Amidst the energy crisis in Burundi, a local dam lights up over 130 households in Bujumbura rural

By Avit Ndayiziga

From rural areas to small and big cities, Burundi leaves behind 88 percent of its population which is approximately 12 million, without hydropower or solar energy. The remaining 12 percent who seem to have access to it, experience repetitive power outages hindering their daily energy-dependent activities such as welding, hairdressing, industrial activities, and other development-oriented activities.

According to REGIDESO, the unique Burundi Water and Electricity Production and Distribution Authority, the monthly energy consumption remains low at 27,645.00 Megawatts while the production is 29,446 by March 2024.This lack of sufficient energy resulted from multifaceted challenges including mismanagement that have been strangling REGIDESO for decades.

However, amid this severe energy crisis, Richard Hategikimana, a 24-year-old through Bahabona Cooperative, has built a local dam that lights up over 130 households in Nyabiraba Commune.

A local dam that lights up over 130 households in Nyabiraba Commune constructed by Bahabona Cooperative

This local dam is located 13 miles away from Bujumbura, the economic city of Burundi, in Nyabiraba Commune nestled in the Province of Bujumbura, commonly known as Bujumbura Rural.

A wondrous landscape of snow-capped mountains and valleys of the Gasarara, Mbare, and Mayemba districts of Nyabiraba Commune

Standing at the peak of Nyabiraba Commune, a wondrous landscape of snow-capped mountains and valleys of the Gasarara, Mbare, and Mayemba districts of Nyabiraba Commune captivates an endless gaze that ends with a slippery slope towards the Gasarara district where the dam is constructed.

A mesmerizing waterfall

This dam comprises a mesmerizing waterfall, a reservoir, and a small powerhouse that shelters local turbines and alternators that produce electricity. 

Richard Hategikimana the director of the Bahabona Cooperative, reflected on the journey of building a dam that stemmed from his bitter childhood experience of studying on the flickering light of a woodfire.”I was born and grew up in this war-torn and dimly lit area of Nyabiraba commune. I had to rely on the flickering light of a wood fire to review my school notes. I was also keen on listening to the radio even though, back then, I couldn’t afford to buy batteries. So, I had to resort to drying out old batteries to recharge them.” He mentioned adding that “a more challenging issue was organizing parties like weddings and other ceremonies without electricity as renting a power generator was costly, and sometimes, I couldn’t find one.” As Hategikimana noted.

Richard Hategikimana the director of the Bahabona Cooperative

Engulfed with such challenges, he began to think about how to light up the nearly abandoned remote area of Nyabiraba in 2016. While listening to the radio, as his daily habit, “I heard that someone in Sare Commune had constructed a micro hydropower plant. It inspired me,” emphasized Hategikimana.

A dam construction cost not only an arm and a leg but a whole body

When he started sharing his dam construction idea, many people discouraged him and suggested he consider something else or seek advice from a psychiatrist, thinking he had lost his mind. “Building a dam is a costly and time-consuming project that typically requires significant funding from major financial institutions, not something an individual can undertake alone,” they told him adding that “Even REGIDESO, the Burundi Water and Electricity Production and Distribution Authority, has never successfully built a dam independently. It relies on funding from major financial institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and AfDB, and it typically takes over ten years to complete such a project. “How can a young man like you dream of building a dam?” they questioned. “You should go to see a psychiatrist immediately, or you’ll end up collecting plastic bags on the streets, you’ve lost your mind,” they emphasized.

Despite facing harsh discouragement, Hategikimana remained determined with his idea and eventually crossed paths with Remenigilde Ndayiragije, an assistant engineer who had stereotypes that building a dam costs a human scapegoat.

Remenigilde Ndayiragije, an assistant engineer at Bahabona Cooperative

“The beginning was tough as we were warned that constructing a dam would not only cost an arm and leg but a whole body. This fear gripped us,” Ndayiragije shared. 

However, some individuals supported them because fuel shortages were affecting everyone in Burundi hoping it would help them cope. 

A dam stemmed from a simple idea.

Despite being disheartened, Hategikimana continued to convince others to join him. Later on, they created Bahabona Cooperative. Among others who joined, Oscar Minani came on board as an accountant. In his accounting, dam construction is extremely costly.

Oscar Minani, an accountant at Bahabona cooperative

“Upon visiting another locally built dam in Isare Commune, we listed all the required equipment and their costs, amounting to Seventy million (70,000,000) Burundian Francs. It took us years to collect this sum from cooperative members, who are mostly low-income earners. Each member contributed Three Hundred thousand (300,000). This money allowed us to kickstart the project with the help of a topographer who offered valuable technical guidance,” clarified the accountant.

Aside from financial challenges, acquiring the necessary equipment posed another major obstacle that further prolonged the project’s timeline.

“When we began searching for a turbine, we found that it must be imported particularly from China. we requested to check its components. Therefore, we handcrafted a local turbine,” explained Ndayiragije adding that “a turbine receives water from the reservoir, while the alternator generates the electricity produced by the turbine,” He highlighted.

An unforgettable day: Nyabiraba in light

When the lights pierced through the darkness, residents from the Gasarara, Mbare, and Mayemba districts of Nyabira Commune came together, speculating about a potential sacrificial death. However, no such tragedy had occurred.”Water is a dangerous element in this process. Any unexpected damage to the reservoir or spillway leads to deadly floods.”Ndayiragije explained. However, we are thankful that no such incident occurred,” he enthusiastically shared.

