Energy, water and food supplies for Rwanda

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TUM student Prathiba Devadas (right) in Rwanda: The children of Gitaraga village
TUM student Prathiba Devadas (right) in Rwanda: The children of Gitaraga village help her take soil samples.

Prathiba Devadas with "TU eMpower Africa" at TUM Sustainability Day

Prathiba Devadas is from India, recently earned her Master’s degree in "Sustainable Resource Management" at TUM and has already lost her heart to a small country in Africa. She established a sustainable development project for "TU eMpower Africa" in Rwanda.

You’ve been working for "TU eMpower Africa" on a volunteer basis since 2020. In 2021 you spent six months in Rwanda and established the project there. Tell us more...

We already had an ongoing project in Zimbabwe, but we also wanted to start again from scratch in another country in Africa. Our idea is simple: First we establish an adequate supply of electricity, for example using solar, and access to water. This makes it possible for the farmers to farm more efficiently - and lets them grow the year-round, making it possible for them to produce crops for the local market and to export. This lead to increase in number of jobs and average income rise.

What is the connection between this job and your university studies at TUM?

In my Master’s studies I dealt a lot with renewable energies in Sub-Saharan Africa. When I found out about "TU eMpower Africa", it was absolutely clear that I would join in. I always wanted my work to create projects that have direct impact and that’s why I spent half a year on location, from March to August 2021; I even interrupted my studies for that.

As a rule, people in Germany don’t know much about Rwanda. What’s the country like?

Oh! The people there are so courteous and open-minded. The country, even though has dark past is really safe, travelling there is absolutely no problem - even as a woman. I never felt unsafe at any time during my entire time there. And it’s clean. Rwanda is considered the Singapore of Africa. The change in the last 27 years is incredible.

And why was Ruanda right for your project?

Rwanda is very hilly. Unlike other countries, the topography is difficult to work and you need a tailored solution for such a country. There’s a reason it’s called "the land of a thousand hills" and because of this landscape, it’s still usual for people to walk for kilometers to fetch water, which they transport back in 10-liter tanks.

What did you do there?

First, in our pilot village we made farmers to form a co-operative to put up solar powered irrigation system. This system pumped water from the swamp to up the hill, where we built a small dam to hold water. From here the tap connections were installed for drawing water to each terrace so that the famers can use the water in required quantities.

That sounds pretty well thought out. What was the beginning of the project like?

In 2020, due to Covid and travel restrictions, we were limited with desk research and phone calls, this gave us time to prepare ourselves. Together with local decision makers, we visited villages that were having difficulties with energy and water. Of course, we met and shared our plan and had meetings with the local inhabitants. In the end we chose the village of Gitaraga in the Bugesera district. There’s a small shopping complex in the center of the village, a healthcare station, an elementary school and a weekly market where the locals sell their goods.

Providing development aid is sometimes controversial. For example one criticism is that money is often spent without really permanently helping the people it’s intended to help. What can you do to combat that?

From the very beginning I worked on establishing contact with the government in Rwanda. In the meantime, we’ve been registered there as an International NGO. I was able to gain access to the high-ranking government officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, who responded directly to my questions. The government is very supportive and welcomes projects like ours. And even more important is that the farmers in Gitaraga really get to decide what happens. We just guide them regarding how they can improve the financial returns on their farming work. But they decide what they grow. We wanted to avoid being the know-it-all Europeans no matter what.

You suggest participatory approach to the village community. What does that really mean?

Two things are important to me. First of all, it’s not as if the NGO from Munich goes to Rwanda and starts writing cheques. The farmers get nothing for free, they have to repay a certain amount to us. We then want to invest this money in another location/project in Rwanda. This way we make sure that the farmers develop a true sense of ownership. When they are made in charge of maintenance/operations of the system, they start seeing the project differently especially when you have to pay for them with your own money. Secondly we didn’t want to decide who was going to be the head of the farmers’ cooperative; that was ultimately decided in elections within the cooperative. When you have a good leader, you are half way through the challenges.

Did everything always go smoothly?

Not really, there were challenges, but with the right people and advice from the board members of the NGO, it was easy to handle. Also the people there referred to us as "Muzungu" - something like "white man", even though I’m not white at all... But that was their word for outsiders. At first they thought we had just come to give them money. It took a little time to change their mindset towards development and what it means for them.

Were there other intercultural difficulties?

The farmers don’t speak any English or French, so we always worked with interpreters. And I first had to get used to the fact that the farmers have their own daily rhythm - since they spend the day working in the field. So it was better for me to meet up with them in the afternoon or evening. When I got back to my accommodation in the evening, there was no more electricity. Things weren’t so easy, but the people saw how much work I was putting into the project. Then they also took it seriously.

What does Gitaraga look like today?

We currently have four interns there on location, paid with funds from US foreign aid. They give us daily updates and help us communicate with the farmers. They’re connected with domestic and foreign buyers; right now they’re growing chili peppers for export. They’ll be able to earn a total of as much as 18,000 USD, at least that’s the ideal amount. They also received their first paycheque of 4,000 USD. But even half of that would be a tremendous success. Our vision is the famers in the village of Gitaraga should be able to work independently within a period of five years.