Burundi, May 2014. As I walked through the remote village of Murago overtaken by a powerful stir of emotions, I understood what it meant to be truly ‘off the grid’. Remotely nestled amongst the lush rolling green hills of Bururi province, the little community lacked all the basic amenities, but this is the shared reality in Burundi, where 97% of its population do not have access to electricity.
My visit to Burundi last week brought me together with the Next Generation group, a US Fund led initiative. UNICEF’s Next Generation is a diverse collective of young professionals, aged 21 to 40, who share a commitment to UNICEF’s future. These passionate advocates recognize that UNICEF’s mandate depends on the engagement of every new generation. The Next Gen-ers, eight in all, traveled from all parts of the United States on their personal time and at their own expense to help secure a better tomorrow for all Burundians. They’re a diverse group to say the least, including a film producer, a start-up owner, a major in the Foreign Service and a child psychologist. All have achieved great success in their own fields and have brought with them their knowledge and experience to effect positive change half-way across the globe.
The trip had a rocky start, as my plane had technical problems, re-routing the flight to Brussels, where I was forced to stay overnight and lose a day in Burundi. It was a frustrating turn of events, but when I arrived on Monday night the office was accommodating enough to help me join the group early next morning. I traveled to Murago which is about three hours from the capital, Bujumbura.
Climbing up the steep dirt roads and passing the traditional rural homes, we met Henriette, a mother of five and the leader of a local solidarity group in Murago. As I mentioned, like the vast majority of other rural communities, Murago is off the electrical grid. For some time now, Henriette’s solidarity group has been participating in a savings and micro-credit system to support vulnerable and orphaned children, this has provided their community with the opportunity to invest in safe, affordable energy for their homes.
Through UNICEF’s Project Lumiere, Henriette’s solidarity group has purchased a pedal powered generator and LED lights to sell within their communities. LED lights, a safe and affordable source of energy, reduce dependency on kerosene, candles and other unsafe means of energy that can cause health problems linked to smoke and can lead to fires in households. The project also provides children with new opportunities to study and learn after the sun goes down.
This important initiative has positively impacted the community in several inspiring ways, many which I was lucky enough to see firsthand. I am told by a colleague, Pedro, that the project has been empowering for Henriette and other women in the village. At one time Henriette was not an active participant in the world around her, she was powerless, solely a mute witness in her own life. The financial peace of mind that the initiative provided for her family, allowed her the opportunity to take a greater role in the group, and ultimately she has emerged as one of its leaders.
The impact on education has been powerful as well, as the children study more now that they are not solely dependent on sunlight. Additionally, they don’t hurt their eyes studying under the kerosene light. I am also made aware that the women and children feel more secure owing to the LED lights.
We look forward to following up on the progress in Murago. They are a ‘shining example’ of the positive affect UNICEF’s innovative programmes are having out in the field. Their success highlights the importance of using innovation as a crucial way to solve problems, securing the future for all the world’s children.
By Abhijit Shanker
Chief, Knowledge Sharing
UNICEF New York