‘We feel safer’: how green energy is brightening refugee lives in Rwanda


“The camp has come from the dark into the light,” says Edson Sebutozi Munyakarambi, a refugee living in the Kigeme camp in southern Rwanda.

“Before the solar-powered street lamps, the camp was dark. Some people would come and steal things from the houses,” says Munyakarambi, who chairs the committee that represents the 16,000 people in the camp. “But now no one can rob people on the street corners and the children can study or play outside while they wait for their dinner.”

The lamps, along with home solar systems and cleaner cooking stoves have been delivered by the Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) project to three camps in Rwanda that house more than 42,000 people. The refugees say the result has been miraculous, making the camps safer and boosting children’s studies and small businesses. In particular, women and children who had to collect firewood outside the camp no longer face the danger of rape and beatings.

“Providing sustainable energy to people who have lost almost everything is just so critical,” says Andrew Harper, the special adviser on climate action to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, which runs the camps. “It reduces vulnerability but also brings people back up from a position of disempowerment and dependency to one where they’re starting to contribute back to the community. But it’s an area that is under-prioritised and underfunded in almost every operation.”

Streetlights in Kigeme refugee camp. Photograph: Practical Action

Uwimana Nyirakabukari, a single mother with five children, lives in the Nyabiheke camp and now has a solar home system: a solar panel on the roof powering lights inside and a battery for charging a mobile phone. “Before this I used candles, or if I could not afford a candle, a burning stick,” she says. “But once, when I went off to the toilets in the night I came back and the mattress had caught fire. My children were about to die.”

Fortunately, the fire was extinguished. But the solar lamps have not just reduced the fire risk for Nyirakabukari. “ I can study too,” she says. “I am learning to read and write, and to speak English.” She earns a living by making carrier bags to sell at markets, and having light at home now means she can work in the evening while her older children cook. “The project really helped me escape from poverty,” she adds.

Like nearly all the refugees in the three camps, Nyirakabukari fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has large, round scars on her legs where she was shot. The injuries have left her with a physical disability and the street lamps now help her safely navigate the rough paths in the hilly camps.

For Esperance Mukabera, another Nyabiheke resident, the radio that is part of the solar home system is key. “Now, I do not feel alone,” says the 75-year-old widow, adding that her grandchildren visit to listen to their favourite shows. “Before [the solar power] it was very hard, the camp was a very dark place. Now we can go to the toilets easily, we feel safer and can move around the camp without any problems,” says Mukabera.

Refugee camps are not usually associated with having fun. But it is important for wellbeing, especially for the children who account for half of the refugees at the camps. The solar street lamps have given new life to the Nyabiheke camp’s only basketball court.

“The children love it more than you can express,” says Hertier Mugisha, a sports coach who came to the camp as a seven-year-old in 2007. “Before the streetlights we had many people who wanted to come, but the day was not long enough. Now it is open for the time we want.” Sport is also a form of child and youth protection, he says, diverting them from alcohol and other risks.

As well as the solar systems, the refugees have been given access to cleaner cooking stoves. These burn pellets made from sawdust and waste wood and remove the dangers of collecting firewood, as well as producing much less smoke.

The favourite food of Adeline Umuhoza’s two boys, aged four and eight, is spaghetti and she says the new stove has made a big change to her life in Kigeme. “Our children went to collect firewood outside the camp, but they were scared as local people could beat them,” she says. Smoke and heat from the open fires also filled her home: “You didn’t have any appetite to eat the food you had cooked.”

Umuhoza and other refugees not classed as vulnerable pay for their solar systems and cooking stoves in instalments to local companies. “We believe it’s the most sustainable way,” says Denyse Umubyeyi, country manager for Practical Action, the NGO implementing the RE4R project.

“It is good for the refugees because when they buy, they feel a kind of ownership, and self-reliance and dignity,” she says. “One refugee told me: ‘What is done for me without me is done against me.’” It also means many more refugees can get the systems than if they were provided for free.

Seventy refugees are now employed selling and installing the solar systems. These include Safari Habaruema at the Kigeme camp. Habaruema’s sales pitch is now highly polished: “Having a solar home system really changes a life. I would say get one, and why not a Belecom system?”

The RE4R project has delivered 183 streetlights, 4,000 solar home systems and 5,600 stoves across the camps so far, with some also being installed in nearby villages.

Involving the host communities is important, says Jost Uwase, of the Rwanda-based EcoGreen Solutions, which has sold more cleaner stoves to local residents than to refugees: “The host community could have said those [refugees] are benefiting while we are starving. But now it’s like they are sharing.”

Uwase emphasises the security benefits of the stoves: “There were cases of women being violated when they went outside the camps just collecting firewood in the neighbouring forest, so [the stoves] were an opportunity to keep them safe.”

One concern about installing solar devices has been that it may make the camps more permanent. “Some organisations have been reluctant to do such infrastructure,” says Umubyeyi. “But some of these refugees have been here for 20 years. Imagine denying a human being such basic rights for all those years. Their lives have not been put on hold. Their lives go on, they have to grow, to learn, to work.”

A solar home system is installed in a refugee’s house in Kigeme camp. Photograph: Practical Action

Habaruema says some people who tried to return to DRC have been killed in the continuing violence.

A small number of camps around the world have installed renewable energy systems, including ones established in Jordan for Syrian refugees and in Kenya for Ethiopian refugees. But there are more than 26 million refugees worldwide and, of those living in camps, 90% do not have electricity and 80% rely on firewood for cooking.

“Energy is often collecting firewood and that is causing a disaster globally,” says Harper. “If you cannot protect the environment, you cannot protect the community.” Attacks on women are increasing, he says. “As the areas around refugee settlements get more denuded from firewood, they’ve got to go further and further afield.”

The climate crisis is also worsening the situation, Harper says. “Often what we’re seeing now is that when people have been forced from their homes due to a combination of conflict, as well as climate change, the potential for people to return becomes really limited [as rising temperatures make traditional farming unviable]. This is why it makes even more sense for us to be investing in longer-term displacement settlements.”

Harper believes all refugee camps should have a plan for renewable energy for lighting and cooking, but funding remains a problem. “We have to drive forward the good work that is being done, and move away from pilot projects and implement these activities at the scale of the challenges. But there is a difference between what people deserve and what they get,” he says.

That view is shared by Annemieke de Jong of the Ikea Foundation, which funded the €10m (£8.4m) RE4R project. “The challenge lies in scale. Humanitarian aid will always depend on external funding coming in. But what’s exciting is we see opportunities if you approach it as a market and think about what that community needs to grow, to go beyond just that aid economy and have a healthy economy,” she says.

The skills that refugees learn through the renewable energy projects can also be taken back with them when they finally return to their country and start rebuilding their communities, De Jong adds.

Back in Kigeme, Munyakarambi says the RE4R project has brought a huge positive change, with the only problem being that half of the camp’s residents do not have solar home systems yet.

“But we cannot forget we are refugees,” he says. “My wish is to go back to my country. We have a saying: ‘If you visit someone, you have to go back before they get tired of you’. But we have to be sure there is security in Congo.”