RWAMAGANA, Rwanda — The field that produces approximately five percent of Rwanda’s energy is so quiet you can hear a bird landing on the grass.
“Yes, you can meditate here,” said Twaha Twagirimana, the plant supervisor of the vast solar field in eastern Rwanda, where 28,360 solar panels are laid out in the shape of the continent of Africa.
Two years ago, Gigawatt Global, an American company based in the Netherlands with an R&D office in Jerusalem, led a conglomerate that built the field, the largest in East Africa. Today, the panels are quietly basking away, tilting four degrees every hour as they follow the path of the sun. The solar field powers 15,000 homes, saving an estimated 12 million labor hours each year that would otherwise have been spent fetching firewood.
But the solar field is not the only forward-thinking initiative in the area. The solar panels sprawl across 700 dunams (170 acres) of land leased from Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, a prestigious and innovative boarding school modeled on Israeli youth villages, especially Yemin Orde in Haifa.
These hilltops in the Rwamagana region of east Rwanda have become a hub for different types of thinking in a country whose culture, despite its difficult history, embraces innovation and change.
“The Village has had its own brand equity, and the solar field essentially puts it on steroids and just adds to the sexiness of the social and energy innovation”
“It’s like the perfect peanut butter cup,” said Yosef Abramowitz, the CEO of Gigawatt Global, referring to the popular chocolate-peanut butter pairing. “The Village has had its own brand equity, and the solar field essentially puts it on steroids and just adds to the sexiness of the social and energy innovation that makes these two projects go together.”
Abramowitz added, from his home in Jerusalem, that the cooperation with ASYV has inspired Gigawatt Global to partner with other non-governmental organizations, including schools and religious groups, for future solar projects in Africa.
How to build a family
“This is a youth village, not an orphanage, not a high school,” explained Jean Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the executive director of Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. “The parenting is done by the community, and it’s done in a structure to give all of the support. These are homes, not dormitories, each home has a momma, a big brother or sister [graduates of ASYV who act as mentors], and we also have cousins, who are long-term volunteers.”
There are 525 students in four grades. All students begin with Enrichment Year, a non-academic year focused on building community and ensuring that all of the students are on a similar academic footing. The school recruits vulnerable teenagers from all 30 districts of Rwanda, and many come with emotional or psychological distresses.
The biggest emphasis is on creating stable “families” for each student, of around 20-24 classmates, that become a student’s home base for their time at the Village.
“Most kids didn’t get a chance to live in a family to have them guide them about what’s right to do, so this is kind of creating a family spirit,” explained Patrick Rwirahira Rugema, a Senior 6 (12th grade) student who was elected minister of foreign affairs in the school government. His duties as minister include serving as the host for visitors.
“You keep your ‘momma’ for all four years, and you stay in the same house,” Rugema added. “We also have ‘family time’ every day, which is when all of the family gets together after dinner to share how their day went and a good thing they faced during the day.”
‘We are raising them through love and compassion and skills and helping them think how to give back to the community’
“We have emulated a model that really works, and the impact is huge,” said Nkulikiyimfura. “We are raising them through love and compassion and skills and helping them think how to give back to the community. Think about it: Five to ten years from now we’ll have 2,000 or 3,000 people doing good in Rwanda.”
About 80% of graduates go on to university, and 50 alumni have received scholarships to study abroad in the United States and Canada. ASYV spends at least $4,000 per year per student, compared to Rwandan public schools, which spend about $800 to $1,000 per student per year.
Harnessing the sun
The Jewish American philanthropist Anne Heyman, who founded the youth village, broke ground on the school in February 2007. ASYV accepted its first class of students in December 2008. Heyman tragically died in a horse riding accident in 2014, just before construction started on the solar field.
Heyman was the one who made the connection between Abramowitz, of Gigawatt Global, and the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Heyman and Abramowitz were both in the same Young Judea movement, and they reconnected because both had volunteered at Kibbutz Ketura, though at different points. Abramowitz eventually moved there with his family, while Heyman met her husband, Seth Merrin, as a volunteer and kept the place close to her heart.
