The UNICEF Innovation Lab brings energy and hope to one of world’s most vulnerable countries. Credit:
The UNICEF Innovation Lab brings energy and hope to one of world’s most vulnerable countries.

In the heart of Burundi, Chelsey Lepage and Alfred Mukasa work tirelessly to find solutions to the country’s energy crisis.

Only three percent of people in Burundi have access to the central electricity grid, which is located in only a few areas. “The entire country is covered in darkness,” Mukasa says.

Lepage and Mukasa realized how dire this situation was a year and a half ago when they arrived in Burundi and joined the UNICEF Innovation Lab team. Lepage specializes in human-focused design and community building and Mukasa’s focus is on the intersection of technology and people. They are both passionate about their work, and about helping the world’s most vulnerable communities.

By introducing safe, affordable LED lights into rural communities, Project Lumiere is dramatically improving the lives of Burundi's most vulnerable children. Photo credit: Lepage/2014
By introducing safe, affordable LED lights into rural communities, Project Lumiere is dramatically improving the lives of Burundi’s most vulnerable children. Photo credit: Lepage/2014

Burundi, Mukasa says, “is one of the world’s poorest countries and receives very little attention – and help – from elsewhere.”

Energy is the team’s focus because it affects “everything from the air the families breathe in their homes to the technologies they can access in health centers. It determines the learning tools that are available in schools and income-generating opportunities for adults,” Lepage says.

“It’s really hard to imagine what light means until you don’t have it,” she adds. To help solve this problem, Lepage says she and Mukasa have had to become “Swiss Army Knives” – gaining the skills needed to tackle the challenges they face on a daily basis – and their work is beginning to make a major impact.

The two innovators, and the rest of the UNICEF Innovation Lab team, are successfully bringing light to the country’s most vulnerable women and children. Through the power of small LED lights charged by bicycles, kids can study at night and families are able to rely less on firewood and kerosene. The pedal-powered generators, owned by community volunteer groups working to protect children in their communities, can recharge five lights every 20 minutes. The small lights, which provide up to 10 days of light, can be hung in the home, worn around the neck or head, and even mounted in a bottle.

“It’s a simple and affordable way to bring light to households throughout the country,” Mukasa says. “We are excited about this project because it addresses the “last mile” distribution challenge and puts quality energy projects in the hands of children and families that need them most,” Lepage explains. “It moves away from the traditional aid model to one that is purely market-based – with community volunteers working as ‘energy entrepreneurs’, providing safe, long-lasting household energy supply to their neighbours, at prices they can afford”.

Project Lumiere began in 14 communities of approximately 400 households each. In September of 2014, the light project will be scaled to 40 more communities, which could potentially impact another 16,000 households. The result of this work, Lepage says, is life-changing for many families in Burundi, and for the Innovation team.

“It is a right for everyone to have light,” Mukasa adds.

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