Connectivity for Remote Areas

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Paul Swider

Two billion people in the world have no access to power or communications and are unlikely ever to see these basic tools through conventional infrastructural investment. But these people have much to gain -- and offer -- by becoming connected to the rest of the world. If we could create a mechanism to bring distributed energy and communications to these remote locations, we could reinvent the way everyone looks at the world, its power structures and its directions of development.


The international IT market is not really international.

Over 1/3 of the world's population, in 600,000 communities, is being permanently
excluded from the global e-commerce opportunity by the leading IT giants. Can
any industry expect to prosper, long-term, if it ignores more than a third of its
potential market?

We're talking about those parts of the developing world that are off the
conventional power grid, without electricity and often without phone service. These
are rural communities where computers and Web connections are unknown -- and
where basic health, education, water, and social services are often lacking as well.
In these places, which exist everywhere throughout Africa, Asia, South America,
the Middle East -- and even in pockets in North America, Europe, and the former
USSR, the economy is based primarily on local production and barter, not on cash.
Investments to date by the IT industry in emerging markets emphasize urban areas
almost exclusively, leaving these huge rural markets in a permanent economic
twilight zone.

Is it smart for business to ignore billions of people as potential producers and
markets? At Greenstar, we think not. . .but the obstacles to wiring people in these
communities so that they can join the global e-commerce market are significant.
Inexpensive electricity is the base requirement. But the cost of a Western-style
centralized power grid, with its huge power plants and transformers, miles of
copper, poles and trenches, and a system of meters and billing, is simply not
economically justifiable for such widely-dispersed populations.

To deliver electricity to 600,000 new communities would stretch the available
physical copper reserves of the planet, making the job virtually impossible. . .even if
it could be economically justified. [See for discussion of this topic
from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.]

The rewards, however, could be huge. Basic electrical power ("dumb electrons")
can be converted into a powerful economic force ("smart electrons"), using
computers, software, data networks, e-commerce, and local entrepreneurial
initiative as a transformation engine.

Technology is available, which requires no capital-intensive centralized power grid,
no resource-intensive distribution network, and no local meter monitoring. It's not
new, its capabilities are well-understood, and it's in use now in thousands of
locations worldwide. That technology is solar photovoltaics, which Greenstar is
using to generate dumb voltage electrons for conversion into smart e-commerce

With about $25,000 worth of solar panels, we recently electrified a school and
community center in a remote, off-the-grid village in Palestine. Each panel measures
about 4 ft. by 8 ft., and an array of eight panels mounted on the school roof easily
powers lights, a copier, a multimedia computer, and soon a satellite dish and water
purifier. [See for photos and a basic
description of this installation, in Al-Kaabneh.]

But with support costs, electrical converters and batteries, this installation is
expensive, and could not be justified for pushing dumb electrons only.

Where the equation gets interesting is when you add e-commerce into the mix.
Greenstar has helped to identify an array of local products which can be offered on
the world market by this Palestinian community. They include musical instruments,
pottery, ceramics, glassware, and tapestries that are unique to the area, carry
special historical significance because of their origin in the Dead Sea area, and will
be of interest to 150 million worldwide Web consumers because they can be in
direct contact with the people who produce the products, and because they're part
of a renewable energy project. [See for a view of this product family.]

Our initial projections for revenue from a professionally-marketed e-commerce site
hosted by this village show that not only can the equipment and operations be paid
for in a reasonable time period, but that additional health and education services
can be supported, and that a new source of hard, international currency through
exports can be produced by the people.

All this needs to be done in a culturally sensitive way, with maximum control by the
local community, for it to work and be self-sustaining in the long run. The Greenstar
program, emphasizing locally-produced products that are marketed internationally,
will strengthen traditional communities by giving young people a reason to stay at
home and invest their fresh energies in the future, rather than leave and become
nameless serfs in a third-world urban megalopolis.[See
pressroom/JPost.htm for an example of the positive response this approach

For first-world business, the opportunity is clear. Opening new markets, with new
products and an earth-friendly marketing message, can be profitable for those who
invest in the infrastructure, as well as for the producers of the products. And when
people in off-the-grid communities get onto the global e-commerce grid and start
earning real income, they become new markets for global products themselves; the
companies that invest in the infrastructure will have strategic first mindshare among
these billions of new consumers.

