By Rhys Marsh
Looking out my window tonight as the dense city lights reflect off of snow-covered roofs, it could not feel further from the hot, humid and almost suffocating darkness of night in rural Burundi. Nearly one year ago, I traveled to Burundi with a dedicated group of professionals from UNICEF’s Next Generation to find solutions to the vexing problem of rural electrification. Today, approximately 97% of Burundians continue to lack access to electricity in their homes, instead relying on expensive, dirty and dangerous kerosene lamps for basic lighting needs.
Created in late 2013, Project Lumiere piggybacks off of existing Nawe Nuze savings groups created by UNICEF to act as a community bank focused on micro-loans to members and protecting vulnerable children. By collaborating with UNICEF Burundi’s Innovation Lab, local NGOs providing oversight for the Nawe Nuze groups and other NextGen members including Pat DeFrancesco, I was able to transform Project Lumiere from a donor-funded model with perhaps a few hundred lights deployed into a locally-funded social enterprise that needs no third-party funding and retains profits locally using capital from Nawe Nuze members. Our hyperlocal approach to rural electrification creates long-term wealth in the local economy and more rapidly achieves critical development goals as communities are empowered to help themselves as opposed to waiting for outside financing.
Our initial goal was to provide safe, clean and affordable LED light to 500,000 Burundians within the first twelve to eighteen months of launching the redesigned Project Lumiere. After overcoming myriad obstacles including unexpected import taxes and manufacturing delays, I’m thrilled to announce that the new Project Lumiere has officially launched with the delivery of 8,000 Nuru LED lights to the Nawe Nuze groups in Burundi capable of illuminating the homes of 40,000 Burundians. Reports from the field are that demand is staggering, with more lights needed to fill demand. We are optimistic that lessons learned to get to this point can help accelerate the distribution of these much-needed lights to meet our initial goal.
Much has changed since we first pioneered this unique approach to off-grid electrification a year ago. Private investors have jumped into the sector, investing over $100 million (up from virtually nothing pre-2014) in companies providing off-grid lights and electric service, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. The moral obligation to provide the 1.3 billion people that conventional electricity can’t reach with access to basic electric service has never been stronger as innovation in off-grid electricity has thrived and costs plummeted, but so too never have the financial incentives been so great. As the question becomes not “will we?” but “how will we?," there is an enormous opportunity to collaborate across traditional silos of academia, non-profits and private investors to improve lives, reach critical development goals and generate a more sustainable global economy. With the right partners, private institutions could benefit from decades of on-the-ground experience and know-how in under-served communities to make their businesses more effective and socially responsible. Public organizations could benefit from the commercial expedience of private institutions to achieve their goals faster and without tapping precious donor resources. It is this spirit of collaboration that makes the work done by NextGen members around the globe so powerful.
The dark night in Burundi is beginning to look brighter.