Abramowitz was one of three co-founders of the Arava Power Company, which built the largest solar field in Israel at Ketura. When Abramowitz considered expanding abroad, Heyman invited him and his family to volunteer for two weeks at the Youth Village in order to convince them to place the solar field at the school.
“If it wasn’t for ASYV being already in existence with roots in Israel, the solar field wouldn’t have happened in Rwanda,” said Nkulikiyimfura.
Through Heyman’s vast connections in Rwanda, she knew the government was desperate to increase the country’s energy production, and she helped link Gigawatt Global to the Rwandan Energy Ministry.
Leasing the land from ASYV was practical on a number of levels. It is difficult to obtain large tracts of land in Rwanda, because the vast majority of the land is divided among private owners, explained Twagirimana, the plant supervisor of the solar field. When Heyman bought the land for the Youth Village in 2007, she had to purchase it from 96 different families. The school buildings take up about 20% of the land, and the rest is dedicated farmland. ASYV grows about 80% of its own food, in an additional bid for financial sustainability.
Leasing the land from a single entity meant that Gigawatt Global could get started immediately on the planning and construction, without first negotiating with individual landowners. One of the government’s requirements for the contract was that the solar field would be built and producing energy within six months. “They just wanted the energy and they wanted it now,” Chaim Motzen, the country director of the project for Gigawatt Global, said ahead of the field’s dedication in 2015.
The location was also beneficial, given the area’s proximity to regional power transformers and geography. “It’s located in eastern Rwanda, where there is longer sun per day and less mountains,” explained Twagiramana.
Although many governments across Africa are struggling to increase their countries’ energy production, they often do not turn to solar, because the initial cost is so high. The Gigawatt Global project cost $23.7 million, and it will be profitable starting in 2025.
Today, the solar field can produce about 7.8 megawatts of electricity at peak production, which is about 5% of Rwanda’s total energy budget of a bit less than 200 megawatts. Comparatively, the US uses almost 100,000 megawatts of power over the summer.
“If we haven’t started using coal, let’s not start”
The solar technology still requires additional development before large commercial solar fields will become widespread across Sub-Saharan Africa. Solar fields produce energy during the day, but consumption is needed mostly at night, Twagiramana explained. That means that the electricity must be stored in large battery packs, which are expensive and break easily.
Still, Rwanda was willing to take a chance on solar when many countries are still reliant on dirty energy sources. “Rwanda said, if we haven’t started using coal, let’s not start, let’s use what’s available and clean,” said Twagirimana. Unlike other countries in East Africa where environmentalism is an afterthought, Rwanda is dedicated to green initiatives. The country outlawed plastic bags more than a decade ago, and many streetlights in Kigali and the surrounding area are energy-saving LED bulbs running on solar power.
“There is a need for energy, and Rwanda understands the importance of clean energy,” said Twagirimana. “They said, ‘We’ll eventually use solar, so let’s just start now.’”
The solar field was part of ASYV’s plan to become financially independent. “We want the village to be self-sustaining, really functioning as a village,” explained Nkulikiyimfura. “Anne Heyman also wanted a business to employ ASYV kids, but she wanted something positive. If it doesn’t immediately benefit Rwanda, then she wasn’t interested.”
Nkulikiyimfura was hoping that ASYV students or graduates would be employed cleaning the panels, cutting the grass, or carrying out other general maintenance, but it hasn’t worked out that way: Although the solar field provided 350 jobs during construction and was projected to have 50 ongoing jobs for maintenance, in reality it takes just five full-time employees to keep the solar panels clean and humming.
Twagirimana noted the low cost and manpower needs are one of the major benefits of solar fields. “The initial cost of solar is high, but the running costs are very cheap,” he said. “The maintenance is done on a monthly or yearly basis.”
The solar field pays a predetermined amount to ASYV, which covers all of the students’ medical costs. Abramowitz said the company pays an amount higher than market value for leasing the land, but admitted the solar field is not supporting the Youth Village financially as much as Heyman had hoped. Abramowitz said the Rwandan government demanded a lower price for electricity, cutting into their profit.