It's a huge job, and will take years to expand to a global scale. The risks are great,
and the challenges (many of them political) are significant...all the more reason why
it's important to start now, with a carefully-selected strategic set of locations,
before these developing communities fall even further off the grid. It's not only the
smart thing to do, it's the right thing to do. . .an investment in human infrastructure,
in peace and growth into the third millennium.

Released: May 21, 1999
iMP Magazine
Michael North

Michael North is the founder of North Communications, a leading public
access network company. He is also one of the founding directors of
Greenstar Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to bringing
solar power, telemedicine, distance learning, electronic commerce,
manufacturing and agricultural support services to developing countries,
and to all places where a centralized electrical power grid is not available.
Find out more:


Sweatshops and Butterflies

Cultural Ecology on The Edge

by Michael North and Paul Swider
Greenstar Corporation

for print publication in the British journal,
Sustainable Development International

1. The Divide is More Than Digital

Think about economic development in emerging countries for a moment -- and you
may conjure up grotesque images: smoke-belching factories, workers packed into
dense megacities, the rape of rain forests, open-pit mines, the exploitation of
women and children in sweatshops.

These ugly images have aroused the conscience of people around the world, who
have headed into the streets in recent years to protest the World Trade
Organization, the World Bank, the G8, the World Economic Forum and other
international organizations that are seen as part of the problem.

While some of these images are accurate, the real truth is even worse.

Much of the world is "off-the-grid" --
disconnected from the most basic tools that
might empower isolated people to emerge from
the shadows. More than two billion people live
without electricity; more than four billion rarely
make a phone call. Three billion people have
never seen a doctor; more than a billion adults
cannot read or write at all. At the dawn of the
21st Century, this disconnection is not only
morally wrong -- it's also wasteful and
unnecessary. It's a tragic squandering of human

The "digital divide" is much-lamented and debated by coalitions, conferences and
corporations. But there are many more divides in addition to the digital -- electrical,
telephonic, media, economic, educational, social and environmental. These divides
reinforce each other; they amount to a virtually complete disconnect between the
economic top third of humanity and the bottom third.

Fortunately, there are constructive solutions; this article points to some of them, and
to how anyone can get involved.

2. Top-down Economic Aid -- Bankrupt

We in the connected world know the consequences of the great divides intuitively;
we see the ugly images, we hear the tortured sounds, we read the tragic stories.
But we avoid thinking about it, because it paralyzes us -- the problems are too
complex, the solutions just seem to create more problems; there is apparently no
meaningful action that one person can take. Out of sight, out of mind.

And out of pocket, too, apparently. Macro political and economic policies are a
reflection of the common paralysis. The money spent by the West, especially the
United States, on aid to poor nations has declined steadily since the mid-70s. A
fearless indictment on the subject of economic development policies under the
Clinton Administration (which are now in the process of being tightened even
further by the Bush Administration) came from a Harvard professor, Jeffrey Sachs,
speaking in the cathedral of the World Bank in Washington:

In 1998, United States foreign assistance totaled around $8.8 billion, or 0.12 of
one percent of the Gross National Product. And of this derisory sum, only
around one-sixth went to the least developed countries. A sixth of
twelve-hundredths of one-percent of GDP amounted to the grand total of
around $4.95 per American in 1998 for the world's least developed countries.
This is $4.95 per year in a country where the average income is more than

For the complete article, see

Big business is not asleep to the implications, and to its responsibility to play a
pro-active role. Mark Moody-Stuart, Chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group,
said recently,

... I believe the most immediate challenge is to set the poorest countries on a
path to sustainable development. It's not just that a quarter of humans live on
less than $1 a day. Or that the gap between them and others is widening. What
really matters is that the poorest are going backwards... I don't think this will be
accepted for much longer in a shrinking world -- where their misery is clear to
us, and our wealth to them. Responsibility for action is widely shared -- for
more and better aid, debt relief, fairer trade, investment.

