I hold onto the over-head handles as the driver accelerates the white pick-up truck, which starts to climb the steep hill. It is the start of the wet season and I can sense the car sliding sideways a few feet in the red mud before finding traction on the rocks that separate us and the green valley below. Red and brown tin-roofed brick houses dot the landscape.
I am outside the city of Gitega in Burundi, a small, land-locked country that is working its way back after decades of civil conflict. My colleagues and I are on a mission to get a better understanding of the energy needs in the region. Less than 3% of the population in Burundi uses electricity for lighting and this figure is even lower in rural areas.
Instead of electricity, the rural population relies on scarce firewood, which adds to already extensive deforestation, or expensive kerosene lamps, which cause indoor pollution. This pollution kills 10,200 Burundians every year – 93% of them children under five, according to WHO statistics. Kerosene lamps are also a major contributor to climate change affecting the world globally and especially developing countries. Kirk Smith of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC said, “replacing kerosene lamps is low-hanging fruit, and we don’t have many examples of that in the climate world”.
In this context limited access to safe, affordable energy becomes a public health issue. In addition to the health issues that arise at household level, low access to electricity impacts health centers in many ways: women give birth in the dark, endangering the health of mothers and children, the ability to store vaccines at constant temperatures is limited, and the ability to use lab equipment is compromised.
In the local health center in Maramya, 30 km outside Gitega, there is a long line of people waiting to see the nurse. Most of them are women with their children in their arms. Some will be here long after the sun has turned red and disappeared behind the hills in the west. Thousands of children die every year from preventable and treatable diseases. With well-equipped, well-powered health centers, children can be saved.
Burundi’s extreme energy poverty can in part be explained by the long conflict that ravaged Burundi, which put a halt to all investments in Burundi’s great hydropower potential and destroyed much of existing infrastructure. More than just a question of generalized energy poverty, there is also a question of energy inequity: there is a big divide between the urban and rural areas here. Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi, consumes 95% of all electricity generated, leaving the rural population to rely on solid fuels. 45% of the population in Bujumbura enjoys electric lighting, compared to 1.4% just outside the city limits. As new grid connections are primarily made in urban areas, rural grid-access might be as far as 30-40 years in the future.
Efforts to address the main challenges affecting children in Burundi – including malnutrition, common childhood illnesses, and limited learning opportunities – could all be accelerated if energy was available. In this sense, UNICEF has a unique ability to act as a convener between different actors in the field of energy, and encourage private sector investors, creating an enabling environment through policy change and awareness campaigns, paving the way for Burundi to fully utilize its energy resources.
The wide-ranging impact of energy poverty on Burundi’s development drove our team to develop a Decentralized Rural Electrification Strategy, which aims to promote the use of off-grid renewable energy from household to policy level. Access to electricity will enable hospitals and health centers to not only light up their buildings, but also to use essential equipment such as microscopes and electrical ovens for sterilization and disinfection.
Provision of electricity to schools will help improve the learning environment for pupils, and provision of safe, affordable energy solutions at household level will increase safety and security in households, as well as additional studying time for children. Our experience in piloting micro-energy projects has shown just how much small-scale energy solutions can change lives of children and women.
It is dark when we come back to Bujumbura. The banana plantations and the green hills are replaced by gas stations, the stalls of street-vendors and governmental buildings. I find myself counting the number of light bulbs and thinking about the darkness surrounding the health centers on the hilltops in Gitega. Seeing thousands of people walk the streets, the commerce and noise of a bustling city, clearly illustrates how access to clean and affordable energy is crucial for the development of Burundi. The rural population and its children should not wait for 25 years to have access to electricity.
Since its creation in 2012, the UNICEF Burundi Innovations Lab has made energy a key focus of its portfolio. In a country where only 3% of the population has access to the national electricity grid, the need to provide safe, clean and low-cost energy solutions is urgent.
To address such widespread energy poverty, UNICEF Burundi is pursuing several innovative energy projects, including Project Lumière – a micro-enterprise model that provides off-grid energy to rural households through pedal-powered generators and rechargeable LED lights; Digital Drums – solar-powered computer kiosks that provide much-needed additional learning opportunities in rural areas; and solar fridges – which ensure life-saving vaccines can be kept at constant temperatures at rural health centers.
Having started with household-level projects, UNICEF Burundi is now developing a Decentralized Rural Electrification Strategy which aims to bring modern energy technologies more broadly to children and families in rural areas, while transferring new skills and approaches to institutional, commercial, and community level structures.
Carl Berndtsson is an engineer specialized in Sustainable Technology and is currently working at the UNICEF Burundi Innovation Lab.