A Global Village
Issue 4 » Engineering Development

Empowering Rural Rwanda with Energy Kiosks

Roger Liew, Electrical and Electronics Engineering & Var Hansen, Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London

In September 2010 ten Imperial College students embarked on a humanitarian expedition to Rwanda to supply 400 rural households with electricity. Founded in 2008 by students of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department, e.quinox is now comprised of students from varied disciplines all working towards the same aim: to provide electricity that is cost-effective, sustainable and renewable to developing countries.

The Republic of Rwanda is a small landlocked country within Central Africa with a population of approximately ten million. Despite its temperate climate and friendly inhabitants, Rwanda is probably best known for one of the worst genocides in modern history.

In 1994 a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart was shot down near Kigali International Airport. The assassination of the native Hutu president ignited simmering tribal tensions and there were violent mass killings of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by the Hutu ethnic group. It is believed that over 800,000 people died in 1994 alone.

Only 7% of Rwandans have
access to the grid electricity

Despite recent years of relative political stability under the Tutsi Royal Patriotic Front (RPF) with comparatively low corruption levels for the region and strong economic growth, infrastructural development has been slow and poverty remains widespread. Over 57% of the population lives below the poverty line and only 7% of Rwandans have access to the electricity grid.

In villages that do not have electricity all activity stops when the sun sets. Providing just a few extra hours of light each night means that children have more time for education, and housework can be carried out during the evening leaving more time for paid employment during the day. The Rwandan government has recognized the critical importance of electricity and is supportive of innovative solutions to provide power to those that do not have access to the grid.

e.quinox, a fully student-led initiative from Imperial College, has devised the concept of the ‘Energy Kiosk’ which revolves around a unique business model. The kiosk acts as a centralized power generation site, and simultaneously a platform for decentralized energy distribution, in the form of battery boxes.

Rural villagers join the scheme by paying a refundable deposit for a battery box. Thereafter customers pay a small monthly subscription fee for a fixed bundle of recharges on their battery boxes that they can use for lighting, mobile phone charging and low-power appliances. The continuous revenue stream generated not only helps to maintain the kiosks and the battery boxes, but also goes towards the salary of a dedicated shopkeeper.

Financial sustainability, or lack thereof, is often a major stumbling block for humanitarian projects. e.quinox’s social enterprise model ensures that the running costs of the kiosks can be covered by the income stream, and equipment will be well taken care of by customers and stakeholders alike. The aim of e.quinox is to provide a technical solution that has the possibility of yielding an income such that local entrepreneurs can start their own kiosks and possibly, down the line, governments, NGOs and companies can roll out a similar idea on a larger scale.

Electricity in a Box
The battery boxes act as a mobile artificial electricity grid. Physical connection of a house to the grid often comes only at great expense even for houses directly beneath the grid line. The first generation of battery boxes, created in 2009, had a 12V DC-output, which could be used only for light. However the team quickly realised that there was a great demand for mobile phone charging. The second generation of boxes were, therefore, modified to include an inverter that transforms the voltage to the standard 220V output. This provides the boxes with the flexibility to power any low-power device of the customers’ choice.

Three kiosks have been installed thus far; two are powered by solar power and one by a grid connection. e.quinox aims to show that the system can be implemented using a variety of generation methods thus demonstrating that the kiosks can be implemented using the most effective resources of a particular community or environment.

Field Work
In September 2010 ten students traveled to Rwanda in order to implement three Energy Kiosk projects – two new kiosks in the Bugesera and Kamonyi districts and an upgrade for e.quinox’s pilot project established in September 2009 in the Minazi district. The purpose of this expedition was to provide electricity and lighting to more than 400 households living in rural communities.

On the ground e.quinox received significant support from its local partners the Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC) and the Kigali Institute of Technology (KIST). BTC, the Belgian development agency, has been in partnership with Rwanda since its independence in 1962. BTC works in conjunction with the Ministry of Infrastructure in Rwanda to implement various projects in the electricity and infrastructure sector. e.quinox’s strategic partnership with BTC provided the students with an official platform from which to implement the project with support from the Ministry of Infrastructure and the relevant local authorities.

