Through the Lens: Energy Access Stories of Solar Home System Users in Rwanda

PhD student, Iwona Bisaga writes for PhotoVoice on her photography project in partnership with BBOXX, a company developing solutions to provide affordable clean energy sources. Iwona conducted a series of workshops on energy mapping through participatory photography in Rwanda to show why energy access is important. 

“Hold the button, wait until the green frame appears, then press harder. Just like that”, explains Marceline, the Project Assistant, in her native Kinyarwanda. Focus and determination to get it right is impressive, just as are some of the photo ideas participants come up with. They are particularly awe-inspiring given that for nearly every person taking part it’s the first time they gotten to take photos. “I was happy to have you visit my home. It was our first time to hold a camera, taking pictures was a nice experience!” said Theogene from Gakenke in Rwanda’s Northern Province.

Through the Lens was conceived of as a project that would give voice to those who rely on solar systems for energy access in Rwanda. Their stories are diverse, inspiring, sometimes saddening and uplifting at once. Stories of impact, change, transitions and, most importantly, stories of light. The majority of the over one billion people around the world without access to electricity use candles, kerosene or batteries- dirty, polluting, often expensive sources which offer what we can barely call light. It happens to be the case for nearly 75% of Rwanda’s population as well. But now alternatives have become available and affordable even to those living in or on the verge of poverty. At a monthly cost of just under £4 families can access solar energy for lighting, mobile phone charging, and a radio.

Through discussions and participatory photography with 20 households across Rwanda, we wanted to allow those experiencing the off-grid revolution to share how solar home systems have impacted their lives, and why energy is so important to ensure for everyone, everywhere. The idea was to create an environment where participants can discuss the kinds of issues that matter to them. They were then further explored through photo-taking. We didn’t know what to expect at the start: are people going to be keen? Or are they going to take one photo and hand the camera back?

It turns out photography is a much more appreciated and powerful tool than we had anticipated. No less than 80% of families took full ownership of the process, enthusiastically uncovering hidden stories of change from around their households. It was a novel experience, for both us and the users of solar systems we visited. Looking through the photos after each workshop was fascinating: some were posed, others random, at least at first glance. Reactions to photos taken by others, when shown to participating families, also surprised. “I was happy to explore other people’s photos. I used to think that I was the only [user of such a system] but now I know that [there are many] across the country!“, commented Faustin from Kayonza in the Eastern Province.

Sylvan and his wife (pictured below), from Nyamata in the Eastern Province, are a young couple who have managed to save up enough since getting the system to buy rabbits. Not only that- Sylvan’s wife no longer has to hold a torch in her mouth while cooking every day which would give her a jaw pain. With a reliable, bright light in the house now on every evening, she can cook freely and the pain is gone.

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“Sylvan’s wife can now cook with the light on without having to hold a torch in her mouth. Her jaw pain is gone ever since they started using the solar system” © Iwona Bisaga

Beatrice from Muhanga in the Western Province (pictured below), was one of the most engaged. With curiosity and an all-round joy she shared her family’s stories. What she appreciates the most is that her house is now bright much later into the evening than before. The sun goes down by 6:30pm every day and the ability to do things after dark is limited with no light. She can read the Bible and her children and grandchildren can do various activities too, including studying. She also shared a very personal account of how she was able to help her father when he had fallen ill by taking him to the hospital and paying for it, all because she had saved enough money since purchasing the system. “I used to buy candles and kerosene every day which has now reduced. I used to pay a lot for different things but now I have learnt how to make savings so that I can afford the monthly payment [for the solar system]”, said Beatrice.

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“Beatrice from Muhanga (Western Province). With a reliable lighting source, she can now read in the evenings” © Iwona Bisaga

15 selected photos from all the workshops are currently on exhibition in Kigali, where anyone can come and learn about the transformations happening in mostly rural, off-grid households across the land of a thousand hills.

The same exhibition will be held in London between June 9th (the opening evening) and early July 2017.

To learn more about the project and see more impact stories, please visit www.imbisaga.com/throughthelens.

Featured image: “Sylvan from Nyamata (Eastern Province) and his family have saved up enough to buy rabbits since they purchased their solar system” © Iwona Bisaga

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