Electrifying Rwanda: An Evening Stop at the Local Mini Grid for a Cold Beer

May 16, 2016
A local writer from inside Rwanda profiles how mini grids or ‘Ekocenters’ are changing rural villages that lack connection to a central electric grid.

Solar Kiosk in Kabusunzu during the evening when some customers are starting to come over for a cold drink. Credit: Nsamaza Steven

Rwanda journalist Nsamaza Steven offers an insider’s view of how local mini grids or ‘Ekocenters’ are changing rural villages that lack connection to a central electric grid.

Ndego, Eastern Rwanda: As the evening closes after sunset, ushering in the darkness over the skies of kabusunzu, a village located in Eastern Rwanda, Safari Africa closes his bar that sells traditional banana and sorghum brew before trekking to a solar powered kiosk for a cold beer after work.

“I come here at the kiosk every evening to enjoy a cold beer, watch television while charging my phone,” says Safari. “You cannot get any cold drink in this whole area except here at the kiosk.”

In the district of Kayonza, located at about 70 kilometers from the Capital Kigali, the frustrated 44-year-old resident is still facing challenges to light his bar since the national power grid does not extend to his area, a situation that sometimes forces him to close his bar before darkness sets in.

Safari operates his business in the Kabusunzu trading center, which is a few kilometers from Lake Ihema that divides Rwanda and Tanzania. This area boosts trade for residents on each side of the lake. Safari believes that if his area was connected to power their lives would change – the way a single full-lighted kiosk is impacting his night life.

Courtesy of SOLARKIOSK, Rwanda Ltd established the retail kiosk. The shop is a solar-powered business hub with various business services, basic home needs, cold drinks and energy-related products like solar lanterns and solar powered radios.

Currently, the company uses solar power to provide mostly rural off-grid communities with services like phone charging, refrigeration, communication, printing and solar products in a move to meet the consumption needs of several rural households in a country where less than 23 percent are connected to the national power grid.

“Our kiosks are smart one-stop shops powered exclusively by solar power. The kiosk is a renewable energy and business outlet where you can get solar products, fast moving consumer goods, and energy services,” says Ezra Mukama, the regional manager for Solarkiosk Rwanda.

Rise of the Ekocenter

Referred to as Ekocenters, there are 15 established kiosks in Rwanda run by the local company, which is a subsidiary of the Berlin-based solar kiosk. The company says they are setting up 32 more kiosks in rural off-grid areas before the end of this year.

The new solar-powered structure, which is designed and manufactured in Germany, can be easily transported and set up in remote communities. If well-managed, the franchise model enables a local kiosk operator to meet the needs and challenges of the rural off-grid community by operating it as a local shop.

In the case of Ekocenters, such projects are part of Rwanda’s journey to become a climate resilient economy, with strategic objectives to achieve energy security and a low carbon energy supply that supports the development of green industry and services and avoids deforestation.

This is embedded in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), a climate action plan Rwanda submitted in line with the Paris climate agreement signed April 22 by the government along with other nations in New York.

Sustainable small-scale energy installations in rural areas are part of Rwanda’s plan to ensure energy security since they target rural populations that mostly use kerosene on a daily basis.

Solar kiosks are an example of small-scale energy installations that can produce a mini smart grid. Eric Muhire, the Solar kiosk technician, explains that their installations have two types of currents; the direct current of 12 voltages and alternative current with 24 voltages, for low power consumption units like lights and other high power consuming units like refrigeration,.

Remote-controlled Mini Grids

The solar kiosk operator displaying solar products to a customer. Credit: Nsamaza Steven

Muhire travels to different locations to maintain or repair the kiosks’ solar installations and teach shop operators how to operate them. He emphasizes that they have a system that is remotely controlled, so he can easily identify malfunctions while at his office in Kigali.

“I monitor the power storage and usage for every kiosk back at my office, and here I can determine any discrepancy, which helps to know any need or assistance to be offered,” Muhire says.

With the state-of-the-art design, most kiosks are installed with two kW rooftop solar panel capacity as well as storage and back-up systems of batteries under the structure, which stores power that can fully operate the Ekocenter for two weeks without bright sunshine.

With the solar energy increasingly popular, the kiosks can address the energy needs to spur sustainable economic development of rural off-grid communities worldwide.

However, the prices of solar products are still considered higher than other lighting sources. Safari Africa says that even though he saw solar lanterns sold at the kiosk, he has not been able to buy one for his home because it is expensive.

“I want to buy that solar light that also charges telephones,” wishes Safari, who is still using kerosene for lighting. Kerosene not only produces dimmer light, but also generates pollution and is risky since it can easily spark fire that can burn down the whole house.

However, with more investment in solar energy and as more people adopt solar products, the prices are likely to go down, since companies will be able to invest in mass production and development that ultimately saves money across the board.

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