Off grid electricity and smart villages in Rwanda

Sunday November 30th, 2014 - John Holmes

On Tuesday 11th of November, the day after the smart villages workshop for East African journalists, myself and two Rwandan journalists set off early in the morning from Kigali to drive to the north-west area of Rwanda, a destination well-known to visitors to Rwanda as the location of the Volcanoes National Park and a favourite area for gorilla tracking. On this occasion though we were tracking something different, Rwanda’s fast-growing activities in off-grid energy for rural communities and its embryonic smart villages. Our hosts were Dan Klinck and his colleagues from East African Power.

First stop was at the outskirts of the town of Musanze. Here we were introduced to the workshop and pico-hydro manufacturing facility of Sabin Ngirirababatanyurwa. We saw a 3 kW pico-hydro plant close to completion, and soon to be installed in the village of Gitova in Gakenke District where it will supply much-needed electricity to 45 houses in the village. The plant will harness the power of a small stream with a flow of just 18 litres per second and a head of 26 m.

All components of the hydro plant had been manufactured in the workshop except for the generator itself. Given that there are hundreds of small streams in Rwanda similar to that in Gitova, Sabin it is believed that there is a substantial market for such home-grown power systems.

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The chief engineer, Vincent Hakizimana spoke with passion and enthusiasm about his commitment to training the next generation who will need the skills to lead Rwanda’s energy revolution. While the workshop has a high quality lathe, more equipment is needed if young technicians and engineers are to be able to develop the necessary skills, and so that the business can grow.

We then drove into the centre of Musanze town where we stopped at the solar energy technologies outlet (one of four) of DASSY Enterprise Ltd, and were introduced to the manager, Mr Alexis Nshimiyimana. DASSY Enterprise Ltd was started in 2007 by Francois d’Assisse and is a for-profit social enterprise registered in Rwanda. It has served over 2700 off grid customers (households, businesses, schools etc.) in low-cost solar lights, solar home systems, and solar institutional systems etc.

On display was a wide range of solar products supplied by a number of different manufacturers. Turnover has reached around 10,000 $US per month. Innovative payment schemes are used to overcome the initial barrier of purchase cost: rent-to-own (leasing) facility for low-cost solar lights to members of productive entities (cooperatives etc.), and pay-as-you-go facility for solar home systems with a combination of prepaid home meters and mobile money.

Customers are supported by a growing network of dealers, local technicians and freelance sales agents. Solar home systems are designed to support income generating activities, access to ICT, and small machinery.

Our last stop was at Sunzu village in the Burera distict, beautifully located on a ridge between Lakes Burera and Ruhondo. With support from a group of friends and various benefactors, this village is taking its first steps towards being ‘smart’. A feed from the national grid now brings electricity to around 50% of the houses, and we witnessed solar panels being installed on the roof of a building for the women’s co-operative. These will supply power for sewing machines that women in the community will be able to use to generate additional income. They will also be able to sell surplus electricity for mobile phone charging. A member of Dan’s team, Jonathan Berry, was explaining the workings of electrical devices to a rapt audience ranging from young to old.

A key development is the construction of a community library and learning centre which will be completed in 2015, providing access not just to books, but to information and communication technologies too. A playground and sports facilities are also in train. The Sunzu Village Project is incorporated with the Rwanda Development Board. A community-based organisation leadership committee is organising and guiding the initiative.

It is intended to extend electricity access to all the houses in the village over the next five years with support from partners such as the German development agency, GIZ. On a similar timescale, it is anticipated that the village will become self-sufficient and will manage its further development independently.