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Business mentoring bringing solar to more off-grid customers in Rwanda

GVEP is supporting entrepreneurs in Rwanda to effectively utilise solar energy to provide off-grid areas with healthy, reliable and affordable power through a mentorship programme.

27-year-old Mbacyenge Jean Bosco dropped out of high school in 2003 to let his younger sister acquire an education, as his parents could not afford the school fees for the two of them. Life became difficult for him, as he engaged in casual jobs to make ends meet.

A year later, determined to set up a business of his own, he purchased a car battery and started a phone charging and hair cutting activity at the Gasharu business centre in Gisagara district, in Southern Rwanda. However, travelling for 5 km every few days to recharge the battery in the nearest town centre was a major operational cost that his business could hardly sustain. 

Burning with ambition, the enterprising Jean Bosco acquired a 60 Watts solar panel in 2006 for $160 (120,000 RWF), which he used to power his hair cutting and phone charging salon in the sleepy village of Nyabisagara.

Noticing that most of the area’s residents depended on kerosene lamps and candles for lighting, Jean Bosco saw an opportunities to start supplying solar power to the neighbouring households. 

“I was well aware of health and safety hazards of using kerosene lamps and candles on a daily basis. Additionally, because I dropped out of school, I’m keen to see that children are able to study with proper illumination and to perform better in their studies”, he says.

For Jean Bosco, however, technical knowledge was a challenge. He was unsure about the capability of his solar system. Its improper installation and the lack of a regulator saw him lose a considerable amount of power. Financial management, marketing and customer care were also major challenges for the new entrepreneur.

GVEP spotted his potential and enthusiasm and enrolled him in the Capital Access for Renewable Energy Enterprises (CARE2) programme in 2014 to help him meet the community’s growing energy demand. GVEP’s team assisted Jean Bosco in expanding the size of his system. From the business’ savings, he bought two 100 Watts solar panels, enough to power both his business and 8 households.

On average, Jean Bosco makes between $100-107 (75,000 and 80,000 RWF) from the phone charging and hair cutting businesses. “On a daily basis I charge between 25 and 30 phones and shave between 15 and 20 people. In addition I supplement my income by supplying any excess power to the neighbourhood”, he says.

Some of the neighbouring households have also set up shops and businesses that are solar- powered. The rural centre is now abuzz with activity with some businesses remaining open late into the night.

GVEP has also supported Jean Bosco in conducting market development activities, through which he has been able to expand his clientele in the area.

“We have been steadfast in supporting innovative entrepreneurs in the energy sector in Rwanda in order to enable those in off-grid areas to access energy. We recognise that services such as phone charging among the rural population are essential, as  most locals walk long distances in order to charge their phones”, says GVEP Rwanda Country Manager Herbert Nyaga.

The expansion of his solar business has transformed Jean Bosco’s life, as he has been able to purchase a piece of land where he grows bananas for commercial purposes. He has also bought the business premises that he previously rented. He now plans to purchase a maize and cassava milling machine that will serve local residents.

“We are glad that the availability of renewable energy technologies in off-grid areas has already motivated many entrepreneurs to develop solar charging or other solar-powered businesses, as a way of generating additional income. We offer mentorship to these entrepreneurs to ensure they provide the best services, while at the same time reaping optimum benefits from their energy enterprises”, says Herbert.