A Game Changer for Development: Sustainable Energy in Kigeme Refugee Camp, Rwanda

It is 9 pm and, venturing into where I call home, a sense of anticipation fills the air. This is a place that has long been shrouded by deep darkness. The struggle for lighting was a daily battle. Burning sticks, mobile torches, kerosene lamps, candles, and solar lanterns were common lighting sources for residents. Thankfully a beacon of lighting arrived, bringing with it a wave of change and hope. This is a story of Kigeme refugee camp.

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Kigeme, established in 2012, is home to 14,752 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Young people under 18 years old account for 53% of the overall population. Looking back to my young adulthood, I recall the countless challenges I faced during long and treacherous journeys in search of firewood, our primary source of cooking fuel and warmth. Walking miles and miles in unfamiliar terrain, we braved dangerous paths which exposed us to wilderness and the risks of encountering wild animals (particularly feral dogs), accidents, and of becoming victims of gender-based violence for young girls and women. This journey was troubled, full of fear and uncertainty, and harmed our physical and emotional wellbeing.

To light our homes after dark we resorted to makeshift lighting solutions. Burning sticks, mobile torches, kerosene lamps, and candles were the common lighting allies, though they were inadequate, costly, and every so often dangerous. The absence of sufficient electricity in Kigeme camp made even the simplest tasks a daunting challenge. Telephones, which are considered a lifeline to connect us to our loved ones, parents, and friends, left us desperate because of our difficulties in keeping them charged. With no charging point nearby, I recall the arduous journey we used to take by walking miles and miles to charge our phones. This difficult journey was dangerous, walking at night on unsafe paths.

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Seeing the benefits of sustainable energy

In a transformative turn of events, many residents of Kigeme camp gained access to many forms of energy through the Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) Project, implemented by Practical Action and funded by IKEA Foundation. The project involved supporting the uptake of clean and reliable electricity and cooking solutions, and promoted productive uses of energy by supporting local businesses. The RE4R Project also included the installation of street lighting, improving the public perception of safety and enhancing the quality of life of community members. As part of the project business centres were constructed, creating a conducive environment for business activities, and advancing economic growth in the camp.

The work of the RE4R Project offered to some residents an end to the arduous journeys, violence, and other things they had faced in trying to access energy. The energy products have transformed Kigeme camp and its surrounding landscape in profound ways, from improved safety and security to health and promotion of businesses and job creation. Lighting in homes has become a reality for many households, casting away the darkness and making it easier for students to study. Businesses are flourishing and new businesses have been created as people use energy for income-generating activities. Electricity connections have opened new avenues of economic growth and self-reliance, and entrepreneurs which used to close at 6-7 pm have extended their opening hours to 9-10 pm.

Public lighting shines like a beacon of hope across the camp. The streets, which had previously not been lit, now shine with brilliant lights, improving safety, security, and ease movement across the camp. Social interactions have bloomed during the evenings and the public lighting has united inhabitants. Going to the market – previously considered a chore – now is a pleasant task, with bright lights welcoming everyone visiting the market area at whatever time they want. For health emergencies or even routine medical visits during the night, Kigeme residents no longer hesitate to seek medical assistance as they can get to the clinic safely thanks to the streetlights.

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However, despite the progress made to promote energy access in displacement settings, assessments by the RE4R Project indicate that many households remain without adequate access to electricity, with 58% in Kigeme and Nyabiheke camps either having no lighting at night or using other sources like candles, phone torches or burning sticks. Meanwhile, 21% rely on solar lanterns and the remaining 16% have access to a SHS.

Private sector companies such as Urumuri and Ecogreen Solutions have introduced clean cooking solutions in Kigeme and Nyabiheke camps under RE4R Project. These suppliers sold cookstoves which use wood pellets as a cleaner cooking method. Almost 7,000 cookstoves and more than 1,000 tonnes of biomass pellets were purchased under the project, with 81% of customers feeling safer when using improved stoves and reporting a 23% decrease in monthly spend on traditional fuels. Despite significant progress in promoting clean cooking solutions, a substantial gap remains: a massive number of households continue using wood as their primary source of cooking in all the camps in Rwanda.

Reflections on sustainable energy in refugee camps

Overall, my research experience in Kigeme camp has shown me that energy access to displacement is a game-changer for development. Reflecting on my own experiences in my young adulthood in Kigeme, the benefits of energy access in the camp has had a transformative impact from improving economic activities to enhancing education outcomes and community safety.

Access to reliable and safe energy is a fundamental requirement for sustainable development. I feel inspired by the great effort made and the potential impact that energy access will bring to displacement settings in the future. Hopefully, more displaced communities will gain access to energy and experience the same benefits that I witnessed.

The article is written by Steven Nshizirungu, Research Associate at UNITAR/GPA. To learn more about the READS Programme, reach out to Megan Taeuber.

Last updated: 19/12/2023

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