22 May 2018

Rwanda: How Renewable Energy is Changing Lives in Rural Rwanda

Mzee Vedaste Hagiriryayo, 62, a resident of Kanombe Village in Karenge Cell, Jarama Sector of Ngoma District had until last year only known two sources of energy; firewood and kerosene.

Today, this is a story of the past to the senior citizen and many others in his village after they were connected to solar energy in June last year, courtesy of Rwanda National Police.

More than 34, 000 households were connected with solar energy across the country during the 2017 Police Week that focused on community development.

"Police brought the sun to my house and my village; the sun that shines at night," says Hagiriryayo.

"Izo mpfura ntawazivuga nabi," he says, loosely meaning that 'no one can speak ill of our police.'

Located some 150km from Kigali in the undulating hills of Eastern Province, Kanombe is in many respects a throwback to times long passed.

Shining corrugated iron-clad mud and wattle houses flank the narrow foot paths that run down the valley to the picturesque Lake Rweru.

Despite the several hours of bright sunshine every day, all-year-round, Karenge is the only place that had never had electricity, of the 10 cells that make up Jarama Sector.

Residents are progressively breaking away from pre-industrial era to commercial farming. The one-cow-per-poor-family scheme is also changing lives of some families that have shifted to use of biogas out of livestock wastes.

With renewable energy, business activity booming and social infrastructures like the health centre being guaranteed of electricity, the welfare is steadily changing in Kanombe Village.

Security, health, education and businesses are changing face for better while communication and information through more acquisition of TV sets and handsets keep residents informed on government development programmes.

"Our children can now do their homework and revise at night; they are doing well in school," says another resident. "Children used to go to bed at the same time as the rest...very early, now they have plenty of time to revise," he adds.

The solar power is also empowering villagers to create newer sources of income, or small enterprises.

"The solar electricity also enabled entrepreneurs to establish groceries, people enjoy their drinks watching TV, and businesses are open for relatively more hours."

"Karenge, being a farming and fishing community, the use of cell-phones for communication with business partners is very important," says Anita Mukasine, the cell executive secretary.

Like Hagiriryayo, Jean Bosco Rutagwena, the village chief, says residents have reported incremental and significant savings because they no longer have to rely on expensive and dirty kerosene for home lighting, and they no longer have to move distances to charge telephone batteries.

Lives saved

The community is also seeing better health outcomes moving from archaic sources of energy, such as kerosene lamps. That there are advantages of environmental protection goes without saying.

Pascal Kirusha, the head of Sangaza health centre, confirms that the arrival of solar power has significantly reduced the number of respiratory cases received at the centre.

Sangaza is one of the 30 health centres that were also lit with solar energy during the RNP 17th anniversary activities, last year.

Kirusha says that, with solar energy providing reliable electricity supply, the health centre can properly handle most emergencies, even at night, and has helped raise awareness on the availability of prenatal care.

"Patients have since increased and have confidence in our services due to the differences brought about by lighting alone. For example, no case of an expectant mother delivering from home was reported last month in all the 24 villages served by the health centre," says Kirusha.

"Before solar was installed, patients used to go to a tertiary care hospital if they needed services, and that usually meant at least half a day's journey; others would deliver from their homes."

Today, the centre, with seven health workers, serves a population of close to 15,000, and receives over 150 patients daily.

Previously, the health centre would spend about Rwf800, 000 from its monthly gross income of Rwf2 million, on petrol to power the generator, according to Kirusha, which was saved with the coming of solar energy.

"We now buy only 10 litres a month for sterilisation of medical tools and emergencies," he says.

"In cases when our generator would get faulty, we would use the light from our mobile telephones at our labour section, a potentially dangerous scenario, especially when the baby is in an awkward position, or while the mother's cervix is small and you can't see properly. Thankfully, with solar energy, our generator serves as backup," explains Claudette Nambage, a midwife at the centre.

Solar power makes it easy to deploy for multiple rural applications, impacting key facets of rural population such as productivity, safety, health benefits, and livelihood.

It is evident that adoption of solar power as an alternative source of energy could alter the socio-economic fabric of rural Rwanda, for the better and if this pace is maintained, rural Rwanda is indeed headed for 'sunny days'.

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