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Banking on KC - Mark Hannifan of Sun Partners International

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Kelly Scanlon: Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kellie Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Mark Hanifan, the founder and president at Sun Partners International. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Hannifan: Kellie. It's appreciated the chance to be here today.

Kelly Scanlon: Well, we're really glad to have you here to tell the story.

You're doing such important work. So what is the story behind Sun Partners International? How did it get started and what inspired you to focus on solar energy solutions, particularly in developing countries?

Mark Hannifan: Well, let me start off by maybe going back in my early days of my career where I started right out of college with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, the nation's national lab for wind, uh, solar, geothermal, et al, renewable technologies.

I've been in that space 40 plus years.

Kelly Scanlon: So you've seen a lot of changes.

Mark Hannifan: I have, and it was a little bit ahead of its time back then in the late 70s, but of course we had two oil crises in the 70s, so coming out of college I ventured off into the renewable space and had been doing that the, uh, for the last 40 years.

And about, uh, 20 some odd years ago, I got involved in a lot of outreach, here in the U. S. and in Latin America. And in doing that outreach, I, noted that there were a lot of folks around, especially in Latin America, that didn't have access to power. They were off grid. They didn't have a opportunity to have lighting at night, or they didn't have clean water perhaps.

And after being exposed to that and having been heavily involved in renewables and solar power, I decided that maybe I should be doing something to help those folks that I see when I travel to those places. Going back a few years ago, I was on a parish outreach committee for my church. We were doing work in the United States, we were sending money down to Latin America to certain charities down there.

Somebody needed to go down and see how the money was being spent. So, I went down to Guatemala for a three-day trip. When I got back, I was thinking, I need to do more than just go down and pay a visit, check the boxes, and then I'm done. After over the next maybe 10 years, on six different occasions, I went down to Guatemala with some dental missions from some of the local churches in town.

Again, got very exposed to how folks are eking out a living in certain places and, you know, not too far from where we live. And after about the sixth or seventh trip and in my day job doing renewable energy and utility scale power systems, big, large wind farms, large solar farms, it dawned on me that I had a higher purpose than maybe holding a flashlight at a dental mission, you know, shining a light in somebody's mouth.

Which, somebody had to do that, but I thought I had maybe a higher value that, uh, takes some of those solar panels that we use in these large, utility scale solar farms that may take up a square mile of ground, 600 acres of very large power plants. If you could take a few of those panels, and either in Guatemala or in places like Africa, that those few watts of power over the course of the day can really change somebody's life.

They can charge a phone. They can run some lights at night for their children to read by. They're not burning a kerosene lantern to light up the, the dwelling. So it became in about 2013. I said, all right, it's here we go. Um, let's form a nonprofit, a 501C3. It's 100 percent volunteer. We have no salaries. We have no overhead.

Every dollar that comes in and goes to our projects overseas. And we have a tool on our website that we can hover with a mouse over different countries around the world. And the hotspots are India, parts of Asia, developing Asia, and also East Africa. If you hover over a place like Tanzania, where we do a lot of work, you'll see that 87 percent or thereabouts. The population doesn't have access to power.

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah. I saw that tool on your website, and it's really eye opening, especially when you, if I remember right, there is a setting you can do for nighttime and you see the rest of the world glowing. And then you see these spots where most of Africa, except for along the coasts, are, are dark.

Mark Hannifan: Right. It's two photographs.

And the one photograph is during the daytime of Africa and Europe. And you see Africa, just bright daylight except for maybe clouds over the tropical areas. And then at night, there are no lights there. There was no grid power in a lot of those areas. You do see lights in Cairo and Cape Town and Johannesburg.

But that's about it. Right. And so if you go to Tanzania, you go to Zambia, you go to Democratic Republic of Congo, it's 87%, 90 percent of the populations don't have access to power. Well that, that equates to about 35 million people in Tanzania. So what we do is a drop in the bucket to that, uh, total in one country all by itself.

Tanzania also has a population of about 15 million people who don't have access to improved water supplies. What water they may have access to is out of a ditch or a standing water somewhere.

Kelly Scanlon: And they have to go every day and get it, put it in a bucket and carry it back to wherever they're living?

Mark Hannifan: And they are women and young girls.

Kelly Scanlon: So, they're not in school?

Mark Hannifan: Well, they're not in school or when they get home from school, they're doing maybe homework. Or recreating or socializing, they're out fetching water and again, they being young girls and women.

