You Miss Every Shot You Don’t Take: The Tale of Solar Mini-Grids in Burundi

By Claire Kaufman
Global Fellows

For the past two months I have come in every day to an invigorating and pulsating office that looks somewhat like a colorful jellyfish– its walls covered in maps of Africa and pictures of solar panels, its employees working long hours to make their projects a reality.  My desk is positioned so that I stare directly at the indoor basketball hoop, watching my fellow interns consistently miss three-pointers, facing the tiny little sticker posted besides the hoop head on: You miss every shot you don’t take. 

More than Socrates or Aristotle, this basketball philosophy fits Gigawatt Global absolutely perfectly. Founded with the purpose of bringing clean power to vastly underserved markets, this small team developed the first utility-scale solar field in East Africa through innovative financing and by expertly navigating around bureaucracy and corruption. Now with around two dozen projects in the pipeline from 135 MW in Nigeria to 50 MW in Ethiopia to 40 MW in South Sudan, and with expansion into wind energy, Gigawatt Global dreams and performs big from its offices in Jerusalem’s industrial neighborhood of Talpiot.

The solar mini-grid project to which I have dedicated by past two months, by comparison, does not even reach a full megawatt.  60 KW seems like a drop in the bucket, a tiny, inconsequential project on the sidelines of the giant multi-megawatt projects. However, it might just be the solution for Burundi. In a country where the electrical grid reaches just 2% of the rural population and 6.5% overall, and is completely unreliable for the population it does power, producing and distributing energy independently from a mini-grid makes sense.

If our pilot succeeds in the next 16 months, we will power local businesses, a school and a medical clinic in rural Mubuga, Burundi through solar energy.  We will connect homes in this community to solar home systems and other small-scale energy solutions.  We will power street-lights in the capital of Bujumbura, allowing businesses to stay open later and reduce crime. Then, we will scale.

Our ultimate goal is to electrify one million people throughout Burundi through solar mini-grids. Reading and studying will be able to go on into the night.  Women will be freed up from much labor intensive cooking and cleaning tasks. Businesses will save significantly on their costly and polluting diesel generators, replacing them with cleaner and cheaper energy. Maybe, just maybe, GDP per capita will rise above $276.

Our pilot was awarded grant money just two weeks into my internship, and the steady research I was doing on mini-grid operator models and Burundian economics turned into a whirlwind of financial innovation and creative planning.  Day after day I found myself staying later at the office.  Inspiration fueled by inspired people is a cyclical motivator, and I feel as though I can almost grasp the exponential impact of every minute I pour into this internship. If at the end of these two months I am able to ensure the mini-grid pilot establishes a sustainable, replicable franchisable business model, I will be content. In this way, the inspiration-fueled cycle will turn into a monetary cycle of forward momentum, each project pushing the next one on.,

To that end, I’ve helped determine what tariff should be applied by providing the installation with a fee above the retail rate of electricity, which as a bottom line must be less expensive than their current diesel generators. I’ve contemplated how we should expect these impoverished Burundians to pay for their electricity, and determined that a “pay-as-you-go” scenario, where villagers can pay in bite-sized chunks when they have disposable income, makes the most sense, as long as we combine this method with reliable anchor customers.  I’ve spearheaded the villagers’ demand assessment and calculated their ability to pay. I’ve coordinated the solar home system component of the project to ensure we are connecting poor households with solar energy.

And now, as I fiddle around with the financial model, making sure that if we cover the capital expenditures of the first project with the grant we will leverage the profit to invest in the capital expenditures of future projects, I think back to the sticker posted by the basketball hoop: You miss every shot you don’t take. This shot, in a country like Burundi where very few other businesses want to do business, is not an easy one to take. In fact, my very being in Israel working at my dream company with funding from an incredibly supportive and intelligent group of mentors was a longshot, akin to a half-court behind-the-back shot. Shots like these are not easy, but if executed with careful thought and infused with creative innovation, they can be done, and they can be done well.

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