Users’ Voices: Insights from BBOXX Solar Home Systems customers in Northern Rwanda

Users’ Voices: Insights from BBOXX Solar Home Systems customers in Northern Rwanda

By Iwona Bisaga, University College London.

As part of my PhD which I am pursuing at the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience at UCL in collaboration with BBOXX, I have spent the last couple of months in Rwanda where I have been conducting a series of focus groups (FGs) and in-household interviews with the users of Solar Home Systems (SHS) across the country’s Northern Province. In this blog, I would like to share some of the most interesting findings from FGs which have proven invaluable in shaping the next steps in data collection, but most importantly in getting a much better understanding of the realities of SHS users: their daily joys and challenges.


A word cloud showing words which most frequently came up in our discussions with the users of SHSs.

Increased research activity in the off-grid solar field and its ever growing presence in the global media in the last few years mean that some of what I talk about here might sound like old news. However, users’ voices always provide interesting insights which can shed new light on small-scale off-grid solar and how it affects rural populations, mostly (but not exclusively) without the option of accessing the grid.

The light, and more

People’s needs and aspirations can vary greatly depending on the context: where and how they live, the family size, the level of wealth etc. However, they seem to vary much less at the basic level among those who find themselves in similar circumstances: without access to services such as water, sanitation or energy. When we spoke to customers about their key reasons for purchasing a SHS, many answers got repeated frequently: lighting up the house, allowing children to study in the evening, watching TV, listening to the radio and improving the safety of the household. Avoiding electricity blackouts, which tend to be the case in remote areas (either due to faulty transmission lines or insufficient generation capacity), was another point brought up by a number of discussants. Instead of connecting to the grid, they prefer to buy a solar system which appears to have a better reputation for reliability than the grid, at least in some places. In others, the option to connect to the grid simply doesn’t exist, certainly not yet and not in the near future. What numerous customers mentioned in addition to the above is that they can now save money as what they pay per month is less than what they used to pay for candles or kerosene, which not only aren’t very cheap but also cause indoor pollution and have several negative health impacts (e.g. respiratory diseases and vision loss). But savings don’t come solely from replacing the source, they also come from saving money on phone charging which costs RWF100 (circa 10p) each time their mobile phone battery runs out, from the time they save by not having to walk to the village or town anymore, and from transport expenses that this used to incur. Of equal importance to the users is the safety of the system- it is seen as safer than candles and kerosene, both of which can cause accidents such as indoor fires or clothes getting burnt, but also safer than the grid as one cannot get electrocuted. One participant even switched from the grid to the SHS because of his concern for children getting electrocuted, on top of the grid supply being intermittent and unreliable.


Nyarubuye, Northern Province. Grid lines generally do not extend far beyond village centres.

Speaking of safety, no flames in the house is just one of its aspects. The other one is having the outdoor light which ensures improved security and stops animals from getting too close. One participant told us that the light in his house, particularly the outdoor one, has helped him save his chickens from an animal which used to come and devour them. His business has grown more steadily since.

Even if not all, a portion of our participants said they are able to do productive activities by using solar energy. Among the most common ones are charging phones, using TVs for businesses (e.g. in bars), as well as extending productive activities later into the evening. An example was a shoemaker who can now repair shoes until much later than he had been able to before, thus increasing his income generating capacity.

We followed up on the question on income-generation by asking what other appliances could create more opportunities for productive uses. The overall need for ‘more’- more USB ports to charge more phones, more battery capacity to support longer hours of use, and more lights, were the prevalent suggestions. The need and want for more is a call that has been heard before, and it doesn’t only refer to enhancing the productive and income-generating capacity of a user. It has to do with users enjoying and appreciating the energy they get from their SHSs, and wanting to expand it to all areas of the household, and to allow and support more diverse activities.

Gakoro, Northern Province. With the participants of our last focus group.

It’s the woman’s house

When organising focus groups, we specifically wanted to have female presence and for a good reason- it turns out that they are the ones using the systems the most because more often than not, they are the ones who spend more time at home than their male counterparts, meaning they can share even more with us on how having a SHS has affected their families’ lives. For them, the ability to cook in the evening with the light on and to do certain chores after dark instead of early in the morning were the two most impactful benefits. Seeing children study in the evening was frequently pointed out as the biggest joy and satisfaction from having solar energy in the house.

The impact on children now that there is light at home in the evening is at least two-fold: they don’t wander off and stay out of the house until late but instead play around, remain closer to the house and are more likely to study. And in a much healthier, smoke-free environment too.

Men, on the other hand, spoke quite enthusiastically about how they can now enjoy watching a football game at home instead of having to go out and pay for it. Unsurprising, considering how popular football is in Rwanda.

Gaudace Nyirahategekimana, a BBOXX customer living beyond the reach of the grid. Photo credit: Power Africa

The daily routine

The routine of using energy from the systems depends on the needs, the performance of the battery and how much it charges during the day. In the morning, around 6am, is usually when people wake up. They like to switch on the light for 10-15 minutes so they can dress up for the start of the day: children prepare themselves to go to school while parents get ready for work.

In the evening, around 6pm, when the sun sets, is when people start to switch on the lights again. On a clear day, batteries get fully charged which usually provides sufficient energy to satisfy most needs. However, on a cloudy day the battery state of charge can be much lower (sometimes as little as half or quarter), offering a more limited time of use. This forces families to prioritise how to best use the available energy in the evening. Parents or elders are the ones who decide, based on the urgent needs for that specific day. Typically, they prioritise lighting the house because other appliances other than the lights can drain the battery faster. For additional savings, in case of low battery charge, only one light gets switched on.

Iwona Bisaga