The innovative projects in the isolated region of Rwamagana, located 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Kigali, also draw a number of visitors, many from abroad. The Youth Village and the solar field each host about 500 visitors per year. At the Youth Village, many of the visitors come from the US or Israel. About half of the visitors to ASYV also visit the solar field, according to Twagirimana.
The solar field has hosted a number of international and national politicians and investors, including the ministers of energy from Mali and Kenya and the US ambassador to Rwanda. “During the last two years, we have become a pioneer project,” said Twagirimana. “We receive people who want to build their own projects, even abroad. Rwanda sends investors here to showcase [the solar field]. There’s also some tourism, and we’ve received famous people and some VIPs like Bono, Tony Blair, and others. ASYV always has visitors that are interested, and this is really good when they visit because it promotes us. We benefit from them and they go out with new knowledge.”
However, Twagirimana noted that visitors who come expressly for the solar field often do not make the trek down the hill to visit the Youth Village.
News coverage of the solar field has also highlighted Agahozo Shalom’s unique educational approach.
Nkulikiyimfura said the two entities retain cordial relations, even though there is not as much cooperation as he had hoped.
“They are purely business, they’re not giving us any special favors,” he said.
Nkulikiyimfura is looking at new business plans to create income for the school and provide jobs to graduates. ASYV is considering building 300 units of affordable housing outside Kigali that will utilize green energy, in an effort to both employ graduates in every step of the project and create affordable housing for young families in the capital.
It’s village time!
In the meantime, as the solar panels bask in the sun and store up their silent energy, ASYV continues its approach of inspiring each student to unearth their passion.
“We’re taking a holistic approach to education,” said Nkulikiyimfura. “We want them to look at heart and healing. We want them to be a compassionate human being, to find their skill set through academic and extracurricular activities and put it into practice.”
That is never more evident than during the highlight of each week, “Village Time,” a talent show on Friday nights. Each show is different, featuring traditional Rwandan dance, contemporary dance, poetry readings, songs, monologues, a roundup of the week’s news from the journalism club, or a presentation from successful alumni about their chosen fields. While the participants rotate, the excitement surrounding the talent show is the same each week, with all of the students telling visitors, “just wait, you won’t be disappointed.”
As the lights go down at the amphitheater each Friday night, the student body goes into a happy frenzy, jumping out of their seats to cheer on their fellow classmates.
“It is so important for us to encourage those who are not superstars, those who have not already discovered their talents,” said Nkulikiyimfura. Two students whose talents veer toward fine arts rather than performing arts spend Village Time painting a canvas in front of the audience, off to the side, while others perform on the stage below. During a Village Time extravaganza in February, one student painted a woman carrying a milk jug with bold colors and expressive strokes. “I grew up without a mother, and cow’s milk helped me live, so I have a special feeling in my heart for milk,” the shy student explained afterward, to wild applause from the crowd.
Heyman started Agahozo Shalom Youth Village after attending a lecture about the Rwandan genocide in New York in 2005. When she asked about Rwanda’s biggest need, the speaker told her that hundreds of thousands of orphans were growing up with no schooling or family support. Heyman immediately thought of the Israeli youth villages that operated after the Holocaust, and sought to replicate the model in Rwanda.
“Agahozo” is a word in Kinyarwanda, the local language, meaning “tears are dried.”
Today, the students at ASYV were all born after the 1994 genocide. However, the repercussions of the genocide, when 800,000 people were killed during 100 days of ethnic fighting, are still felt by the young generation. Many women were raped and contracted HIV but did not get proper medical care, and died afterward, leaving young children behind. Most of the students at ASYV are orphans, according to the United Nations’ definition of orphan, which means they have lost one or both parents.
Nkulikiyimfura said while the genocide’s legacy is inescapable, ASYV emphasizes teaching students resilience, creativity, independence, and compassion, to positively impact Rwanda’s future. The innovation and new initiatives in education and energy broadcasting from this hilltop are reaching across the country, he believes.
“We try to be creative every day, we are open for ideas, we believe in always recreating ourselves,” said Nkulikiyimfura. “If you educate with positive values, you teach the community positive values.”