Engineering a Brighter Future: How This Young Professional Used His Real Skills to Support Clean Energy in Colombia

Petra Barbu

Petra is a content marketer passionate about social enterprise, impact investing, and microfinance.

Zachary Zweig, a mechanical engineer with experience in both engineering and business strategy, was eager to put his real skills towards a real cause. By connecting with MovingWorlds and its Siemens Stiftung empowering people. Expert program, he found the perfect project to support the innovative work of Smart Hydro Power (SHP).

Building off the award-winning technology at SHP, Zachary helped local community groups develop a business strategy to help their community access clean water and electricity.

Read our interview with Zack to learn more about what it’s like to volunteer your real skills to create long-term impact.

Zack with the Smart Hydro team.
Zack with the Smart Hydro team.

What inspired you to “take the leap” and apply to the empowering people.Expert program?

I was initially inspired by an experience that I had years ago in Guatemala where I was part of a team that sought to help a local organization build a sturdy business foundation for growth. Through this experience, I saw the power of working with local communities and international experts to develop ideas and plans in partnership. I saw that knowledge can be so much more powerful when used in the right context.

I wanted to be a part of other projects like this, and found MovingWorlds in the process. I really connected with the idea of applying skills learned in previous work experiences that could be used to empower organizations that have a demonstrated need. Looking back, I didn’t realize just how amazing this experience was until I actually took the leap.

Zack in action with one of their irrigation projects.
Zack in action with one of their irrigation projects.

What were you doing before going Experteering?

I had experience in both engineering through formal education as well as technology consulting with a leading international consulting firm. I saw the project in Colombia as a perfect mix between an engineering and a strategy project, as it involved building on the portable water turbine technology built by Smarty Hydro, but also assisting the organization in developing a sustainable business model with local communities to operate them.

The community is invested in all of Smart Hydro's projects.
The community is invested in all of Smart Hydro’s projects.

What did you do on your skilled volunteering trip?

During my “experteering” trip I lived in the community of Santa Rita de la Sierra in La Guajira Colombia. I worked alongside Fundacion Siemens and Smart Hydro Power in order to assist on a water irrigation project that was being implemented within the community. Many of the community members living here were displaced from other areas of Colombia because of the violence and war that existed in the country previously. As a result, the government created communities for these people to farm and sustain themselves. The issue is that these farms could not be cultivated due to a lack of water during the dry season. The goal of the project was to use both solar and hydro power to operate a pump that would push water from the river to a tank high in the mountains. From this tank, water could be disseminated to local farms to irrigate the land. This project is supposed to alleviate the terribly dry conditions these farmers go through during the dry season, which create periods where they can barely grow anything and struggle to sustain themselves and their family. To make ends meet, many have to travel long distances and work at large farms in the surrounding area, where they work long hours and are not paid well.

The goal of my presence was to analyze the project, understand the impact that the project was having on the community, and explore how other projects of similar fashion could be improved for the future. Fundacion Siemens plans to apply this project in other similar areas in Colombia, so we wanted to see what could be done differently in order to get better and more efficient results.

In addition, I conducted research within the community to understand how a project like this could impact the community, as well as explore other projects that could be supported within Santa Rita de la Sierra to help its members.

Zack working to improve education about access to renewable energy.
Zack working to improve education about access to renewable energy.

What was the highlight of your experience?

The highlight of my Experteering trip was the family I lived with in Santa Rita de la Sierra. I was living with the family of the community’s leader. They immediately took me in as a member of the family, and I became extremely close to them. Their family showed me that no matter what the circumstances, good parents who care for their children and community and teach good morals will be happy and enjoy life. The joy I saw and felt in that family is very hard to explain in words. The entire family worked together as a team to help each other and help the community that they lived in. The leader became a mentor to me and is someone that I look up to as the type of leader I strive to be. I still stay in touch with them today and hope to continue this relationship for years to come.

Zack relaxing with his hosts.
Zack relaxing with his hosts.

What was one thing you wish you knew before you went volunteering overseas?

There are two things that I wish I had known:

  1. I wish I had known the level of Spanish I needed before leaving. My Spanish was quite rusty when I arrived in Bogota and I wish that I had taken a refresher course beforehand. Luckily, for the first few weeks I worked with someone who spoke English so he assisted me greatly in the project.
  2. I wish I had done even more research and preparation prior to entering Colombia. More context and familiarity early on, would have enabled me to ask the right questions and collaboratively develop insightful solutions more efficiently.

[Editor’s note: Even when our members, like Zack, complete their Experteering Planning Guides, we often hear feedback like this. We can’t emphasize this point enough: plan, plan, and plan some more!]

A collaborative meeting for Smart Hydro.
A collaborative meeting for Smart Hydro.

What advice do you have for people thinking about following in your footsteps?

I will give two lines of advice; one for someone considering going, and another piece for someone who is in the process of planning.

  1. Thinking about Experteering: My advice during this phase is to determine if you are able to do your best work in situations that may not be the easiest. Will you be able to take the noise out of what is going on around you? Can you think clearly without the comfort and amenities you’re used to? In my own experience, I had to quickly find strategies to do this, but I will admit it was difficult at times when I was trying to write a report in a community with little electricity and sweltering heat. I found my solace by going to a place where there were no other people so that I could focus, but everyone will have to find what works best for their own style of work.
  2. Prior to the trip: My advice here is to make sure that the project, logistics and contacts are all laid out. Make sure you have had ample preliminary conversations to ensure that you and the organization have clear expectations going into the project and what to prepare for.
Zack explaining the new Smart Hydro irrigation project.
Zack explaining the new Smart Hydro irrigation project.

Anything else you want to add?

I would like to add one more suggestion for anyone going on a volunteering or Experteering trip: Start your project with a “know-nothing” mindset. Meaning that you know nothing and the people you are working with know everything. The goal of these projects is not to make other communities and cultures more like our own, but rather to assist people in doing what they have already set out to do. Ideas are more powerful when communities and individuals develop them as a group and locals are able to have ownership in these ideas.

[Editor’s Note: We couldn’t agree more and it’s why one of the most popular videos in our Experteering training is “If you want to help someone, shut up and listen!” Thanks for the reminder, Zack!]

Join Zack in making a difference by volunteering your skills in business strategy, supporting clean energy, or by signing up for a membership with MovingWorlds – and be sure to learn more about our special partnership with the empowering people.Network which sponsors professionals on these highly skilled volunteering projects.