A Small Town and its ‘Digital Influencer’

Quem-Quem.

This peculiar name is the town of our third stop on our road trip through utility-scale solar generation plants in northern Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Quem-Quem is a rural town in the municipality of Janaúba, also named after the shrub Himatanthus drasticus (or thorn forest), which is very common there.

But there is nothing drastic about this town.

Janaúba is a municipality of just over seventy-two thousand inhabitants, according to the latest IBGE survey. It’s close to the southwest of Bahia and for Quem-Quem, the town gets a lot of visitors. The proof of this lies in one of the most interesting characters there.

My team and I were in the square preparing the recording equipment when we spotted a man on a bicycle wearing a straw hat, recording an audio on his cell phone.

He moved around a lot, and he seemed agitated. When he finished, I approached him and asked what he was doing.

Mr. Orlando said that he arrived in Janaúba in the 1970s with his family and they decided to move to Montes Claros. They liked Quem-Quem which at that time was a small town with only a few streets and houses. And they stayed.

But what was he “reporting” on his smartphone?

Mr. Orlando was upset because the day before there had been a festival in the square which was very lively and brought a lot of people together. This event resulted in a lot of garbage. And the next day all the trash was still there.

And he said:

“I want to know who was responsible for cleaning up the place.”

And where was he going to send this audio?

“To my YouTube channel and my WhatsApp groups.”

By sheer reporter luck, I found a ‘digital’ influencer from Quem-Quem, a gentleman of almost seventy, who was connected to technology and the civic responsibilities of residents and the public at-large.

I loved this story so much that I decided to stretch out the conversation. So, I asked Mr. Orlando what he thought of the arrival of the Janaúba solar park, which is in Quem-Quem.

He did not hesitate to say that it was a step forward. Before, there were between 80 and 100 people and now there are over 2,000 people. He pointed out Quem-Quem’s sports square built by Elera, the Janaúba power plant developer and owner.

Quem-Quem is No Longer the Same

The grocery store that began with fifty-four square meters is now almost ten times that size.

That is what happened to Júlio César’s business. When work began on the solar plant, he saw buses, trailers, and 250 vehicles passing through the small streets every day.

He said that even the road improved, which used to be an endless pothole.

In a district of 5,000 inhabitants, spread out in the countryside, 5,000 workers from all over Brazil arrived, eager to have a place where they could shop and even have coffee with freshly baked warm bread.

So much so that Júlio, a very clever entrepreneur, set up a bakery.

Dona Li is another person who has seen her family’s life change.

She has always worked hard. She started selling snacks and making hot meals, delivering them door to door.

When her husband got a job on the construction site, he carried the hot food that Dona Li made especially for him to lunch every day. His colleagues began to smell the good stuff and asked to try it, and suddenly Mrs. Li was making two hundred hot meals a day for the plant’s workers.

It worked out so well that she went from being a maker of jams and jellies to a restaurant owner.

She bought the house she was renting, and today she opens every day for the residents of Quem-Quem and for the employees of the solar power plants nearby.

Much like Airbnb, she is renovating to set up her own hostel with a café.

Janaúba Solar Park

The Janaúba Complex is made up of twenty solar parks and covers an area of 3,000 hectares. There are more than two million photovoltaic modules and an installed capacity of 1.2 gigawatts.

That’s enough to supply energy to almost two million homes. The technology used here is different from the other parks we visited on our From Gold to Sun road trip. The solar panels produce energy from both sides – or what’s called, bifacial technology. Nextracker has developed a solar tracker design that maximizes energy for bifacial modules, taking full advantage of the light bouncing from the ground back onto the panel for more energy gain.

And here I learned a new word: albedo, which is the measurement of how much radiation the ground reflects on the backside of the panel.

According to the Meteorópole portal, albedo is a value that goes from 0 to 1, where 0 corresponds to a surface that doesn’t reflect anything, just absorbs solar radiation, like a layer of asphalt, for example.

Areas completely covered in snow, on the other hand, have an albedo close to 1 and this value means that almost 100% of the solar incident radiation has been reflected.

In addition, the fact that the panel moves in line with the sun’s movement increases energy generation by up to 35%, according to Juliana Santos, Nextracker’s Asset Management Director.

Women in the Field

Juliana is another case in point.

She’s a young, lively woman who knows everything about the technology deployed on Janaúba.

I looked at her, all covered up with long clothes, shin guards to protect from snakes entering your pants, a helmet, glasses, and a face mask to shield her from the sun, in heat that reaches over 40 degrees almost at dusk, and thought: how do people deal with these working conditions?

And when I asked her what the biggest challenge of being in the field in these conditions was, she said that deep down it was her greatest pride, not her greatest challenge.

Juliana was responsible for helping to train other women who today also work in the field, from installing equipment to operations and maintenance.

“Although the tracker weighs more than six tons, the parts are small and they come in kits, so it’s possible to have men and women working together, without overloading anyone.”

In speaking with Juliana, we met another determined and fearless woman that made the local educational initiative all happen.

For the principal of Quem-Quem’s only school, Mrs. Cleides, she realized that for women to be able to work at the plant and get local work, they would need to be trained. It was clear to her what needed to happen.

That’s when she decided to open her school doors to adults. She offered her classrooms in the evenings so that those interested – men and women – could be trained.

Mrs. Cleides has had a hard life, always striving to educate her children and make school a place where students’ hopes and dreams for a better life are fostered.

The school is bright, clean, colorful, and airy- you feel like spending hours there. It struck me how much of a difference Mrs. Cleides is making in the young lives she touches given the challenging surroundings they are brought up in Quem-Quem.

One of Mrs. Cleides’ school teachers is her very own daughter, Ramony.

Former Teacher Activates her Engineering Degree

Also, because she was one of the students from the adult solar energy courses run by Senai and Nextracker at the school.

Ramony is an engineer by training. But as there were no jobs for her in the area, she became a math teacher for her mother’s elementary school and a physics teacher for high school far away. She worked in the morning and came back in the evening to pursue her solar education.

Given the long distances between her day job and getting back for the course, she had to hitchhike back and forth as there was no local public transportation.

Before she had even finished the course, Ramony was hired by Nextracker as an engineering technician. Shortly afterwards, she was promoted to junior engineer.

The Sun Also Rises

Ramony gives the most moving explanation of what these plants mean in these remote parts of Brazil, when they are constructed and begin to operate.

“The sun here is very intense; the rainy season is very short and it’s sunny all year round. We’ve always seen the sun as the enemy. It punishes us because it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. We depend a lot on agriculture and farming. Today we see the sun as our best friend, our greatest ally. It is the sun that is providing us with so much wealth, so many jobs.”

The sun shines relentlessly on Quem-Quem.

And today it has added sparkle in the eyes of a population that was once doomed to near poverty with dark behaviors and a lack of job opportunities. Whether residents are working in the solar park or in the city itself, hope and opportunities now abound.

Why the Name Quem-Quem? (English: Who’s Who?)

Oh, I almost forgot one important piece of the story!

Why the town name, Quem-Quem – or Who-Who in English? One resident told us the story:

Quem-Quem is the name of a bird, also known as a kangaroo crow. According to legend, there were a lot of crow-like noises or song sounds from these birds in that region. And the birds were very loud, so they called the town Who-Who, or Quem-Quem for the sound that the crows make.

The life of a reporter is always unfolding. Even in places that experience hard times, we find pleasant surprises and beautiful stories of triumph.

Because living in a place called Who-Who is a remarkable thing, don’t you think?

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