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Energy equity for vulnerable children in Burundi

By Eliane Luthi

A small rechargeable lamp makes a big difference in rural Burundi, where few families have access to electricity.

BURURI, Burundi, 11 November 2015 – Perched atop of one of Burundi's thousand hills, in a landscape dotted by the occasional coffee bush, lies Muzima, a tiny village with a handful of homes 12 km (7.5 mi) from the nearest town.

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
Ninth-grader Diane (right) and her brother Dieudonne, 17, study by the light of their recharageable lamp, instead of the kerosene lamps they used to use every night.

This is a land of drop-offs and soil erosion, where farmers venture onto steep slopes to plant bananas and other staple crops, and where the scent of eucalyptus perfumes the air. For communities here, days are ruled by sunlight. Access to the electric grid is only for those privileged enough to live near the main road. Those whose homes are tucked away in the remote corners of Bururi province can walk as far as 15 km to charge a mobile phone – a costly, time-consuming exercise.

Energy poverty permeates every aspect of life here: Children study at night by kerosene lamps, mothers give birth in the dark by candlelight, and women fear going out of their homes after nightfall, lest a thief be hiding in the fields.

But for Diane, a ninth-grader in Muzima, a new project has just made studying at night a whole lot easier, and the days of struggling to make out her class notes already seem like a far-gone memory. Since April 2015, Diane and her younger brothers and sisters have a rechargeable, long-lasting LED lamp, part of UNICEF's strategy to introduce safe, affordable and renewable energy sources into the most vulnerable households.

"Before, I used a kerosene lamp to study,” Diane says. “There was a lot of smoke – you can see the smoke stains on the ceiling. The smoke would get in my nose and would lead to coughing. Sometimes the flame would go out, and I would have a hard time finding a new match in the dark to light the lamp again. I have been using that kerosene lamp for my entire life, since I started primary school.”

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
A pedal-powered generator charges up to five lamps in about 20 minutes.

The ruggedly designed LED lamps are powered by pedaling on a bicycle-like machine that can recharge up to five lights in only 20 minutes. The machines and lamps are distributed through local village savings and loans associations, with the help of UNICEF partner FVS Amade. In this way, earnings stay within the community – ultimately ensuring the sustainability of the project.

Since Diane and her brother, Dieudonne, 17, got their new lamp, they now study together in the evenings and mornings with the lamp hanging from the ceiling or wearing it with the attached headband. Diane’s favorite subjects are mathematics and French, and she puts long hours into studying.

"When I got the new lamp, the light was much better,” she remembers. “I no longer had pain in my eyes and felt much better. I study until late, and when I wake up at four in the morning to continue studying, it is easy to find and turn on the lamp again. It is also easy to go out at night and see if there is anything happening outside."

Environmentally friendly energy

The rechargeable lamps are not just beneficial for children like Diane and Dieudonne – they are also good for the environment. In 2013, it was estimated that if the current deforestation rate continued, there would be no forests in Burundi by 2039. Much of the deforestation is a result of heavy reliance on firewood for cooking and even lighting.

"Before, we would use all types of firewood, including from young trees,” remembers Juliette Manirambona, 35, a farmer and a mother of seven children. “It leads to the destruction of trees and that leads to dryness, which impacts our farming.”

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
Farmer Juliette Manirambona, 35, a mother of seven children, holds a new lamp in her hand. She says her family used all kinds of wood to make fires. “It leads to the destruction of trees and that leads to dryness, which impacts our farming.”

In a country heavily reliant on subsistence farming, this type of environmentally friendly practice is increasingly critical for survival and development.

New opportunities

Project Lumiere is a micro-entrepreneurship model that brings an important source of income generation to a country with more than 75 per cent of the population living below the international poverty line.

"With the earnings from the recharge of the lamps, community members are able to expand micro businesses and reinvest money elsewhere," says Pedro Guerra, UNICEF Burundi Child Protection Specialist. "So this project not only delivers safe and affordable energy to isolated, rural communities, but it also provides valuable income-generation opportunities for the most vulnerable – ultimately alleviating poverty."

Marie Goretti Nininahazwe, 42, is a perfect example.

"With the lamp, I am able to produce banana juice at night, not just during the day like I did before. So my production has gone up and I sell more,” she says. “With the additional earnings, now I am able to also buy and resell beans. With the benefits of recharging the lamps, we are able to buy notebooks for the orphans in our community."

And with the new lamps also come new dreams.

“I would like to become a doctor,” Diane says shyly. “A doctor in Bujumbura helped me once when I had an eye problem and had headaches and pain in my neck. That visit was what inspired me to want to become a doctor – so that I can help people too.”



UNICEF Photography: Educating girls

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