Future bright for Rwandan coffee co-op after Challenges’ solar power initiative

Rwandan Meshpower Rwanda Challenges Group

In 2017, Challenges began working with eight coffee co-operatives in Rwanda as part of a forward-looking project to generate sustainable growth. With backing from the Scottish Government, this has project also pioneered the adoption of innovative solar technology, drastically improving the prospects of a remote coffee co-op severely hampered by a lack of electricity.

Since 2017, the Challenges team in Rwanda has been working with eight coffee co-operatives to build capacity, generate market links, deliver leadership training and improve sustainability.

But alongside this far-reaching project sits another innovative programme that beautifully demonstrates Challenges’ methodology of innovation, partnership and sustainability, as well as our commitment to clean energy!

Rwanda, and its large agricultural sector, is liable to be hit hard by climate change. It is something that its farmers and politicians alike are all too aware of. And as part of the Scottish Government’s climate justice campaign, capital funds were made available for a pilot programme for the innovative use of an innovative product, championed by Challenges.

Solar PV micro-grids are breaking new ground across much of Africa as individuals and organisations realise the potential for solar energy to connect difficult-to-reach communities. In 2018, Challenges partnered with Meshpower, a state-of-the-art micro- and mini-solar grid engineering company, to deliver such a system to one of the recipient co-operatives.

At Challenges’ we always measure our work by the impact it can create, the economic growth it can facilitate, and the sustainability for the future. Selecting which co-operative was not an easy task, but measured against these factors we chose Buhanga in southern Rwanda. Cut off from the national grid, Buhanga lacked electricity in its office, due in part to its remoteness and in part the expense of generators. But the business also suffered from break-ins, while the inability for staff to use laptops or other electrical equipment inhibited further growth. When we spoke to the management team at Buhanga it was clear to us all that the potential for the scheme and the opportunities it could create was significant.

The Meshpower Installation at Buhanga is a clean energy solution to a continent-wide rural problem: access to reliable energy. This installation, slated for completion in December 2018, now enables the coffee co-op to develop and open new methods of data gathering and storing, book-keeping, marketing and so on. It also gives them the opportunity for a modest secondary income as they can now charge a minimal fee for members of the local communities to charge phones or print documents. And it means that co-op staff will be trained in both the solar PV technology but also the equipment and software its adoption has enabled. The Buhanga coffee co-op now has a valuable income-generating asset that enables business growth and staff development.

As we monitor the success of this clean energy programme, as part of the wider Coffee Market Building for People and Prosperity project, we look forward to seeing this pilot rolled out beyond Rwanda, and used to create a case for ethical lenders and grant-makers to invest in similar initiatives at other sites lacking in sustainable and reliable clean energy.

When Challenges first approached Meshpower about this initiative, we had no idea this was the first project of this kind the business had undertaken. It’s also likely the first of its kind in the region … and maybe all of Africa! Who knows, maybe one day every co-operative office will hum with solar energy!

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