Flor de María Úbeda Rivas does not know how to ride a bike, but she has started a small energy revolution based on pedaling. Along with a dozen other Nicaraguan women, she built bike-machines to produce power and clean energy in her community. “I am excited and proud to see the fruit of our work: machines made my companions and me, where we supported each other, believed in ourselves, and made ourselves what we could with what we knew. Nobody asked us our age or what we knew or did not know. The only thing that mattered was our desire to learn and create,” Flor de María said.
The story of Flor de María and her machines began just over a year ago when Hivos and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided to work on the issue of women and energy. We wanted to create a project for women that involved life beyond the kitchen, not because their relationship with cooking technologies was unimportant, but because we wanted to develop an initiative where women were the leaders of energy change.
Thus “Ingeniosas” was born; an energy contest for women. The aim was to present innovative projects in the social or technological field, which could be implemented in six months with a budget of six thousand euros. We did not know for sure what would happen, but somehow we were certain that what we would find along the way would be very interesting and powerful. And we were right. We received about 42 applications and awarded funding to two initiatives.
The award in the social innovation category went to a project that had already captured our attention with its name alone: Women on the Pedal. It sought to launch a workshop for a group of women from Macizo of Peñas Blancas, in northern Nicaragua, to learn to build and use bike-machines.
Bike-machines are a technology that uses the energy generated by pedaling bicycles to perform various daily activities. Its purpose is to simplify the tasks that society has entrusted women, like grinding coffee, shelling corn or washing clothes. But the power of Women on the Pedal was not based on what could be achieved with the machines, but rather on the education and empowerment that women gained upon building them.
I met Flor de María in her community one rainy afternoon. She waited for us alongside Inés García, a 19-year-old young woman that had just graduated from high school. Both –coming from different places and at different moments in their lives- had taken the decision to participate in the workshop.
They shared their experience with us, telling us how they took advantage of the workshop to get to know each other and learn new things, how they enjoyed organizing themselves and seeing their efforts materialize into three machines: a bike-grinder, a bike-blender and a bike-washing machine.
“The bike-mill is a machine that uses clean energy; we don’t use electricity, we produce it. It can be used to grind corn, coffee and pinol (a mix of corn and sugar) or whatever we need on a daily basis,” Flor de María told us. “It is also useful for exercise and building muscles! It can be used by children and by husbands and thus makes housework fair and fun,” she said. “We also recycled because we used parts of a bicycle that was out of operation,” Úbeda Rivas said.
What impressed me the most was the way these women overcame their fears and liberated themselves from gender stereotypes through learning and building these technologies. “Welding was the hardest thing. We were told that it was a man’s job. We were afraid of the welder! We suffered, but we all overcame prejudices and fears and we were able to weld very well,” she remembered. They welded, built their machines and they now feel empowered to continue shaping their dreams.
That evening we ended up in the restaurant of Inés’s grandfather drinking coffee and eating delicious homemade bread that had been baked –paradoxically- in wood cook stove oven, one of the most common but least efficient and environmentally friendly energy sources. Over coffee, the two women and I discussed what was really valuable about “Ingeniosas” contest and bike-machines: the empowerment of women through learning, teamwork and overcoming fears and societal norms.
Empowerment is even more important than the ways in which the machines may be used to simplify women’s productive activities, a key issue that we cannot forget to address in our work. We hope to visit the community again and meet more women. Perhaps that next time the bread will be baked in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way, thanks to the energy transformation initiated by the women of Macizo of Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua.