The foundations of Grupo Fénix were laid in 1996, when a group from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería in Managua decided to form an organization focusing on renewable energy technologies and, primarily, how these technologies could be applied in the rural countryside. At that time in Nicaragua about 30% of the rural population was without access to electricity. The students were guided from the beginning by Professor Susan Kinne, and with her leadership they set themselves to studying renewable energy, with an emphasis on solar technologies. Taking advantage of various opportunities throughout Nicaragua, students installed: solar pumps, solar drip irrigation systems, micro-hydroelectric systems, PV battery charging centers, constructed solar dryers, and installed hundreds of photovoltaic systems in rural communities, among other projects. In 1998, PFAE (Alternative Energy Source Program) became an official program of the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería and was an early member partner of Grupo Fenix. PFAE works to achieve its mission by facilitating the “knowledge cycle”; the practice of developing and exchanging research, technologies and ideas between rural communities and universities.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Nicaragua was torn by civil war. After the war ended, there were many injured civilians and veterans that were living on the margins of society. After receiving a grant in 1999 to reintegrate landmine victims back into society, In response to this need, Grupo Fenix decided to broaden their focus of rural development and to include these victims . After much effort, in 1999 Grupo Fenix received a grant to reintegrate landmine victims back into society using solar technologies to empower this population. Initially working throughout the entire department of Madriz, Grupo Fenix eventually conceded this new mission within the community of Sabana Grande in northern Nicaragua, where a solar workshop project was established. The objective of this workshop was threefold:
- To instruct land mine victims how to manufacture, install, and maintain photovoltaic solar panel systems under the guidance of University students.
- To generate dignified employment.
- To provide an alternative energy source to communities that do not have easy access to conventional electricity.
The solar workshop was a success and soon several locals started a business selling solar systems in the surrounding communities.
In addition to their early efforts in Sabana Grande involving photovoltaic systems, Grupo Fenix also began to introduce solar cookers as an alternative method of food preparation to the community. Traditionally, a majority of cooking in rural Nicaragua – which is overwhelmingly a responsibility of the women - is done over an open fire. As a result of spending many hours cooking over smoky fires, respiratory disease is the most common cause of premature death among women in Nicaragua. During the process of learning how to build their own solar cookers, the women of Sabana Grande who were driving the solar cooker development, formed a new organization – Las Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa.
In 2008 Grupo Fenix – thanks to the hard work of the Mujeres Solares - won the UN-based SEED Award for Entrepreneurship in Sustainable Development. The SEED Award was ais an biannual (it is now an annual award) international competition, designed to support locally led, innovative, entrepreneurial partnerships in developing countries, which have the potential to make real improvements in poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. As the Mujeres Solares grew in size and scope, the organization officially became a cooperative in 2010. In partnership, Grupo Fenix and Las Mujeres Solares have constructed the Solar Center, which serves as classroom, meeting space, and workshop for the community. Further, the fruitful partnership has resulted in the launching of the first clean energy-powered restaurant in Nicaragua – La Casita Solar.
Today, Grupo Fenix is a consortium of several organizations located in Sabana Grande, in Managua and also in the United States. Grupo Fenix’s projects are developed through cooperation between community members, Nicaraguan and international engineers, universities, and long-term interns. Since all projects are created to achieve and maintain economic and environmental self-sufficiency within rural communities, Grupo Fénix works with many other locally based or like-minded organizations located elsewhere to serve as an incubator for – and driving force behind – ideas related, though not limited to: renewable energy, irrigation works, natural building, entrepreneurship and rural tourism.