During my recent trip to Ecuador, I explored the attitudes around and the uses of electricity. The goal of the research was not to come up with specific design ideas around a particular product or service, but rather to lay an ethnographic foundation which can later be built upon.
Ecuador is an extremely diverse country, so my research took me into the homes of three different families to catch a glimpse of this diversity. These included:
- A mixed American and Ecuadorian upper middle class family in Ecuador’s capital, Quito ( ~1,504,991 people; avg temperature between 49 – 67 F)
- A middle class Ecuadorian family in Ecuador’s 9th largest city, Ambato (~354,095 people, 45 – 70 F)
- An indigenous Ecuadorian family living in the Amazon ( ~3000 people, around 75 F year-round)
- Average Electricity Cost $95-$125
- They use electricity mostly for heating water. They keep their two water heaters on all day because it takes 4 hours to heat a full tank of water which gives a hot 20-minute shower.
- What they thought used the most electricity: Refrigerator
“I turn off lights all the time and it makes like a $5 difference. When we have a lot of visitors in town, the bill goes up to $125 instead of $95 or $100. We leave the water heaters on 24 hrs a day because there are so many people taking showers.”
- Avg. Electricity cost: $25, have paid as much as $35
- What they thought thought used the most electricity: washing machine
“I try not to use electricity because of the environment. Before we wasted a lot of energy, but now we don’t. Only where you are in the house you turn on the light.”
* Avg. Electricity cost: $15 – $18
* First got electricity about 15 years ago
* Had to pay for the power transformer to their house ($1500), municipality donated three posts ($3000)
“We use it to see at night, to iron clothes, and, let me see, to put music on the radio, to see the news on TV, and also to refrigerate the beer and food that we are saving.”
Watch here: Interview in the Amazon (find a parrot at 19:32 in the movie)
English transcript and translation here
In addition to speaking with and observing families, I photographed several places I visited and observed electricity usage, including the mayor of Ambato’s office, a roadside carnival, and a local market. This slide show captures these learnings.
See slides here: Electricity in Ecuador
Insights & Observations
1. Conservation and lip service
An attitude toward the importance of energy conservation and protecting the environment is widespread throughout Ecuador. Global warming frequently comes up in conversations as a reason for limited usage of electricity. Most buildings use energy efficient light bulbs. However, in practice, conservation is negligible as a motivating factor in electricity usage and usage decisions rely much more heavily on cost savings. I observed a public university where conscientious teachers and students left equipment and lights on long after they were being used because the government paid the electricity bill. Small businesses, on the other hand, only turned on lights between the hours of 6pm – 9pm when natural light proved insufficient.
2. In the city, electricity is directly correlated with safety.
In Ecuador, crime happens frequently. Not only does electricity power fire alarms, neighborhood criminal warning sirens, doorbells, and electric fences, but more importantly electricity powers light. People know not to walk down unlit streets. In fact, when rolling blackouts occurred in Ambato, storekeepers shut down, pulled padlocked metal doors over their storefronts, and went home. Not only was this a safety measure, but even if they stayed open few patrons dared venture out. In neighborhoods, light shows the street that a house is occupied. While similar attitudes toward light can be found in other countries like the United States, with a limited and corrupt police force in Ecuador, light carries an even greater importance to safety.
3. Paying an electric bill in Ecuador is a nightmare.
Electric bills must be paid during a neighborhood’s five-day window and usually involves long waits in line. Houses with stores and restaurants, which is common, must pay two different electric bills at two different rates, one for the business and one for the residence. While online payment is an option, hardly anyone uses this option because they must pay their water bill in person, which can be paid at the same time as their electric bill. Given Ecuadorians usage of mobile devices, there is an enormous opportunity for an electronic mobile payment system.