User’s Voices: What do the youth have to say about energy? A short account from Bigogwe, Rwanda.

User’s Voices: What do the youth have to say about energy? A short account from Bigogwe, Rwanda.

By Iwona Bisaga, University College London.

4pm on a late July afternoon, Bigogwe, half an hour drive from Musanze in Rwanda’s Northern Province. We approach the village community centre in a car and look for a group of users of off-grid Solar Home Systems who were supposed to come to attend a focus group with us. Nobody seems to be there, we step out and a BBOXX Sales Agent, in charge of organising the focus group, comes to greet us. Surprised, we are directed towards the community football pitch where kids are playing. As we get nearer, we see some commotion on top of a hill right behind the pitch- our participants are there, making themselves comfortable, sitting down in a row, 12 of them, including 5 women- a very welcome presence considering it’s usually men who attend these sorts of meetings. It’s a beautiful spot, with rolling terraced hills in the background. The scenery looks almost surreal. We shake hands with everyone, ‘Mirimwe, amakuru?’ and a cheerful ‘Ni meza!’[1] in response. We sit down and set out to start the discussion. It takes a while to explain to everyone why we’re there and what the purpose of the meeting is, but eventually we’re done with the formalities and proceed to the discussion on the experience of using their solar systems. While all of this is happening, there is an ever growing crowd of curious children and youth swarming close to us, unable to keep it quiet being so many. After about 10 minutes, I stand up, leaving my assistants to continue leading the discussion, and point at the ball (a very clever, DIY version of a football) which one of the kids is holding. I ran down the slope of the hill and onto the pitch, giving signs to the crowd following me to kick the ball. They laugh but go along with what I’m trying to do, and it proves to be a great icebreaker. The ball is passed around, screams intensify and nearly all the kids who were sat next to the focus group participants some 30 seconds ago are now on the pitch trying to take part in the improvised game.


After a few minutes, I stop in the middle of the field and start talking to the kids, some of them speak a little bit of English (my Kinyarwanda is nowhere near advanced enough to have a conversation yet!). ‘What’s your favourite football team?’ they ask. I don’t have one, not a huge football fan, I openly admit it. They look at me in disbelief: you live in London and don’t support Arsenal?! Most of them do, apart from one boy who likes Chelsea. But the best team, I’m told, is Real Madrid. I smile. Then start asking them questions in return. Where do they go to school? Do they live nearby? Do they have access to electricity? If so, is it grid or off-grid? Few of them take more interest in the exchange and I anxiously await answers.

It turns out some of them have electricity in their houses but many don’t. I learn that houses close to the main road and the village centre generally have connections but that the grid hasn’t reached the more remote places and houses. Not a surprise, one can even see how far the grid extends to. What about off-grid electricity from solar systems? Do they have them? Only a couple say they do, perhaps because they’re the ones who understood the question, or perhaps because still only very few actually have such systems in their homes. One boy in particular becomes more involved and starts sharing his thoughts. He tells me he knows about BBOXX, solar systems, and that they are very good for families because they bring energy to where people wouldn’t have it otherwise. They are great because all they need is the sun to be out, and they’re safe- ‘you cannot get electrocuted’, he says. I listen attentively, it’s fascinating to hear the voices of the kids, the youth. ‘Do you know how solar energy works?’ I ask. ‘We know a little. We know there is a panel and a battery, and you plug in appliances which use the energy of the sun’, he retorts. ‘But they are still too expensive for many families who have no energy and little money’, he adds. I’m amazed, even this much is a lot coming from these 13-15-year olds. He proceeds and says that they don’t really understand how the systems work, even though they know they’re good. Is the subject covered at school? It doesn’t appear so, they don’t teach them about solar energy at school, the boy informs me. Then he moves on to enquiring about where one can buy such a system, how much it is, what it can power and what one needs to do if it breaks down. His curiosity is incredible, and the others listen in, mesmerised. I answer it all and give him all the information he might need. Is he going to go back home and tell his parents about it? About Solar Home Systems? Maybe, but even if not, he has learnt something new, some more about the options available to those living off the grid.


I thank them all, ask them to continue playing and letting the focus group finish, and climb back up the hill. My head full of thoughts, I can’t stop thinking about what the kids just shared with me. What instantly comes to mind is yet another question: how much do we engage with children when we talk about energy poverty and future plans for energy access expansion? What are the efforts in raising awareness among children and youth for them to learn about options that could be, and sometimes already are, available to them if there is no electricity in their households? And once we install solar systems in their family homes- do we provide training to all household members, including women and children who are often the ones using the systems the most given they tend to spend more time at home than the men?

Considering children’s curiosity and their ability to absorb information and learn, it would make so much sense to sensitise them on this subject.

SolarAid and their social enterprise SunnyMoney is one that educates people about the benefits of solar lights and does so partly via school campaigns- a perfect way to raise children’s awareness early in their lives. What children know and learn is undeniably important and should not be ignored. Without exception, there were at least a few kids around wherever we went to conduct focus groups. They listen, whether out of choice or simply as a side effect of being curious about what the meeting is and why ‘muzungus’[2] have come to talk to their parents. I have met a pupil in a school in Mexico once who, after seeing a rainwater harvesting system being installed at his school, went back home and told his parents about it. They were unable to afford it, however. So he went on to selling sweets at school and saving up to put down the first instalment for the system, and he managed- some months later there was rainwater harvested at his house. I also met another one whose family had a biodigester installed in the field and when we came to visit the family to talk about their experience of using biogas, he was the one demonstrating us how to use it, where to put the waste and where the effluent comes out. He knew it just as well as his parents did, and was as aware of its benefits as any of us- mainly students and early-career professionals, or perhaps even more.

Could we or do we see the same happening with energy solutions such as pico-solar or Solar Home Systems? Hopefully the fact that kids rarely see anything as impossible, being the future leaders and shapers, they can lead the way to soon achieving what might seem a distant dream right now, i.e. universal access to energy.

[1] Mirimwe, amakuru! – Good afternoon, how are you doing?; Ni meza!- I’m well!

[2] A commonly used word for a white person.

Iwona Bisaga