As a little girl, I was already fascinated by my grandfather’s dyno torch: a flashlight without batteries, providing light as soon as you started to squeeze the handle. In Rwanda, however, I discovered a much more advanced way to produce light using human power.
Although the small Eastern African country recently shows significant economic growth, many people in the countryside are still living without electricity. While working in Africa, the Canadian-born entrepreneur Sameer Hajee wondered why nobody used manpower to generate electricity. In Rwanda he founded the social enterprise Nuru Energy to find a new way for providing energy in Africa and invented a horizontal power cycle that charges five headlamps in just twenty minutes.
While this system provides rural Rwanda with energy, it creates employment as well. So-called village level entrepreneurs (VLE) operate the powercycles and ask 100 Rwandan francs (11 eurocents) for each light they charge. A small percentage flows back to Nuru Energy to cover costs.
School fees and books for his children
“With the money I earn, I pay school fees and books for my children”, village level entrepreneur Sylvestre Nkunzimana tells me while pushing the pedals of his blue powercycle. The 35-year-old Rwandan, who is also a farmer, sold 138 lights and earns around 2000 francs (€ 2,17) per day by charging them.
Nuru Energy now facilitates approximately 850 of these VLE’s in Rwanda and more than 50,000 lights have been sold. According to the social enterprise these led lights last for one week and are much cheaper than the commonly used and extremely polluting kerosene lamps.
Communities buying the powercycle collectively
“Before I spent 700 francs (75 eurocents) on kerosene on a weekly basis while this Nuru light costs me only 100 francs (11 eurocents) per week”, the 47 -year-old Immaculée Uzamushaka tells me in her small hut made of mud. “I use the light when milking my goat in the evening and my daughter uses it while doing her homework.”
Currently all power cycles remain property of Nuru Energy and in case of theft the VLE needs to refund the total value of 130,000 Rwandan francs (€ 141). As this isn’t affordable for VLE’s, Nuru soon will start with a new system whereby a community collectively buys the power cycle from Nuru, country manager Kalisa Benon of Nuru Rwanda explains to me. “This lowers the risks for the VLE and us and the community is going to feel more responsible for the powercycle.”
Setting up an investment fund
Nuru is also active in Kenya, where it sold 20,000 lights and has 250 VLE’s and in Uganda with 2,000 lights and 60 VLE’s. Soon the organization will also launch powercycles that will be able to charge a connected mobile phone. “This will drastically improve the recharge business of the VLE’s”, Hajee predicts.
Additionally Nuru is setting up an investment fund whereby investors can set-up ten or more VLE’s, can track these VLE’s businesses online and receive a percentage of the recharge revenue annually. Hajee: “This is a way to catalyse new capital for rural energy access while at the same time generating a return for the commercially minded investor.”