On 17 February 2014, UNESCO and its local partner, ‘the Gorilla Organization’, presented solar equipment (i.e. solar panels, batteries, solar lanterns and electronic components) to a village in the Volcans Biosphere Reserve in Rwanda, home to the endangered Mountain Gorillas. The solar equipment will provide improved access to energy and security, and over the coming months will be installed in individual homes by local grandmothers, who were sent to India for six months in 2012 to train as fully qualified solar engineers. The training was provided through a partnership with Barefoot College in Tilonia, India, and was supported by the Government of India. This project, implemented within the framework of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme, is providing new opportunities and hope to an entire community, and helping to reduce pressure on the habitat of the iconic Mountain Gorillas, of which only 880 remain in the world.
The presentation ceremony was attended by the entire village and local authorities, including the Deputy Mayor of Musanze District and the Manager of the Volcans Biosphere Reserve, as well as representatives from the Rwanda Environmental Authority, the Rwanda National Commission for UNESCO and the Gorilla Organization. After a display of traditional dance, the Executive Director of the Gorilla Organization and Ms. Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisoa from UNESCO addressed the audience. One of the solar engineers trained at Barefoot College recounted moving stories about her experience of leaving her homeland for the first time and travelling to India, where she was unable to communicate with the local people. She explained that she learned solar engineering through the use of signs and colour charts, and is now generating a stable income for her family. A villager whose home is fitted with a solar energy unit explained how the project has had a positive impact on his family. The lights powered by solar energy are safer and more economical than candles, which are costly and generate harmful fumes. The light allows students to study at night in better conditions and a portable solar light improves security when walking outside after dark. The generator storing the solar energy also allows villagers to charge their mobile phones. Previously, charging a phone meant travelling to the nearest town, 20 km away.
Prior to the ceremony, UNESCO and its partners visited houses equipped with solar installations. The Barefoot Solar Engineers climbed onto the roofs to demonstrate the installation process and the inhabitants invited the visitors inside to show the system at work. In their newly established workshops, the solar engineers showed how to assemble the solar equipment kits into fully operational units.
The impact of the project on this small community has been very positive, even while still underway. The Barefoot Solar Engineers have learnt new skills, gained new opportunities and opened themselves up to new cultures. They are proud and empowered, and are now driving and inspiring change in their village and around. At the same time, this approach is helping to reach out to local communities and engage them in the conservation of nearby protected areas. Providing communities with alternative opportunities also reduces pressure on the natural habitat of the gorillas, as the villagers are less reliant on resources found in the forests of the Volcans Biosphere Reserve. This community initiative, which combines economic development and conservation, embodies the MAB approach. Thanks to the success of this project, the approach will likely be replicated in other areas where energy access remains a challenge. A documentary about the experience of the Barefoot Solar Engineers in Rwanda is also in development.