Posted by: DHE Rwanda | August 4, 2011

The Banda Chronicles, Vol. 1: There’s No Power Like AC Power

On the bus to Banda

Oh man, where to begin… Ted, Mike, Emily and I have just returned from the village of Banda, the community in which DHE’s old hydro sites are located. As many of you are no doubt aware, part of the goal of our short, weeklong visit was to make nice with the community, and ascertain what sort of repairs needed to be undertaken in order to get the sites running optimally. And boy, did we get an earful, to be explained presently. But before that, I should explain a few things about Banda to help contextualize the project.

Banda is remote. Really remote. It’s so far from any significant development that it’s been dubbed “the Forgotten Village.” The national government’s influence is only nominal, and development has suffered. The only access, which itself is a five-hour bus ride from Kigali, is an 11 km clay road that loses about 300 or so meters of elevation from the road to the town. Like most of the rural thoroughfares, it’s practically impassible in the rainy season, or even during and several days after one of the dry season’s allegedly infrequent but nonetheless Biblical downpours.

The road to Banda

Banda is impoverished. Rangiro Sector’s main industry is subsistence farming of relatively nutrient-poor crops like cassava and rice. Most of the houses are constructed of mud brick and terra cotta roofs, which don’t afford much protection against the elements. Banda itself is the most cosmopolitan place for kilometers around, in large part due to the presence of Kageno, the NGO with whom we’ve developed an informal relationship. Kageno runs, among other things, a nursery school, a health clinic, and small agronomy projects in the village. Banda also boasts no fewer than three barbershops (not to mention cellphone and appliance charging businesses), enabled by the extant Kigogo hydro site installed by DHE’s 2008 team.

Despite all this, the citizens of Banda are a very positive and industrious people, and have been extremely receptive to working with us, and what they lack in technical skill they make up for in enthusiasm for their work. I couldn’t count the number of times that citizens and village leaders expressed that they’d be willing to do whatever was necessary to get electricity to the town. (What they really want is an AC microgrid; this was made abundantly clear to us over the course of the many many conversations we had with the villagers. There were varying opinions on what the power was to be used for, but on this issue they all spoke with one voice.)

Banda is also beautiful, while the road into town is one of the most difficult to navigate, it’s also one of the most picturesque, winding its way first through mountain jungle, then pine forest (!), finally descending abruptly into the village through plantations perched improbably on 45 degree or even steeper slopes that aren’t even terraced. (According to Elisephan – Elise for short – our main translator, companion, and Kageno rep, a recently enacted government policy mandated that all farmed slopes above a certain grade must be terraced to prevent erosion. Rangiro sector being what it is, this directive was apparently ignored, willfully or otherwise, by locals and government officials alike, and will probably continue to be so for some time.) The town itself is ringed on three sides by jungle-capped mountains, and the fourth opens up into hills and valleys. On a clear day (of which there were none during our short visit) you can even see as far as Lake Kivu and beyond, to the Congo. The town center consists of a T-shaped cluster of houses and businesses, with a wide and dusty square that put me in mind of a town from the Wild West: there were saloons, livestock roaming freely around, and many many people just milling about. Beyond that, all resemblance ceased; this is Africa after all, and no Westerner’s visit to a rural African village is complete without the gaggles of tiny (but very well-behaved, for the most part) kids running up to gawk at the new mzungu. As it turned out, we weren’t the only white people in town; as of about 16 months ago, the Peace Corps has established a presence in the town in the form of Sarah and Jarod, a couple from Arkansas who work closely with Kageno and became our frequent companions as we got to know the village. They’re both very fun and genuine people, and offered some useful and at times distressing perspectives on the way the village operated, without being dismissive or condescending. Beyond that, it was nice to be able to talk to someone from a similar cultural background; most of us have been out of the country for more than a month, and it’s been a while since we’ve been around people whose first language is English.

Banda from afar

A battery-powered barbershop in Banda

The day after we arrived, we were introduced to Emmanuel, Thomas, and Theogene; the former formerly worked for our former partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the latter two are technicians who have lately worked at our hydro sites– the Kigogo site and the late Nyiragasigo site, which broke down last year when its alternator failed. During the conversation, Emmanuel gave us the repair history of the sites (mostly involving broken bearings and charge controllers) and talked a little bit about village demographics. This was the first time we heard (but certainly not the last) about the village’s desire to be connected to an AC power source. Afterward, we headed up to Nyiragasigo to survey the current state, which is, in short: not pretty but not terrible either. The turbine itself was dismantled and taken into town after the alternator broke. The casing is somewhat rusted; and the headrace canal was eroding its bank in a couple of spots. So there’s work to be done, but it’s certainly not insurmountable, and we left the site not exactly cheered, but far from disheartened.