KIST is a reputable local university based in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. A local chapter of e.quinox was set up at KIST to provide necessary logistical support and monitoring throughout the year, as students from Imperial College lack a constant presence in Rwanda. This bi-directional knowledge transfer, where KIST students provide critical local knowledge and language expertise and Imperial College students provide technical know-how of the kiosk’s electrical system, has been a win-win arrangement for both parties.

In the field the team’s work involved application of different engineering aspects taught at Imperial College. Photo-Voltaic (PV) panels and electrical control systems were carefully calculated and scaled to provide ample electricity generation for each kiosk, yet conform to electrical ratings of each individual circuit component. Mechanical work was also part and parcel of installations – PV panels were mounted on beams before being installed on roofs and plastic tubing protection was used to protect wires from the weather and human tampering. Unlike the developed world, construction resources in Rwanda are extremely scarce. Therefore the team faced many engineering decisions, which required resource optimization and tradeoffs, ensuring that the construction side of the project was challenging from both a practical and planning perspective.

Let’s Talk Business
Applying a successful business model to each Energy Kiosk is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the system. Indeed, the most challenging issue remained how to successfully execute such a model in rural villages. On the consumer side, adopting the battery boxes (with the free LED lamp and robust lamp holder) has to be affordable and comparable to current prices paid for kerosene lamps. Furthermore, due to the fact that the primary industry in rural communities is subsistence agriculture, many villagers do not have cash reserves at their disposal for a battery box deposit.

The e.quinox team visited each of the villages with the local KIST students to get a feel for the energy consumption of a typical household. This information was coupled with statistical information gathered from the Ministry of Infrastructure and the BTC to determine the price of monthly subscription and the corresponding number of bundled recharges. Throughout the price formulation process students had to weigh and balance the financial requirements of running a kiosk and the fundamental humanitarian purpose of their Energy Kiosks. The business model was therefore not meant to yield the maximum income, but to optimize the overall financial and social utility of the project.

Students found, however, that financial projections on spreadsheets often manifested themselves differently in reality. Depending on a location’s demographics and the Energy Kiosk’s technical limitations, each Energy Kiosk has a slightly different implementation of the same business plan. For example, the first pilot kiosk in Minazi started with a pay per recharge pricing scheme, which meant that the boxes were not fully exploited, as many costumers kept the boxes for several weeks without recharging them. In September 2010, during the upgrade of Minazi, new boxes were introduced on a monthly subscription scheme. This provided a more predictable income stream and also ensured the battery boxes had sufficient utilization.

Students have
empowered local
entrepreneurs
with tools to break
the poverty circle

With support from the BTC, e.quinox has also established partnerships with local micro-financing banks. This allows each potential customer to take up short-term loans for the battery box’s deposit. One encouraging result of this is that budding local entrepreneurs have taken up loans and battery boxes to operate their own barbershops, mobile phone charging stations and even bars that run at night with lights. By providing the financial infrastructure and the technical solution, students have empowered local entrepreneurs with tools to break the poverty circle.

Lighting Up the Future
The e.quinox initiative provides students with a real-life application of their technical knowledge and business acumen. As a humanitarian project, the focus on the application of a successful business model ensures long-term sustainability of the kiosks.

Humanitarian expeditions such as the one during September 2010 gave students an opportunity to discover how they can enrich and empower people, by bringing electricity, light and education to rural communities. e.quinox aims to implement more projects every summer with a hydro-powered Energy Kiosk planned in collaboration with Dartmouth University for summer 2011.

If these pilot Energy Kiosks projects prove financially sustainable in the long run, the eventual target is to allow governments and private companies to spin off more such kiosks potentially benefiting vast populations in developing countries currently without access to electricity.

Roger Liew is studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Imperial College and is e.quniox Project Leader. Var Hansen is studying Mechanical Engineering and is Head of Expeditions for e.quinox.

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