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Jean-Bosco Ngemzirabona pedals to charge LED lamps. The investment in the lamps will ultimately reduce her cost of living and provide safer light than candles. (Geoffrey York)
Jean-Bosco Ngemzirabona pedals to charge LED lamps. The investment in the lamps will ultimately reduce her cost of living and provide safer light than candles. (Geoffrey York)

Lamps shine light on a new kind of aid in Burundi Add to ...

In the hilltop village of Murehe, electricity is an exotic and faraway rumour. Like 97 per cent of the population in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, the villagers here rely on candles and kerosene for a dim and flickering light.

Then, a couple of months ago, Murehe got pedal power. With the help of a United Nations agency and a Canadian entrepreneur, the village acquired a device to charge small lamps with 20 minutes of pedalling. And then there was light.

“Now, I can work inside my house at night, and my children can work on their school assignments,” says Genevieve Harerimana, who grows potatoes, beans and corn on her small farm. “In the past month, they’ve had better school grades. I’m proud of them.”

What’s even more significant is how the village got its lamps. This wasn’t a traditional charity giveaway – the old-fashioned type of foreign aid. Instead, there was a business plan, technical innovation, a system of income generation with village enterprises and a partnership with a profit-making company.

The village experiment in Burundi shows how the new wave of aid thinking has spread even to the UN agencies, traditionally among the stodgier and more bureaucratic institutions in the aid industry. The lamp project, for example, stems from research at a new Innovations Lab at the Burundi office of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), combined with expertise from several universities and a private company, Nuru Energy, co-founded by Canadian entrepreneur Sameer Hajee.

“Unicef is a lot less risk-averse than it was before,” says Eliane Luthi, a communications officer at the agency’s office in Burundi.

“The traditional development model was a donor and a recipient. Now, we’re seeing partnerships that are more hybrid, partnering with universities and the private sector.”

Under the lamp scheme, Unicef helps village savings associations to acquire the stationary pedal devices, known as PowerCycles, for the equivalent of about $300 (U.S.) each. They earn back the money from small fees of about 20 cents for each recharge of an LED lamp, which lasts about a week. The cost to each villager is much cheaper than candles or kerosene, and it keeps their money circulating in the community, rather than going to urban shops.

“We’re touching areas that aren’t usually seen as Unicef areas, like energy,” said Johannes Wedenig, the agency’s representative in Burundi.

“We realized that there are intrinsic links between child poverty and energy poverty, which is something new for Unicef. From our research on household economics, we realized how much people are spending on bad energy. If you can replace the bad forms of energy with good forms, it will not only reduce the costs, it will also keep money in the communities.”

It’s part of a sea change in the development industry, partly because of the influence of social entrepreneurs with a background in Silicon Valley, development experts say.

“Ten years ago, it was considered heretical to ask about business plans,” said Scott Gilmore, the Canadian founder of Building Markets, a foundation that supports the growth of private enterprise in the developing world.

“Now, it’s considered orthodox. The large UN agencies were among the last to get on board, but now the big donors and funders are demanding innovation and business plans from them, too. They’re not accepting business as usual.”

At the village level, the benefits can be far-reaching. Genevieve Harerimana borrowed about $5 from her village savings association to buy one of the rechargeable LED lamps. That’s a considerable sum in a country where most people earn less than $1 a day. But she estimates she is saving about $2 a month by using the rechargeable lamps instead of buying candles, so she will recover her costs in less than three months. After that, she will be substantially reducing her family’s cost of living. For the same money that she had spent on two hours of candlelight, she is now getting 28 hours of LED lighting.

Meanwhile, the PowerCycle is generating revenue for the community, since up to five lamps can be charged simultaneously with 20 minutes of pedalling, producing as much revenue as a normal day of labour. Some villages have already earned $500 from the devices.

And the lamps have other benefits. Not only do they provide stronger light than candles, they are also safer and healthier. They don’t produce the hazardous indoor smoke of kerosene or candles, they won’t accidentally cause a fire if they are knocked over and they are more reliable than a candle when a villager is walking to the toilet at night.

The program, known as Projet Lumière, was launched by Unicef in 2013 and already provides lighting to about 3,000 village homes. It is now expanding to thousands more.

Nuru Energy, the commercial supplier, does most of its business in neighbouring Rwanda, where it collects a small fee for each recharge through a mobile money transfer.

The company began with $200,000 in seed money from the World Bank in 2008. Today, its lamps are lighting about 120,000 homes in 1,200 villages in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, and it is turning a profit for the first time.

“I want to prove that for-profit business models can be successful in the subsistence market,” Mr. Hajee said.

With an MBA and an engineering degree, he joined the UN Development Program in 2005. In the agency back then, “just a handful of us felt business was the route to the empowerment of the poor,” he said. “Now, the UN as a whole is increasingly thinking this way.”

The next step is to use the same pedal devices, plus a solar panel, to charge cellphones. This would be a huge benefit to villagers, who often must walk several hours to the nearest town to charge their phones. Nuru Energy is already selling phone-charging devices in some Rwandan villages, and it could expand to Burundi.

The people of Murehe say a phone-charging device is their biggest dream. When a visitor tells them the device might some day come to their village, they burst into cheers and applause.

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