Kelly Scanlon: When you think about it, the lack of electricity has so many implications, you know, like you say for clean water, for education, all different kinds of things.

And you've been at this now for about 11 years. You said you started this in 2013. So during that time, you've You've touched a lot of projects, a lot of people. Are there any that really stand out in your mind? Can you give us one as an example that you were really pleased with the impact or the ongoing impact perhaps?

Mark Hannifan: Let's go to Tanzania. It was our second project. We hooked up with an outfit in Denver, the Africa School Assistance Project, ASAP. They were building schools. And by the way, we don't build schools, we don't build hospitals, what we do is we power those facilities in partnership with another entity, sometimes in the U. S., sometimes they're abroad, but the communities are in Africa or other places like that. And what we did is we teamed up with the ASAP building the school, but girls drop out of school. Prematurely for a number of reasons. A, in rural communities in Africa, Tanzania children, youth are walking long distances to school.

Three, four, five miles a day, each direction. And again, they have obligations back at home. And so, a number of reasons girls drop out early, one is security. They're walking by themselves or maybe a small group, and they're at risk for assault. They also, when they're going through young femalehood, so they tend not to go to school because they don't have the proper hygiene, amenities.

This school is being built in Mwanza, Tanzania, was going to have a dormitory built for girls so they didn't have to walk back and forth five miles each direction every day. And it'd be housed for nine months of the year, just like in the U. S., they have a break for two or three months. And how do you house 90 girls in one location at the school when the school and the whole community is off grid?

Right. Right. You can build a wall, you can build the buildings, you can have bunk beds in there for the girls, et cetera, but you need lighting for security. You need water to be pumped, hopefully clean water to be pumped for their use for drinking, cooking, bathing, et cetera, washing clothes. You also need lights for those girls to study at night, calm, dark, to be safe inside, be able to walk around the hallways.

So, without our project, coming to support that school charity, they wouldn't have built those two dormitories that house 45 girls each to make up the 90. And so it was a, you know, just a great pleasure to see the, you know, the bunk beds come and the mattresses coming in and the Dell computers that were donated by another entity.

And, hey, it's, it's getting ready to turn the lights on and we've been powering the batteries all day with the solar and we had the GoPro going and all of a sudden here come the lights on at, at, at dusk.

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah, that had to be such a beautiful experience. Just how long has this school been open now?

Mark Hannifan: That school has been open, well, it predated 2012, but the dormitory got built in 2013 2014.

Kelly Scanlon: Okay, so again, a decade that's been up and running, what impact has it had during that decade? How has it changed?

Mark Hannifan: Well, I'm not sure how we collect data on the results of that, the folks that run ASAP do, and what they find is girls education is very valuable because girls, Girls and women tend to be the bedrock of the family, of the community, especially as they, they grow older.

So getting, keeping women or keeping young girls in school is a big benefit for the communities. Otherwise those girls are not there in school. Again, about 33% of the population in Tanzania youth does not get through secondary school. That's equivalent to high school in Tanzania. And of that 33%, there's a higher percentage of girls who don't make it through secondary school.

So at least in this one case, those 90 girls who got selected by lottery out of probably about 350 girls in the area. When their name got drawn out of the hat, that you're going to be a recipient of a spot in this 90 person dormitory, nine months of the year, it was like they just won, you know, the lottery.

Kelly Scanlon: Exactly. How do you choose the communities and the projects that you work with?

Mark Hannifan: Well, we start off very first project was down in Latin America because I was familiar with the lay of the land in Latin America. But again, when I did my math or my research, it said East Africa is an endless amount of opportunity for what we do.

And so we wound up focusing actually the first project in Africa was in partnership with Children International. Here in Kansas City, so our board made a trip out to CI here in KC, said here's what we want to do. Do you have any projects around the world that you work on that need power? And they scoured and a lot of their facilities in the Philippines and other locations had grid power.

So, as much as we wanted to work with, you know, their projects, they had limited supply for us to team up on, except for a project in Zambia, in Lusaka, Zambia, the capital of the country. But yet, there was this community school that had 1, 400 students coming every day that didn't have power, which is not a great concern because during daylight you can study and you can use a chalkboard.

You don't have computers, unfortunately, but they didn't have water, yet they had a borehole with a dilapidated hand pump at the top of the borehole and it wasn't operating because over years kids have been, you know, banging on it and it was dilapidated. So we said, well, that's brilliant. Solar is a great application for pumping water because when the sun shines on the panels, water is being pumped out of the borehole.