For the complete statement, see

3. It's All About your Connections

The disconnected cannot be relied
upon to remain passive and silent
indefinitely, as their families sicken and
starve, as their stake in the future
shrinks. They will be heard, one way
or another, in ways that cannot be
ignored. If they are not connected,
respected and made full partners in a
positive future, they will be heard in
other ways: through cartels, boycotts,
ultra-nationalism, xenophobic
fundamentalism, militarism, terrorism, and revolution.

Perhaps they can be heard through an enlightened partnership, a respectful dialog,
a connection in which everyone has something important to learn and to gain from
everyone else. It's time to try some new ideas: bold, impossible ideas. Ideas in
which everyone, rich and poor, north and south, connected and disconnected, can
participate and create value.

A good starting point is a skeptical look at one of the most powerful transforming
forces in the developed world -- the connecting power of the Web. Though the
Internet is not the panacea that many hoped for, it does serve as an example of a
new style of approach -- communications from the edge rather than the center,
from many individuals to many other individuals, globally, unmediated, without a
centralized point of control. Together with other tools, perhaps the Internet can
teach us something about unleashing hidden value in the developing world.

As Larry Irving, former Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Commerce

'Think how powerful the Internet is. Then remind yourself that fewer than 2%
of people are actually connected. The power of the Web increases
exponentially with every person who goes online. Imagine what we're

4. Hidden Values

So what do the isolated poor have to offer, in a fast-moving global
cyber-economy? The old answers were cheap hands and abundant natural
resources. But those vestiges of post-colonialism create dependency, drain human
potential, devastate the environment and cannot be sustained. And those
sweatshop paychecks are only available in crowded, toxic third-world cities: the
labor of the two billion disconnected who live in 600,000 remote villages is so far
away that it's not even worth exploiting.

There is an unknown, unrealized asset of the disconnected that exists precisely
because of their disconnectedness. It is priceless, unique, of universal value, and
easily exchanged worldwide.

That asset of the disconnected is their voice, their vision, their intimate connection
to tradition, to the earth, their families, community, their history, wisdom and
legends: their culture. The more isolated a village, the more likely that it harbors
music, artwork, poetry, traditional herbal knowledge, legends and ways of living
that are of supreme value: real, authentic expressions of human life that have been
lost in the connected noise of industrial culture.

hail thou of the five days,
thou heart of heaven and earth,
thou giver of what is yellow and what is green,
and thou giver of daughters and sons:
drip down, pour down thy greenness, thy yellowness;
give thou, pray, life and sustenance
for my children and my sons that they may multiply,
that they may continue as nourishers to thee and supporters to thee,
calling upon thee in the paths and roads,
at the rivers and canyons,
under the trees and bushes

prayer of the maya kiche

In fact, the connected/disconnected dichotomy may be inverted: people in remote
villages may, in some cases, be more connected to themselves, to their families,
communities, to the earth, than people who live in the post-modern, wise and
cynical media world, where every culture is recycled, fused with others, parodied
and echoed in an endless attempt to create something novel. We in the developed
world may have vital lessons to learn from traditional people, in terms of how and
why to live as a human being.

Can these cultural expressions be recorded, organized in a digital package,
presented by the people themselves in a living form to share with the world, without
perverting their simplicity and originality? Can markets be created for these digital
culture products that generate income for traditional people, to bring them the
health, education, energy and communications services they need and close the
great divides, and earn for them the tools of an independent future? Can this be
done in a sensitive, decentralized way so that delicate traditions are not polluted in
the process?