The powerhouse at Nyiragasigo

That afternoon, we met with Pascal, the village leader, who, despite bringing up the AC power thing again, graciously offered to help us in just about any way we needed, especially if such efforts were to bring about a microgrid in Banda. We promised to look into it as far as was practical, which at this point involves reading lots of case studies and doing tentative feasibility studies; the likelihood that we would be able to construct such a grid is slim, and we tried to make that clear in that meeting, and others held throughout the week. During that meeting, it transpired that a small microgrid had been constructed in Murambi, a town about 10 km away and the seat of Rangiro Sector (I’m not sure if this has been made clear in previous posts, but Rwanda is divided up into provinces, districts, sectors, and cells in rough equivalence with regions, states, counties, and cities, to give an idea of scale), which we think largely accounts for Banda’s interest in the microgrid.

So the next day we walked over with Pascal and Emmanuel to have a look at the hydro plant. It’s about a two-hour walk over roads and footpaths of varying quality; we left early because Pascal had business with the executive secretary of the sector (with whom we also met for the obligatory pleasantries that day), so we had a good portion of the morning to poke around the site and see the state of the art of rural African electrification. What we found, briefly, was adequate civil works, a mechanical system that had no obvious problems (aside from the habit of chewing through sets of bearings every couple of months – that and the inexplicably defunct generator, the language barrier preventing us from understanding the nature of its demise), though as the turbine was running at the time we couldn’t examine it as well as we might have liked, and some seriously sketchy electronics.

Some seriously sketchy electronics.

We’re talking water on the electrical systems, high-voltage lines strung up on tree branches no more than fifteen feet high, and no apparent rhyme or reason to the wiring. The hydro scheme appeared to be deficient economically as well as electrically1; there are some 18 homes and businesses connected to the grid, each paying 1,000 FRW (about $1.60) a month for their grid connection, as well as the sector office and the local secondary school. The technician is paid 50,000 FRW a month to maintain the site, and there are other maintenance costs as well (notably, keeping up a steady supply of bearings). Clearly, this is not a sustainable business model (at least as I’ve described it); evidently the remainder of the costs are paid from the school’s operating budget. Therein lies one of the major problems for the future of the DHE projects in Banda: when people in Banda see the next village over getting this stellar deal on electricity, of course they’re going to want the same thing for themselves. Who wouldn’t? But whether we’re prepared to deliver on it is an entirely different matter, one that will bear much thought and preparation, even in the tentative, early stages of exploring the feasibility of such a system, and even if we can’t do it, maybe we can at least pave the way for someone else who can.


1 Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. The power transmission system is undoubtedly dangerous and wouldn’t last for a second if held up to U.S. safety standards, but on the other hand it seems to work perfectly well, or at least well enough, and “nothing bad has happened yet.” True, this isn’t a stellar justification for an unsafe setup, but to the citizens of Murambi the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, and risk is definitely viewed in a different light here than it is in America – just look at all the moto-taxis zipping through the streets of Kigali, as an example – and people might view the loss of a livelihood made possible by grid electricity as a greater risk that the chance of getting electrocuted (which as we later discovered, is often a risk in this area regardless of whether you have a sketchily hung power line in your neighborhood). On the other other hand, it’s entirely possible that people aren’t aware of the risks power lines present – technical electrical knowledge is scarce in the area – but even so I have a feeling that unless there was a cheap and/or easy way to improve the safety of the system people would prefer to leave it the way it is. It’s a problem to which there’s no easy answer, and it ended up being a frequent topic of discussions that nevertheless failed to elucidate the proper course of action (generally speaking, not for us; under no circumstances would we, as college students, do something like that). The current state of the art is not something that any of us would feel comfortable building or being responsible for, at least not as Western foreigners and representatives of a well-known school. It’s entirely possible that we’d feel differently if we lived there and could directly benefit from the grid. So we really don’t know, but would welcome any perspectives anyone cares to offer.



  1. TLDR

    • Oh hush, I did my best to keep it short. Though maybe I should have split it up into more chunks, as it was I think it ended up being longer than any essay I’ve written for college…

  2. Wiley don’t listen to Joey. This is perfect.

    • Wiley vastly overestimates the reading ability of the internet population. I only read 4 words/picture.

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