It's going up into a raised elevated tank. And it just stores up in the tank until it's needed to be used, and the spigot opens at ground level. So after we did that project, and you may have seen from our website some of the photos, all those buckets lined up, you go over and you can turn the spigot, the buckets get filled up without anybody doing the hand crank.

And it was cause for a celebration because otherwise, again, women had to walk halfway, had to stand in line for maybe hours to get their opportunity to get to the to the water supply and then carry that water back to where they live in the slum.

Kelly Scanlon: That's a good part of their day.

Mark Hannifan: Good part of their day.

They could be doing a lot of other things.

Kelly Scanlon: So in terms of selecting the communities and the projects that you work with, do you have a certain set of criteria that you look at, or is it just on a case by case basis you become aware of, like in the example you just gave, you become aware of a need, a situation, and you realize that you can help there, so you go ahead and move forward with it?

Mark Hannifan: We do a fair amount of vetting of our partners, and the partners tend to be NGOs, so Either based in the U. S. or in some cases Ireland, and the Netherlands. And they're doing good work in, again, places like Tanzania. So, what are you doing? What have you done? How solid are you? Are you going to be around for the long haul?

Because when we come and do our project, We think about, into the future, about L1M, operation and maintenance of the systems. Sure. Is it sustainable? Will they be operating in 10, 15 years? Will you be operating in that period of time? Is the value of the kilowatt hour of the electricity of high value so that we don't want to power a school that's not going to be used at night?

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah. Why would you do that?

Mark Hannifan: Right. If it was a community center night, that's a different thing.

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah. Dual purpose. Yeah. Multipurpose.

Mark Hannifan: What does our system do and how many people will affect? We highly value girls’ education. We highly value clean water. We highly value healthcare. And if you think about, I keep going back to Tanzania where we do a lot of work.

There are hospitals serving rural communities that have. You know, six doctors for 400, 000 people and those people come in from long distances with every ailment you can possibly imagine, and a facility like that, a hospital, has to have  power. And you're in the operating room as a patient, the last thing you want to see, or even if you're the physician doing the operation, you don't want to see the lights go out.

That's not a good outcome. So we support systems like that with you know, high value electricity that let's say saves lives.

Kelly Scanlon: I mentioned you've done some projects in Kansas City. So let's bring this closer to home. Sun Partners International has worked with Operation Breakthrough on their ignition lab right here in Kansas City.

So what's the significance of that project and the community impact of it?

Mark Hannifan: So, Operation Breakthrough is a great organization here in KC, down at 31st and Troost. It has a long history of serving disadvantaged youth before school, after school. My wife had volunteered down there. That's how I got exposed to Operation Breakthrough.

And it dawned on me and our board that we do a lot of work in long, faraway places. And its good work and it needs to be done. But a lot of folks that we talk to back here in Kansas City, we fundraise. A lot of people who want to volunteer for our organization, they can't go to Tanzania, but they could do something in Kansas City and be, you know, hands on with the project.

So I approached Operation Breakthrough about four years ago and said, you've got this facility on both sides of Troost. You have a lot of rooftop, how about maybe doing solar power to just simply offset some of your operating costs. We got started about what the system might look like. Somewhere in the middle of that process, Travis Kelce, number 87 for the Chiefs, steps forward and offers to buy the muffler shop.

Automotive shop next to Operation Breakthrough. Travis Kelce has his own non profit, 87 and Running, and they stepped forward and bought the muffler shop. Operation Breakthrough had been wanting to get rid of that facility for quite a while because it was an eyesore, it was a health hazard, fire hazard, inconsistent with their teaching campus.

And suddenly the Ignition Lab got spawned, or that was going to be the next iteration of their preschool, afterschool programs for high school youth. It went beyond 8th grade and, gosh, wouldn't it be nice if we tied in what we were talking about from a solar perspective into that academy or that ignition lab and start a green tech academy.

So now if you're a high school kid, 9th grade, you're being exposed to how does solar power work, what does sustainability mean? How do you grow stuff in a sustainable garden, you know, et cetera. So we then partnered with Operation Breakthrough ourselves with Sun Partners International.

MRI Global, Black Veatch, one of our key long time corporate sponsors. And JE Dunn, who is doing the actual project on the ignition lab. And long story short, if you go by 31st and Troost, you look off to the northwest there, you'll see a large canopy over the robotics rank, which has about 35 kilowatts of solar power up on the roof.

And it's feeding the ignition lab and it's feeding it to extend over the course of year about 100 percent of their electric bill. And it's all part of the operation through campus now.