In Sarawak, Borneo, where this process is underway; a tribal leader explains: our race to modernize we must respect the ancient cultures and traditions
of our peoples. We must not blindly follow that model of progress invented by
European wealth; we must not forget that this wealth was bought at a very
high price. The rich world suffers from so much stress, pollution, violence,
poverty, and spiritual emptiness. The wealth of the indigenous communities
lies not in money or commodities, but in community, tradition, and a sense of
belonging to a special place (Earth Island Institute, 1997, p.3).

5. The Significance of a Song, an Image, a Story...

There is a "cultural ecology" element to this idea as well. The diversities of human
language, history, music, legend and image are just as important to protect as the
physical ecology of ocean, atmosphere, earth, rainforest and river. As the
developed world's McCulture becomes increasingly homogenized, the distinct,
varied voices of the villages of Honduras, Tanzania, Jordan, New Mexico,
Bangladesh and Mongolia will be seen as just as precious -- and just as vital to the
survival of the earth -- as the redwood, the butterfly, the eagle, the whale, the
hummingbird and the tiger.

During the course of colonial expansion and
industrial development, the rich nations became rich
at the expense of traditional culture. Old ways,
binding us to one another and our surroundings,
were thought to impede "progress," so they were
cast aside. Now that the rich world has achieved
material wealth, we faintly recognize what we
abandoned, but cannot recover. We're drowning in
a sea of riches, and starving from lack of a reason
for it. An instinctive sense of meaning has been lost,
a void that we barely understand, yet feel intensely.
Could that sense of meaning be the most precious
resource of the new century?

The traditional voices which retain that meaning and connection are endangered,
just as much as the ozone layer and the harp seal. Oral traditions are fragile, like an
ecosystem -- they depend on the continuous effort of fathers speaking to sons, of
mothers speaking to daughters, of old people sharing honored history, and of
young people growing up in respect for the wisdom of their village heritage.

These fragile links are easily fractured in remote communities. Cultures which took
thousands of years to refine can vanish in a couple of generations if their young
people stop believing in them. This is happening all over the world today, as young
people in traditional communities are lured away to the bright lights of the
megacities. Our generation could see a great spasm of cultural extinction, as
priceless human legacies that reach back into pre-history vanish.

Can markets be created for digital culture products that generate income for
traditional people? Can these cultural expressions be recorded, organized in a
digital package, presented by the people themselves in a living form to share with
the world, without perverting their originality? Could the resulting income be used
to bring to remote villages the health, education, energy and communications
services they need and close the great divides, and earn for them the tools of an
independent future? Can this be done in a sensitive, decentralized way so that
delicate traditions are not polluted in the process?

6. Balanced Prosperity

Wealth that begins with this idea of "cultural ecology" builds pride, strengthens the
family and the village, makes it possible for people to earn income where they live
without being exiled to serfdom in the city...and through creating new,
hard-currency income it allows them to acquire critical basic resources like clean
water, access to health care and education, electric power, telephones, computers,
and a connection to the Internet.

With these tools, people can begin to build a balanced prosperity for themselves,
creating their own jobs and income, with access to both local and world markets.
They can harness their entrepreneurial instincts -- and break the vicious cycle of
dependency and indignity which traditional economic aid programs, for all their
good intentions, tend to perpetuate. On the cultural ecology platform, many other
important initiatives can flourish, such as improved local trade and marketing,
teleworking via satellite, micro-finance, telemedicine, decentralized publishing and
broadcasting, international student and teacher networking, and the use of
renewable energy technologies.

The forgotten and isolated billions who labored in 20th century sweatshops could
become the creative, prosperous citizens, teachers and partners of the 21st
century. As they earn the tools of economic independence and improve their daily
lives, the whole world could be enriched with bright, diverse images, sounds and
stories -- and our global culture could be enriched with vivid, ancient energies.


Here are some of the groups active in this area, that offer the opportunity for
engagement and creativity:

Greenstar ( is building a digital culture media
network, and has already implemented some of the ideas in this paper
in the West Bank, Jamaica and India. For free samples of digital
culture music and the background behind them, see

Schools Online ( provides
fully-equipped Internet classrooms to schools in developing countries,
with a suite of services designed to spur development and connection;
now active in dozens of countries worldwide.