Beneficiaries more than satisfied

More than 130 households that use the electricity produced by the local dam attest that it has sparked change and development. Habonimana Audifax, an electronics device repairer, appreciates how electricity has improved his work efficiency, thanks to its affordability and reliability.

Habonimana Audifax, an electronics device repairer

“This electricity has been a game-changer for me. I now use it to run diagnostic tests and easily solder devices. It’s reliable and cost-effective. In the past, I had to rely on charcoal, which was quite expensive. Just imagine, I used to spend two thousand Burundian francs daily, but now I only pay five thousand per month. Using charcoal and rechargeable batteries presented various challenges, such as short-circuit damage leading to device burnouts. When that happened, I had to compensate the owners, which was very costly,” shared Habonimana. He expressed his satisfaction with the electricity supply, highlighting the absence of power outages unlike in other areas.

With the locally built dam now supplying electricity to three districts, Richard Hategikimana, the director of Bahabona Cooperative, manifests intentions to boost power generation at the dam.

However, he regrets that Bahabona Cooperative does not have sufficient funds to procure modern equipment like power transformers to adjust voltage levels in the power transmission and distribution systems which would allow them to illuminate more households and extend their reach to neighboring districts and energy meters or kilowatt-hour meters to sell electricity based on consumption, as currently, they charge based on household estimates without measuring actual usage.

What’s behind insufficient energy in Burundi?

Even though the electrification rate in the EAC partner states remains significantly low compared to other developing nations. Amongst the EAC countries, Burundi has the lowest electrification rate of 6 percent while Kenya leads with over fifty percent electrification rate followed by Tanzania.  Uganda and Rwanda have electrification rates slightly above 50 percent. 

Doctor-Engineer Martin Ndayizeye, the energy director at the Ministry of Hydraulics, Energy, and Mines of Burundi, lists numerous factors contributing to power outages and low electrification rates, admitting the absence of planning policies to enhance energy production and distribution.

Doctor-Engineer Martin Ndayizeye, the energy director at the Ministry of Hydraulics, Energy, and Mines of Burundi

“Former energy sector directors failed to plan for the sector’s future accordingly. For instance, the recent dams Rwegura and Mugera were constructed in 1984 and 1986, with no new power plants being built between then and 2010.” Ndayizeye explained further that climate change has also negatively impacted the energy sector.

“Between 2013 and 2015, the adverse effects of global warming led to a significant decrease in water levels in some of our dam reservoirs, resulting in a 21 percent reduction in expected grid electricity. These destructive impacts of climate change have taken a toll on our power plants. Currently, heavy rainfall has triggered landslides that damage power plants, homes, and electric poles, leading to frequent power interruptions.” He also pointed out that old and fragile electric poles often collapse, causing further disruptions to the power supply. He noted.

Addressing concerns about disparities in power distribution in Bujumbura, the economic hub of Burundi, Ndayizeye explained that areas with higher demands for public services, such as hospitals and industries, are given priority over regions with lower productivity.

What about solutions?

As per Doctor-Engineer Martin Ndayizeye, the energy director at the Ministry of Hydraulics, Energy, and Mines of Burundi, the country has been actively working on several projects since 2018 to address the energy situation. Burundi aims to raise its electrification rate from 12 to 35 percent by 2030. However, achieving this goal will require the support of development partners, as it entails a three-billion-dollar investment.

Despite only 12 percent of Burundians currently having access to energy, several national and regional production projects are underway with the support of development partners such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. These projects aim to increase the installed capacity from 78.7MW in 2020 to 239MW in 2026, an increase of approximately 200%. Furthermore, regional production amounts to 295 MW, with additional imports from Ethiopia, bringing the total to 422.35 MW.

The World Bank recently announced a regional project called ASCENT, which aims to Accelerating Access to Clean and Sustainable Energy Transformation (ASCENT. Through this initiative, a funding of $190 million ($100 million IDA grant and $90 million from other donors like the European Investment Bank, the European Union, and the French Development Agency), has been granted to Burundi, not only increase electricity access but also enhance the country’s energy sector performance. It is estimated that around 2.4 million individuals, 1,200 public institutions, and 6,000 small and medium-sized businesses will benefit from improved or new electricity access through this project.

In line with the vision of Burundi as an emerging and developed country in 2040 and 2060, the aforementioned energy production targets will be attained through the utilization of renewable energy sources, electric grids, solar energy, and local energy production in rural areas. The government aims to phase out all carbonization ovens and traditional domestic cookers by providing more sustainable alternatives, including grid energy. This initiative aims to ensure universal access to grid electricity for every household in Burundi by 2040 and 2060.

Even though the government continues to sing these visions aimed at enhancing the energy sector, politicians, particularly those from opposition parties and activists, are critical of the current administration, especially the ruling party CNDD-FDD, for its perceived lack of effective implementation of development projects and visions since assuming power in 2005. They argue that instead of progress, the country is being mismanaged and led astray. This skepticism raises concerns about the feasibility of realizing these ambitious goals.

As dissenting voices grow louder, there is a growing sense of uncertainty and skepticism surrounding the government’s ability to bring about meaningful change in the energy sector.

Despite the government’s stated intentions and endorsements, the prevailing sentiment among detractors is one of doubt and disillusionment with the ruling party’s governance and project implementation.

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