A meeting of the Nawe Nuze community group
A meeting of the Nawe Nuze community group

“I spent over 70-hours traveling for a two-day visit, and it was worth every minute,” I told my colleagues when I returned from Burundi. My February visit to UNICEF Burundi left me inspired, encouraged and eager to make a difference with the help of the engineering students whom I teach at Villanova University.

My trip to Burundi resulted from a conversation I had with Christopher Fabian, Senior Advisor on Innovation to the Executive Director at UNICEF and Co-Lead of the UNICEF Innovation Unit. I met Chris at the 2014 International Humanitarian Technology Conference and he told me of the impressive work being done in UNICEF Burundi’s Innovation Lab. He also explained how progress on all development fronts is limited by a lack of electricity and a means of generating renewable energy. Solar energy is believed to be the answer to rural electrification, but external expertise and partners are needed to make that happen. As providence would have it, renewable energy is a topic on which I am well versed, and that is how I came to meet Innovation Lab director Mima Stojanovic.

My first day in Burundi was spent speaking with community members, including the Nawe Nuze group in Kanyosha – a district on the outskirts of the capital of Bujumbura – and their organizer Maria, a widow who has established six of these collectives. I was impressed with these Village Savings and Loans Associations that are established throughout the country to support their members and vulnerable children in the community. In a display of entrepreneurial spirit, the group purchased a well-designed and rugged $275 pedal-powered charging unit on which five lights can be charged with 20 minutes of pedaling. The group sells and recharges the lights to generate income while providing households with clean energy. One of the women I met demonstrated using the light as a head lamp by which she cooks. Prior to having the light, she often had difficulty seeing the food she was eating. This was a stark reminder of what most in the developed world take for granted.

Selling and recharging pedal-powered lights provides clean energy and income for this community
Selling and recharging pedal-powered lights provides clean energy and income for this community

My students and I will be working with the UNICEF Burundi team to find even better, cheaper, and sustainable technologies for providing clean energy sources to communities and accompanying business models that can generate income.

Cooking with light.
Cooking with light.

My visits on day one also took me to the local public school and a day center run by an NGO, where I spoke with teachers and students. As one student told me, “It’s hard to see the blackboard when it starts getting dark in the afternoon.” The day center is one of the first places in the country where UNICEF installed the Digital Drum – a computer kiosk powered by solar energy – yet there is no electricity for lights. I finished my day at the Innovation Lab where its remarkable volunteers, interns, and fellows introduced me to their work. With their advanced degrees and professional experience, many of them could make quite a nice living abroad, but instead choose to make a difference in a place where only 3 percent of the people have access to electricity. I am in awe of their level of commitment.

The Digital Drum consists of three computer screens mounted to the wall in the day center.
The Digital Drum consists of three computer screens mounted to the wall in the day center.

I spent day two at UNICEF Burundi, speaking with various colleagues working in Education, Social Policy, Child Protection, and Health and Nutrition sections. Access to energy is a pervasive need identified by each of them in their programs. The office is starting various initiatives that use cell phones to collect information from communities and engage in dialogue with them, but due to limited access to electricity, there are few options to charge these units.

Since returning from Burundi, I have spent much time considering the ways in which my students and I can make a difference. One of the first things I did was to gather a group of students, who, under my guidance, wrote a project proposal titled “Open Source Cell Phone & Light Chargers for Burundi.” I am delighted to report that the project was approved for funding just a week ago! By spring 2016, I am planning to offer an engineering course in which students will learn about Burundi’s culture, challenges, technological needs and development partners’ long-range goals for the country. I hope to also provide a Villanova intern for the Innovation Lab.

In addition, we have begun the process of establishing a cooperation agreement between Villanova University and UNICEF Burundi, one of the most inspiring international service organizations I have had the pleasure to work with. I am so impressed by the many talented individuals I met from around the world who have committed themselves to the challenging needs of this country. We at Villanova will be honored to join them in their efforts.

by Pritpal (“Pali”) Singh, PhD
Professor and Chairman
Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Villanova University

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