Geekcorps ( gives high-technology
workers the opportunity to volunteer in developing countries; now
active in Ghana.

e-Inclusion (, an effort sponsored by
Hewlett-Packard, provides a framework in which high-tech
companies can get personally involved, supplies key technologies to
the developing world at or below cost.

The Technology Empowerment Network
( supports initiatives that use technology
to improve health, education and economic development in
underserved communities throughout the world.

The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment
( is an
experiment, born in India, to provide computers to poor children and
to observe, without interference, what use is made of them. More
details available at

The Canadian International Development Agency
( is
developing a plan to demonstrate how indigenous knowledge can be
applied to the development agenda.

In Cambodia,
(, a
businessman brings the Internet to a village in one of the poorest
regions in Asia.

Lone Eagles ( offers ways in which
anyone can offer their expertise as a teacher or mentor over the
Internet, to foster cultural and economic survival. (
develops alternative and mainstream pharmaceuticals and
supplements based on indigenous medicine, and creates a worldwide
market for them. For information on an innovative program
connecting schools, see

The Virtual Souk (, based in North
Africa, helps artisans all over the Middle East develop ecommerce
markets for their handmade products.

eZiba ( helps artisans worldwide to create
commercially-viable products from their traditional crafts knowledge,
and tells interactive digital stories about the artists. ( exports arts from
Africa, to help traditional artisans make a decent living. Young people
move to the towns, but end up unemployed or homeless because they
don't have urban skills. eShopAfrica puts money and prestige back
into their lives, building the value of their traditional skills.

Novica ( gives artists around the world a
global platform to express their talents, and to spur their creativity;
provides an online market for purchase of over 8500 products.

The Sustainability Webring
( provides a
constantly-expanding set of links to organizations that encourage
sustainable development; at last count, over 186 groups were listed.

A cautionary note is sounded in the New York Times
about the introduction of ecommerce in an Amazonian village in

A challenge to Africans
( is issued by a
Senegalese professor in a World Bank forum.

Michael North:
Paul Swider:

March 9, 2001
all photos © copyright Greenstar, 1999-2001


Greenstar Corporation makes investments in technology,
environment and ecommerce ventures in the developing world.
The company's first investment, intended to validate our business
model, is centered on Al-Kaabneh, a small rural Palestinian village
in the West Bank. News sites are now operational in Swift River,
a remote settlement in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, and in
Parvatapur, a small rural village in south-central India.

The Greenstar business model is based on the principle that the
developing world, especially those areas which are off the
electrical, communications and financial grids, holds great
opportunity for attentive, motivated long-term investors. By
supplying basic renewable electric power, wireless
communications and micro-finance to carefully-selected villages,
profitable businesses can be built which use the efficiency of
ecommerce to market products from these developing
communities to customers in the developed world.

Scale of Investment

Greenstar's initial investment in
technology and development resources
in each local village is valued at about
$25,000. This investment delivers
approximately two kilowatts of
electricity (enough for a school and
community center, for example), a
high-speed digital wireless connection to the Internet, water
purification, a basic health education library focused on maternal,
child and community preventive care including inoculation, vaccine
refrigeration, a computer with scanner, digital camera and color
printer, distance learning resources and research through an
Internet gateway, development, packaging and promotion of a
complete suite of digital culture products (music, artwork, poetry,
video, virtual panoramas), and an ecommerce website with
marketing and distribution systems.

In some cases, more services may be added, including health clinic
services, classroom facilities, public education, telemedicine and
emergency services, and local ecommerce development. With all
operating costs and maintenance over five years, Greenstar's
investment in a village can reach as high as $115,000.

These investments are made principally by by Greenstar
Development World-wide, Inc., a Massuchasetts corporation with
private shareholders. In the case of our projects in India, a new
entity has been formed, Greenstar India, in which Greenstar in the
US holds a minority share, and a majority share is held by a group
of Indian companies.

