Lighting Up Rural Africa—via Power Cycling?

A new energy project in Burundi is using pedal power to supply homes with light.

(Photo: Nuru Energy/Facebook)

Dec 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Roland Rugero is a Burundian writer, journalist, and literary activist.

Ninety-seven percent of Burundi’s 10 million people may have no access to the electrical grid, but Burundian resident Jeremie Nyabenda has something to smile about—behind him, a pedal-powered generator whirs, recharging five small LED lights in just 20 minutes.

“I had to buy three candles per day for my children so they could study and eat at night,” he said, explaining that the candles would cost him about 27,000 Burundian francs (or $17) per month, more than half what the average family in Burundi earns per month. Now he can recharge two LED lights for little more than $1.50 per month.

The lights are part of UNICEF’s Project Lumiere, which launched in the country last spring as a pilot initiative aimed at providing household energy to 14 isolated areas. By the end of January 2015, the project is expected to reach 40 more communities and 16,000 households.

Families—who typically use candles, torches, and firewood as sources of light—purchased the small LED lights that can last up to 10 days and could be quickly recharged at a local site for a small fee via pedal-powered generators, known as “powercycles,” introduced by UNICEF. The lights can be hung in the home, worn around the neck or head, or mounted in a bottle, according to the organization’s website.

“It’s really hard to imagine what light means until you don’t have it,” Chelsey Lepage, one of the project designers, told UNICEF Stories of Innovation. “[Energy] affects everything, from the air the families breathe in their homes to the technologies they can access in health centers. It determines the learning tools that are available in schools and income-generating opportunities for adults.”

(Photo: Roland Rugero)

Nyabenda lives in Ruziba, just south of Bujumbura, the country’s capital, and is the coordinator for Project Lumiere in his community. Residents bring him their LED lights, and he recharges them with the powercycles. UNICEF provided 2,900 lights for the country, and Ruziba received 300 for $7 per light, which were sold to more than 100 families by FVS-AMADE, a local NGO that works to protect orphans and vulnerable children. The money collected from recharging the small lights benefits local solidarity groups created with the help of FVS-AMADE through its child-education campaign “Murikira Nige,” which translates to “Enlighten me so that I can study.”

The project and the lights have been “so helpful,” said Nyabenda, and fellow resident Marie Ntakirutimana agrees. A mother of four, she shared a story of a three-year-old who burned to death in 2011 after a lit candle fell on the mosquito net covering his bed.

“His parents couldn’t help,” she said. “Now with an LED light, no more such stress.”

The project also moves away from the traditional aid model to one that is purely market-based, according to fellow project designer Alfred Mukasa. Community volunteers work as “energy entrepreneurs,” he said, providing safe, long-lasting household energy supply to their neighbors at prices they can afford.

“We see this pilot microenergy project as an entry point for a solar energy program [benefiting] Burundian kids in vulnerable households,” said Eliani Luthi, communications specialist at UNICEF Burundi, adding that families can save up to 80 percent compared with their previous spending on power.

“With these lights, we can now aspire to work toward development,” said Nyabenda. “It is impossible to be developed while [living] in darkness for generations.”