Kelly Scanlon: So his buying that allowed him to rehab that and for it to what was previously an eyesore become a very useful facility.

So that's just one example of a partnership. And I know that from what you said before, that partnerships are a very vital aspect of Sun Partners International's approach. What about other NGOs and communities and companies? How do you collaborate with those in achieving your mission?

Mark Hannifan: Doing work in Tanzania, being a long ways from the United States, we've gotten into a routine now where we're working with a local Tanzanian run solar installation company.

So they're there to do installations for us as we identify projects. Also do the long-term operation and maintenance to make sure those systems are running.

Kelly Scanlon: So you have people with feet on the ground in those communities after you've got everything up and running?

Mark Hannifan: We do. They're not really on our staff.

We don't pay them, per se, salaries, but we do pay them under contract basis. But they become like an extended staff to us, so we know what's going on the ground there. We know what's going on with our systems that have been installed. We know the next opportunity that we may want to consider because a lot of folks are coming to this entity saying, you guys do solar power, yes, can you do solar power for us?

Do you have the funds or the resources to do that? No. Well, we know somebody back in the United States who is keen on doing high value projects here. Let's put the two of you together, and if it works out, then we have our contractor do the work. The last thing we want to do is have a group of folks from Kansas City, even though they, we all may be, you know, qualified technical engineers and architects, to show up and the equipment's not there or we left a tool behind, we want to take the economic value of what we bring to the table and have those dollars wind up in the table.

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah. So how do you see the evolution, the advancements that you're seeing in solar technology influencing other humanitarian projects in the future? Maybe other kinds of applications?

Mark Hannifan: Solar power has come a long ways from when I started my career back at NREL in the late 70s.

Solar power, solar panels, the cost has dropped dramatically. You can afford to do solar. I have solar on my house here in Kansas City. So the cost has made it more accessible to more folks, even if it's a small panel. The panels are getting more efficient. They're getting less expensive. The batteries, which used to be predominantly lead acid batteries, big, heavy batteries that lasted maybe three years, five years, are now lithium ion, just like you find in electric vehicles these days.

They're much more reliable, their cost has come down, they'll last 10 to 15 years. So, systems we put in now. Well, you can sleep better at night that, you know, 10 years, 15 years is the, the runway for that, that project or that system, or it might've been five to seven not too long ago.

Kelly Scanlon: As you look forward, what are some of the next big steps for SunPartners International?

New projects, new regions that you're looking at?

Mark Hannifan: Not new regions because I think we would cast ourselves too thin. If we think about Tanzania, there's 35 million people who still don't have power, access to power. There's still 50 million people without improved water supply. There's still a need to educate more girls.

The mortality rate of youth. Or babies, zero to five is about five percent. Five percent of the population doesn't make it to the age of five in Tanzania. So we know the lay of the land there, we've got our contract labor there, we know who's who there, even the folks that we've done projects for before.

With a phase one or maybe a phase two, there's always a phase three or phase four to be done.

Kelly Scanlon: So if any of our listeners would be interested in contacting you, because I don't know if you have volunteer opportunities or other ways that people can engage, but what might some of those be and how would they get in touch with you?

Mark Hannifan: Best place to start is with the website, just to get an understanding of what we do and where we do it. That's SunPartners. org. My phone number is on the website so they can call me directly. Again, it's 100 percent volunteer. Come to it with that in mind. We can use a lot of people to help fundraise, get the word out.

We'll be looking for maybe the next Kansas City area opportunity coming up in the next 18 months or so. So if you have a good idea of a place for us to go and sit down and talk with your organization. We'd be happy to hear about it.

Kelly Scanlon: Have an impact locally. So thank you so much for all the work that you're doing, Mark, and for sharing that with us and, and for trying to make the world a better place.

We appreciate it. Thank you.

Mark Hannifan: I appreciate it. Thank you very much, Kelly.

Joe Close: This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Mark Hanifin for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Mark's insights into the work of Sun Partners International to provide solar energy solutions to underprivileged communities across the world, including here in Kansas City, underscore the power of sustainable technology in creating transformative change.

His work is making a difference in educational opportunities for women, in access to health care, and in global economic development efforts. Mark's dedication to these initiatives aligns closely with Country Club Bank's commitment to sustainability. Just as Mark's projects light up lives, our efforts to retrofit our headquarters with LED lighting and implement energy efficient measures reflect our commitment to a greener, more sustainable future.

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.