It takes a little over two hours to drive from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to Nyagatare in the north-east near the border with Uganda. The roads are good, and there are stunning views of Lake Muhazi on the way. The rolling hills of this region are densely populated and intensively farmed.
For much of the journey the national electricity grid follows the highway, disappearing at times and then reappearing. The small towns we pass through, Rwamagana, Kayonza, Gabiro, are all electrified but there are wide stretches of countryside all around with no sign of power cables.
Around Nyagatare the soil is rich. We turn off the tarmac road onto red earth roads, past houses fronted by colourful flower-borders, fields intercropped with potatoes, beans, maize and cassava. There are dense thickets of banana, bunches of ripening fruit propped up with poles. We cross a river where men are making repairs to the wooden bridge.
‘Every household here has a phone,’ says Francis our translator and guide. ‘They have money but no electricity.’ In a small settlement of a dozen buildings my colleague spots a house with an energy-saving (CFL) bulb hanging above the door. We stop and get out of the car. Children crowd around us, a few adults appear. The owners of the house are in the fields but a neighbour says they have a car battery which they take to the nearest grid-connected town for recharging. The family uses the battery for light and also charges a few phones, for which they levy a fee. This is the only house in the village with a battery we are told.
We drive on a few kilometres to another settlement, larger this time, with perhaps 50 buildings lining a long dirt street. We shelter from a heavy shower in a house which has a light socket outside but no bulb. Inside there is wiring, a light switch, a CFL bulb suspended in the middle of the room, but no electricity. The wiring and light sockets are all they have been able to afford so far. They are saving for a battery which will cost them around $80. They plan to provide a charging service for mobile phones.
No one else in the village has a battery. There are a couple of small stores selling paraffin, candles and torch batteries. People here spend around $2.00 a week on these products for lighting. There are houses selling airtime for Airtel, Tigo and MTN. But charging a phone involves a journey of 7 km on a dirt road. The charge is RWF100, around 17 cents. People typically charge their phones twice a week.
Further along the road we come to a village where we spot a house with a TV aerial, the only one we have seen. The owner has a solar panel on the roof, a battery which he charges from the panel, an inverter for ac current, and various appliances. He has enough power to operate the TV for about two hours a day, leaving enough for lighting and phone charging. He charges his neighbours’ phones for a fee, but these are ‘top ups’. He doesn’t have enough power for a full charge.
Across the street a young man is offering a phone charging service. He also has a solar panel, battery and inverter. He bought the equipment from a previous owner who provided a service here. The panel gives enough power to fully charge seven phones a day and partially charge another three. There are six phones charging behind the counter, another four waiting.
In all the villages we visited people were interested the idea of solar products, and in equipment designed to support small phone-charging businesses. This part of Rwanda is more affluent than the mountainous north and west. Farmers and local businesses here say they would buy products. But affordability and availability are challenges.
Outside a barber’s shop in Nyagatare there are people offering a phone-charging service using power from the grid. Each vendor has a small wooden stand with a lockable cupboard underneath. On top are rows of plug sockets and various types of chargers. The customers’ phones are connected to the relevant charger, then placed securely in the locked area below. We ask if we can buy solar panels in town but the young woman in the booth doesn’t know.
Torches can be bought in a shop just up the street. The store offers a range of products including rechargeable lights which plug into a mains socket. Some include radios and have dry cell batteries as a back-up. They are all Chinese made. A silver-coloured rechargeable torch radio sells for around $7. I buy a light fitting and CFL bulb with a cable and clips for attaching it to a battery. This costs just over $3.
The shop owner tells us he thinks there is someone on the other side of the bus station who stocks solar. We find a man selling batteries and car accessories out of an old shipping container. He doesn’t have solar panels. He used to but says there is no demand. He thinks across town there is a shop which sells them but he’s not sure.
We head in the direction he has indicated, make more enquiries. Finally we track down a woman with a boutique full of leather bags, jewellery, and decorating paint. She is an agent for Barefoot Power. There are no products in stock but she does have a drawer full of brochures. She says she sells five Firefly lanterns and five of the 5W PowaPack systems a month.
Back in Kigali we meet with MTN who have been promoting Fenix International’s Readyset. We also talk to someone from Fenix. Sales have been very slow. Price seems to be the main issue and Fenix are trying to develop a partnership with a micro-finance bank as a result. Another challenge is that customers seem to use the product for home lighting and don’t generate much revenue from charging phones.
GVEP has funding from the Swedish government to support the development of off-grid phone charging service providers in Rwanda. Our programme will kick off in a few months’ time. We are also working with the government on a programme which will provide support to distributors of low cost lighting solutions to help increase availability in towns like Nyagatare.