The CEO and founder of Bitlumens talks to Blockleaders about the challenges she faces bringing solar-powered electricity to villages and farms in the developing world, and how the raw data collected on the blockchain will give them a credit score – a lifeline to small businesses.
Over the course of blockchain’s circuitous route into the public consciousness, two voices have vied for our attention. The first, loud and bombastic, has told us to hodl, sell, exchange, accrue, get out now, or buy yet more. This voice was at its loudest at the end of last year, drowning out its meeker companion. This second voice, low but determined, whispered of the transformative power of blockchain, the revolution that is awaiting us, used words like ‘transparency’, ‘sustainable’, ‘decentralized’. Often when the two voices spoke together, it was tempting to just walk away.
There is perhaps some relief for those of us that have been straining to hear above the crypto noise, that the headache-inducing period of ICOs is now behind us. There’s still plenty of shouting, but there are a lot of hoarse voices out there. The tech conversation is now clear and distinct and perhaps we are more ready to hear what it has to say.
The voice that greets me today belongs to Veronica Garcia-Heller. Like a good deed in a weary world, she wants to use blockchain to shine a light on farmers and shopkeepers in the developing nations of our planet and, through collecting data on the blockchain, build microfinance opportunities for them by creating a credit history. At its simplest, Bitlumens – the company she founded nearly a year ago – provides solar energy systems with usage data stored on the blockchain. At its most complex and ambitious, it hopes to end the urban migration that is destroying rural life in the developing world. Veronica explains it this way:
“Solar resources in many developing regions are very high, so why don’t we bring solar home systems to them? This is an efficient technology. It’s simply a solar panel, a battery and an LED light bulb that lasts for about five years. This can provide light for these areas. We ask the end users to pay in installments. We collect all this data and provide them with a credit score at the end of the payment period. These people want the same things we want. They want to charge their phones at home, watch TV and have lights for their children to study. We are using solar home systems first because it is the cheapest system but we hope later to diversify into providing water pumps, using solar technology, for farmers to water their crops. This can also operate as a mini electricity grid for small villages.
“To me it’s all about metrics. We have to be able to measure the impact on the community and the main one is productivity. If productivity increases, why do you need to move to the city? However, I’m taking one step at a time.”
Veronica’s background is in banking but she decided to change courses around eight years ago. However, finance is a key issue in sustainability, as Veronica tells me. “I’m very interested in renewable technologies and the investments needed to comply with the renewable energy targets of developing countries. Each country has a renewable energy target and most of the time they are insanely high. The signatories of the Paris Agreement are very far away from compliance because the investment needed is in the trillions. We need private investors to help and that was one of the reasons why I decided to use my own company this way.”
It is tempting to presume that once this technology was in place, NGOs, governments and communities would come knocking, ready to do the legwork of getting these units out to those who would most benefit from them. But it’s not quite so simple. “We partner with NGOs on the ground and have contact with the communities but I always go to meet the people. This is an issue I am facing in Guatemala. I meet with the community leaders but they won’t allow a white woman to get to know the people. This can lead to mismanagement and a lot of issues. I am trying to stay focused on the communities that I have met. This is key to me. In native communities, there is mistrust of people coming in with offers of assistance. They have been tricked too many times. The building of the technology was peanuts compared to its commercialization. It has been very challenging. NGOs might take solar systems from us and distribute them but they don’t want to send agents back to collect the data, which is vital for what we are trying to do.”
Working with NGOs on the ground and tiptoeing through the minefields of customary practices and tribal hierarchies, all while versing herself in the often perilous world of local government etiquette has been a learning curve. “We have to be very careful to inform the local authorities before we go there. Sometimes, they have to provide me with a letter which allows me to enter the community. This is an etiquette I have had to learn. I heard some scary stories of what can happen if you don’t ask. Having said that, Guatemala is quite a safe country. In Myanmar, I know that I should stay in the center or the south. We do our research, talk to NGOs and international organizations before starting any pilot.”
In this post-ICO era, raising funds has been challenging. Bitlumens tried its hand at staging an ICO, going so far as to holding its pre-sale earlier this year, having reached the strict regulatory benchmark set by the Swiss regulators. But the plans were shelved when it became clear that it was more trouble than it was worth. “We developed a smart contract, which was very expensive. We designed and developed the whole infrastructure and stayed focused on complying with the financial regulator in Switzerland. When I started the pre-sale, we found not enough funding was coming in. It’s hard to maintain a community. When you have hundreds of people who have given money, you need a community manager with a team and we couldn’t justify this expenditure. I decided instead to focus on private investment. It took a lot of energy to communicate with the community. I can’t be on Telegram every five minutes. I thought I could use my energy to build a pilot and do what has to be done.”
Veronica left her native Venezuela with most of her family in 2001, just as Hugo Chavez came to power. The family settled first in the US but visa difficulties led Veronica to travel to Switzerland to study. She has settled there and despairs when she sees what’s become of her country of birth. “I miss Venezuela dearly. I haven’t been there in eight years. I have an uncle there who is 72 who refuses to leave. I hope this government falls but my guess is this won’t happen soon because as soon as they are no longer in power they will have to face justice. It’s a weak point for me. It’s even hard to talk about it. I hope that the situation will change for the better. The level of poverty there is extraordinary. My friends and family are scattered all over the world. I have friends in Peru, Chile, Miami, Europe, all over.
“However, moving away and traveling so much has given me a sense of adaptation, which is wonderful. I came to Switzerland, worked as a nanny. I was doing whatever I could to pay for my studies because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for them. I try to give that sense of adaptation to my kids. I hope to bring my fourteen-year-old son with me on my next trip to Myanmar to meet with the farmers and help with installing the solar panels.”
The thought of Veronica mucking in with farmers in Guatemala and Myanmar was met with sneers by the Silicon Valley company men she met when she was canvassing for financial support for her project. She is used to being the only woman in the room and has never had any issues with this, so the disdainful and disrespectful manner in which she was met in Silicon Valley came as a shock. “I worked with mostly men in banking and then at IBM’s Research Lab. They were always respectful and I had nothing but positive experiences. But in Silicon Valley, the comments I heard in that place I have never heard anywhere else in the world. They were arrogant and mean. I don’t need to do business with these people. I had been reading all these articles about how hard it is for women and thought it was an exaggeration because I had never experienced it. Until Silicon Valley. I try not to take things too personally but when you are being told that they can’t see me working with farmers because I was wearing high heels. I mean, come on.”
As with other leaders who are striving to make a difference in the world, Veronica has always been a problem-solver. “I simply roll up my sleeves and do it. This is something I learned from my father. Being in a family with three brothers, I had to become tougher than the three of them. I like to find solutions, I think that’s how I’m wired. Inefficiencies drive me insane. I am a big fan of innovation and science and I believe strongly that these technologies must be brought to areas that need it most.”
People who fight against the odds make me feel tired. At what point would Veronica just walk away and say, this is just too hard? I want an easy life. “Look if this was easy, it would have happened already. It’s hard, a community not wanting to work with us is not a point of failure for me. I would only walk away if I had no funds left. That’s my only point of failure.”
Read more about Bitlumens here
Connect with Veronica on LinkedIn