Rwanda, a mostly agrarian country, has ambitious plans for deploying technology and infrastructure to lift its people out of poverty. CSU researchers are partnering with them in that effort. Credit: Jessica Davis
January marked a new year, and a new partnership between Colorado State University and the government of Rwanda – an east African country with ambitious plans to lift its people out of poverty through economic development, education and technology.
CSU researchers from various disciplines have joined an official research partnership to support Rwanda’s transformation from an agrarian economy to one buoyed by strategic deployment of science and technology infrastructure. The country’s long-term, multi-layered partnership with CSU was made official by a recently signed memorandum of understanding (MOU). A CSU delegation that included several faculty and administrators traveled to Kigali, Rwanda in mid-January to sign the MOU.
The MOU outlines plans for research and education exchanges between the Rwandan government, the University of Rwanda and CSU. The partnership was seeded by a two-year-old project led by researchers from the CSU Energy Institute and the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES)/Africa Center.
Smart Village Minigrid project
Their aim: the design and installation of “minigrids” to advance a Rural Village Development Program in Rwandan subsistence villages that cannot access central grid electricity. The country’s grid serves only 20 percent of the country’s 12 million people. The government has declared in a “Rwanda 2020 Vision” document a goal of 70 percent electrification by 2018.
The Smart Village Minigrid project is principally led by Dan Zimmerle, senior research associate at the Energy Institute. Its genesis was a Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships grant from CSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, first awarded in 2014.
The partnership’s overarching goal is to provide science-based, sustainable pathways for enhancing people’s livelihoods, the researchers say. In this case, it happens to be against the backdrop of electrification, which is suspected to be a driver of upward mobility. That’s one of the things the CSU researchers are studying.
“This is not about how you do electrification; this is about how you do development,” Zimmerle said. “We hypothesize that electrification will catalyze development. If we’re successful with a couple of demos, we can electrify thousands of villages. Because if you don’t do thousands of villages, you can’t impact the country as a whole.”
A range of disciplines working together
To that end, the Smart Village Minigrid project encompasses engineers working on scalable electrification for off-grid rural areas; the engineers are joined by CSU social scientists, agronomists, economists and others to monitor and evaluate development goals that could be supported by better, widespread access to electricity.
“My purpose is to connect electrification to development outcomes,” said Jessica Davis, a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, College of Agricultural Sciences. Davis, an agronomist, has been working with Rwandan villages to discover how communities could benefit from widespread electrification, beyond turning on lights and charging cell phones. Some of the possibilities include post-harvest food processing, and enhancement of crop and livestock production.
Dale Manning, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, is in charge of survey work with villagers to determine their baseline expectations and priorities. For example, researchers calculated that villagers spend 10-15 percent of their income on energy-related activities, like buying kerosene for lanterns, or transportation to the nearest electrified town to charge their cell phones. Future work will measure the pathways through which electrification affects livelihoods.
On the technical side of things, Zimmerle’s team is busy building a minigrid laboratory at the Powerhouse Energy Campus, the home of CSU’s Energy Institute. They were recently bolstered by a donation from Schneider Electric. Their plan is to simulate the needs and scale of a Rwandan village environment. Eventually, an identical lab is planned to be built with partners at the University of Rwanda, Kigali, to facilitate research and possibly student researcher exchange programs.
The Smart Village Minigrid project started with a core group, most notably Peter Means, a graduate student and retired U.S. Army colonel who had previously worked in Africa. The group is expanding as others around CSU offer their expertise in various aspects of sustainable development.
SoGES Africa Center as a resource and partner
Joining the delegation to Rwanda this past January was Kathleen Galvin, director of CSU’s Africa Center, which is housed in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES).
Galvin is an anthropologist who has worked extensively in Kenya and other parts of Africa. Galvin, along with Energy Institute Director Bryan Willson, was an invited speaker during the First Annual Dinner for Rwandan Scientists and Engineers on Jan. 19. They were joined by other CSU colleagues at the event, which was co-hosted by the University of Rwanda, National Commission of Science and Technology, and the National Industrial Research and Development Agency. The event served as both a meet-and-greet for CSU and Rwandan government officials and scientists, as well as a celebration of the newly signed MOU.
“The end goal is always enhancing people’s livelihoods,” Galvin said. “The idea is to take a holistic, systems view of energy technology … What is the potential for energy, and how will people use it on the ground afterward? … Are there gender issues? Power issues? We’ll try to keep those variables in mind as we move forward.”
Rwanda’s ambitious development plans
Electrification of rural villages is just one aspect of the Rwandan government’s ambitious plans for its 12 million people. For example, the government has run a pilot to study methane harvesting from Lake Kivu, a project in which Zimmerle and others may soon be involved. Other potential areas of research, with CSU collaboration, include air quality and pollution mitigation. All the projects fall under the larger banner of sustainable development and what academics like to call capacity building – creating the human capacity and related systems that are locally maintained and sustained.
And that may be why the CSU Energy Institute is the perfect partner. Two very different places ultimately have similar goals – finding lasting, sensible, cost-effective solutions for meeting energy needs, with an entrepreneurial approach.
“Rwanda is well-suited to be a laboratory for essentially all of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Willson, director of the Energy Institute and a member of the recent CSU delegation to Rwanda. “It’s smaller, it’s isolated, and thus can be nimble, and we have remarkable access to senior leadership who are supportive of this long-term partnership.”