most Ragaypampa communities, rely on subsistence farming, cultivating crops such as quinoa, potatoes, and maize. “Part of what we grow, we take by donkey to the market,” Zambrano says. “We never have many vegetables. Lawa (a corn and fava bean soup) is often what we eat.”

Zambrano has six children. Five have already moved away. “I feel alone,” he said. “I understand why they left. But with electricity, they might have stayed. That’s my dream.”

A Nurse Wishes for Electronic Record-Keeping

Nurse Juan Carlos Ancaya, 26, comes daily to Kewinal to provide care in a tiny medical center. The position is a rotating one, and he has only been at the job a few weeks.

Nurse Juan Carlos Ancaya says a lack of electronic record-keeping is hampering patient care (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

But already he said he often feels guilty because of what he cannot do for the community residents.

“I don’t have access to what I need to help patients,” he said. “Even something as simple as electronic records. Without them, I don’t know what conditions are chronic, what has suddenly appeared, and what has been tried in the past.”

As soon as electricity arrives, he vows to will bring a computer and begin keeping records that can be easily shared with the hospital in Aiquile, as well as the nurses who follow him in Kewinal.

Wilfredo Saavedra says he will be able to make three times as many items once his community has electricity (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
Wilfredo Saavedra says he will be able to make three times as many items once his community has electricity. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Artisans Look to Electrify Their Incomes

Wilfredo Saavedra got his start as a woodworker at age 8, learning at his father’s side. He and his wife Barbara Hinojosa make wooden utensils, all by hand, in Aqua Blanca, a community of 25 families.

They left the community for about a dozen years, but returned because they missed their home. A visitor can quickly tell why. The air smells sweet, and everywhere one looks, something is growing.

But their four children and one grandchild have all departed. “The economy drove them away,” Saavedra said.

The couple work hard, farming as well as woodworking – “I get worried if I’m not doing something,” Saavedra noted. He dreams of building them a new home, and when electricity arrives, he says, that goal may be closer.

“I can make three times as many items if I have electric saws, sanders, and other tools, instead of doing everything by hand,” Saavedra said.

“And we also will have light, so we can work more hours at night,” added Hinojosa.

In another corner of Aqua Blanca, Moises Vela and his sister Filomena make pottery using techniques passed down by their grandparents, working on a wheel in the courtyard of their ancestoral home.

  • Moises Vela of Aqua Blanca says when electricity arrives, he will double his income. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Moises Vela of Aqua Blanca says when electricity arrives, he will double his income. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

“This is how we support ourselves,” said Moises Vela. “It’s ecological and I enjoy working with my hands.”

But doing everything by hand takes longer, and Vela has just recovered from a case of dengue, which impacts how long he can work each day. He and his sister make about 200 ceramic pieces a month. They could make twice that, they say, with an electric potters’ wheel and clay mixer.

“We don’t want to lose the traditional ways,” said Filomena Vela. “We will teach our children to make pots as our grandparents did. But to earn our incomes, we’ll use the electric tools.”

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