Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa.It is among the most densely populated. And according to the World Bank, it is the 164th poorest nation in the world. It is known to the outside world principally because of a 1994 genocide that virtually destroyed the country.
Despite that devastating set of circumstances, Rwanda for several recent years has enjoyed robust economic growth. Nearly 50 percent of its population is under 20 and because of the government’s insistence on education for all, this once rural backwater is being transformed into a high-tech, service-orientated economy, a modest African Silicon Valley in places.
A key to continued economic expansion and social stability, however, is power.
In the control room at the Gikondo electrical substation in Kigali
On a hill overlooking the capital, Kigali, Pascal Mutesa, head of the country’s National Electricity Control Center, viewed the blinking panels tracking electricity flows across the country and explained:
“During the genocide the distribution infrastructure was destroyed. Having no electricity at all was the norm.”
Even as the country struggled to put itself together again in the last two decades, “There were constant breakdowns,” he said. “Equipment just blew up in our faces. We were expecting total disaster.”
The population of Kigali doubled from a half million before 1994 to around 1 million today. As the economy boomed, so did the demand for electricity.
It became a race to even keep up with demand as equipment became even more outdated and prone to collapse.
In 2012 JICA financed a $US25 million project to substantially improve the performance of key electricity substations and Rwanda’s distribution network.
Some 20 Japanese experts directed the rehabilitation or upgrading of transformers, switchyard equipment, distribution boards, cables and installation.
The Gikondo substation overlooking Kigali provides about 60 percent of the city’s electrical needs, according to Mutesa, and upgrading there included replacing all the switch yard equipment.
Since the project was completed, the picture has changed dramatically, he said.
“In 2013 we had electric blackouts approximately five times a month,” he said. “It was a way of life here. After the completion of the project, this year we have had a total of five blackouts a year.”
The electricity supply stabilizing has led to an improved business and even social environment, he said.
Helping Rwanda improve its electrical power system (JICA / Kenshiro Imamura / 2012)