We will also work with partners to establish a micro-credit
program in each village, raising $10-15,000 to lend to qualified
individuals and small enterprises in a village. These funds enable
the people to start their business and economically produce the
products sold on the village website, as well as to develop local

Greenstar completely sponsors the operating costs and
maintenance requirements for this center, and provides continuing
advice and training to the people of the village. The village does
not incur debt to finance all these resources; Greenstar acts as the
licensed agent for the digital culture products originating in the
village, and generates the revenue to justify its investment through
distribution fees.

Over the next five years, directly and through affiliates, Greenstar
plans to make investments in approximately 300 such Village
Centers worldwide.

Return on Investment

To earn a return on this investment,
Greenstar works with local and national
contacts to establish a village co-operative,
if one does not already exist. This
co-operative licenses exclusive Web
marketing rights to Greenstar for products
from the village which Greenstar helps to
develop. Greenstar implements the
ecommerce and security technology, handles logistics, shipping
and customer service, develops and implements a global marketing
and branding campaign which brings the village, its people and
culture, and its valuable and unique products, to the world.

Greenstar earns a transaction fee on all ecommerce activities in the
village; a majority of the revenue is retained by the individuals who
produced the products, and with the village co-operative, which
re-invests the net proceeds in maintaining and expanding the
services available through the Village Center. When Greenstar has
recovered its initial investment in the Village Center, plus a
reasonable return on investment, the village partners earn higher
royalties on a permanent basis.

Sales of these products direct to consumers is just one part of
Greenstar's marketing and distribution program. The company
works with major advertising agencies, record companies, art
exhibition and distribution companies, concert promoters, textile
companies, Web adevertisers and commercial power utilities to
develop licensing programs for the sounds and images emanating
from Greenstar communities.

Strict financial measures are one way in
which Greenstar measures its return on
investment. Other equally important
measures include the programs' impact on
women and children, the local environment,
climate change, economic and social
development and stability, international
person-to-person relations, and the
long-term prospects for prosperity and peace.

More detail on specific business model and financial questions is
available in our FAQ (Frequently-Asked Questions).

Sustainability and Self-Replication

This model is self-sustaining, in that the power and
telecommunications services provide the base for local
entrepreneurship on the Web, which produces revenues that are
used to sustain the Village Center. But Greenstar's objective is not
just sustainability. It is self-replication.

We identify the natural leaders in a village, and give them the
opportunity to become leading partners in more Greenstar
investments, first in their immediate area, then in their nation, and
ultimately throughout their region. These people will be in the best
position to break new ground in other off-the-grid communities
because they have made the process work themselves, at close
range. They will have the best language and cultural tools to pass
on new skills and ideas, to create new products and take creative
advantage of the opportunities of ecommerce.

This strategy addresses the business concern of scalability: once
you have a successful model, how do you efficiently reproduce it?
It ensures that capacity-building is an integral part of every
successful project.

Greenstar Foundation

Greenstar Corporation is affiliated with Greenstar Foundation. The
Foundation's purpose purpose is undertake special, important
projects for which the Corporation can not yet justify an

The Foundation may work with international non-profit
organizations, apply for government grants and special research,
accept donations from the general public, and is not required to
return a profit on these operations. A successful Greenstar
Foundation project may, however, ultimately qualify for a
Greenstar Corporation investment. And the Foundation may
support non-commercial projects in villages which have been
supported by the Corporation.

Greenstar Foundation holds all of the intellectual property in the
Greenstar vision, including the rights to the Greenstar Community
Center design and proprietary software nplanned for development.
The Foundation licenses this intellectual property for the exclusive
use of the Corporation in global commercial markets, which pays
a licensing fee of 2.5% of its gross receipts back to the

The Corporation and the Foundation share the same core values
and vision, and several of the same key people sit on both Boards
of Directors.

Greenstar Corporation
6128 Blackburn Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036


USA - 323-936-9602
tollfree in the U.S. and Canada: 877-282-9900
fax 323-936-7203

Pattern status: