National Geographic Profile of T.H. Culhane

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T.H. Culhane Photo

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It takes one mother seven hours to bathe her family and cook a meal. She leaves her Cairo apartment, bucket and bags in hand, and walks to the neighborhood water standpipe. Along the way she gathers scrap wood and charcoal. Returning, arms full, the bucket balanced atop her head, she climbs three flights of stairs, lights the stove, and waits for the water to warm. Bucket after bucket,  bag after bag, trip after trip, hour after hour.

Thomas Taha Rassam "T.H." Culhane has a better idea.

His nongovernmental organization, Solar C.³I.T.I.E.S., works with residents of some of the  poorest neighborhoods in the world, from the slums of Cairo and Nairobi to the favelas of Brazil,  to build and install rooftop solar water heaters and food-waste-to-fuel-and-fertilizer biodigesters.   "The DIY solar panels  generate 200 liters of hot water and 200 liters of cold water for each household every day," Culhane explains. "The biodigesters turn kitchen scraps and other organic garbage -- including toilet wastes --  into 2 hours of cooking gas every day, for life!  And since the technology is completely CO2 free, it contributes nothing to global warming. If people don’t have access to enough hot water, if people can’t boil water,  it becomes a serious health issue. And when women spend all their time collecting firewood or charcoal and tending stoves to cook and  heat water, they how can they go to school or get ahead?" Culhane’s grasp of these daily challenges is personal; he and his wife moved to a slum apartment themselves to gain firsthand experience.

He stresses that his organization is not merely a solar power and biogas provider, but an idea generator. "We realize the value of collective intelligence. These neighborhoods are filled with welders, plumbers, carpenters, and glassworkers. We bring capital and plans; they bring talent and creativity. We build these systems together from scratch." And while environmentally friendly solar heaters and biogas tanks do reduce carbon emissions, he insists that’s a byproduct, not his agenda: "We’re not being idealistic; we’re out to provide solutions. Different forms of Solar energy,  especially biogas, which is the easiest and least expensive way to store and use  solar energy for cooking or generating electricity,  and solar heaters, for bathing,  play  a principal role in our work because they  makes practical, perfect sense."

In fact, Culhane’s work on the rooftops of Cairo began under the treetops in tropical forests, an environment powered by sunlight  and built out of stored solar energy (fixed carbon). During rain forest ecology fieldwork with the Dayak of Borneo and the Maya Itza of Guatemala’s jungle villages, he witnessed a culture that used every part of the environment to survive and thrive. "It inspired me to rethink urban living along those same ecological principles." Surprisingly, it was in a city of 20 million that he encountered the rain forest ethic again.

Culhane was inspired by Cairo’s Zabaleen people (literally translated as "garbage people") while working on his Ph.D. in their community.  The Zabaleen  have collected and recycled the city’s waste by hand for decades. "We’re taught that garbage is garbage," Culhane notes, "but the Zabaleen view everything around them as useful for something. They’re a model of industrial ecology. They already were using solar energy to dry plastics they recycled and resold. So could they use the sun for other things? I went in with the idea of solar water heaters and biogas systems —technology that can be built entirely from recycled materials, with your own two hands, at minimal expense. People were so enthusiastic! They had considered solar heaters, but a pre-manufactured unit cost the equivalent of a year’s salary. And nobody knew you could easily make daily biogas from the previous day’s kitchen waste using nothing but a bit of manure, a couple of  local water tanks and plumbing supplies. "

Instead of getting grants to buy alternative technologies, Culhane offered basic design plans, while local craftsmen added improvements and sourced materials. "It’s been a really humbling experience," he observes. "One family‘s goat kept jumping up and breaking the heater’s glass panels. We elevated the unit out of harm’s way by building a brick wall. They immediately realized the new space could be used as a cool, shaded ‘goat house,’ which would keep the flock from dying during blazing summer months."

The incident epitomizes a fundamental Culhane belief: Poor communities are rich with possibilities and innovative ideas. "The poor don’t need our pity; they need a chance to help themselves," he says. "I categorically do not believe in categories. The poor aren’t a class of weak victims; they’re millions of creative individuals."

With Culhane's help, more than 30 solar tanks and more than 100 home scale biogas systems  now dot rooftops, porches, basements and gardens of places as diverse as  the Zabaleen’s self-built  informal Coptic Christian community ,the ancient  Islamic Cairo neighborhood of Darb Al-Ahmar, the favelas of Rio and Sao Paolo, rainforest villages in Tanzania, schools in Maasai towns in Kenya and Bedouin and refugee camps in Palestine.  "I divide my time between urban and rural communities, working to bring people together," Culhane notes. (Hence the name Solar C.³I.T.I.E.S: Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems.)

"I knew if people from diverse backgrounds could actually meet one another and connect on a home or community scale project to solve common problems, they would overcome their differences. They immediately begin sharing and building on each other’s expertise because everybody, whether in a big city or a small village, faces the same fundamental issues at home: how to deal with kitchen and toilet wastes and where to get energy for lighting, heating water and cooking.  We’ve pretty much solved these problems technologically.  Now we’re using the strengths of different social, local, ethnic and religious wisdoms to fight a common enemy, environmental degradation, using things we all share in common -- sunlight and our own wastes, and turning these things that were formerly wasted, into assets instead of liabilities."


Great job! I am strong supporter of green energy and I look forward to installing my IBC biogas system very soon. I am unable to locate your kibera story. Do you have a link to it?