Lighting up rural Rwanda with 3D printed solar products
Before Ariane Umuringa was a social innovator, she was a student in a district in Rubavu, Western Rwanda.
Studying mathematics and physics in high school, Ariane found herself challenged — not as much by the course material, but by the study conditions in her rural home. “I had to use candles and gas lamps for studying. This was very difficult, and it is when my idea came,” Ariane says.
That idea was Starlight, a social business Ariane started in February 2016 to help rural communities access solar electricity using Rwandan-made products. An estimated 7.7% of Rwanda’s rural population has access to electricity. Ariane recognized she could solve this problem by adapting existing technology to fit the local needs of her community.
One of the problems with solar technology today is that systems can be large and expensive. That is why Ariane started making smaller lanterns and other solar products — less expensive technology that her neighbours could use to get step by step access to electricity. Products also include other portable items such as solar power banks and solar bags.
“We create products depending on the needs of our customers,” Ariane says. She explains a lamp Starlight is making for poultry farmers that can be used to keep chicks warm and prevent them from going blind. “Right now farmers create light by fire and kerosene, which can be dangerous and expensive. Our lamps are automated and give the temperature according to the needs of the farmer.”
“Right now farmers create light by fire and kerosene, which can be dangerous and expensive. Our lamps are automated and give the temperature according to the needs of the farmer.”
3D printed solar products
One of the ways Ariane has kept Starlight products affordable is by innovating with technology: she uses 3D printers and laser cutters. She works out of FabLab Rwanda, a makerspace in Kigali that is part of a global network of makers hubs. Using 3D printers has allowed Ariane to easily tweak her lamp designs, though she says she will probably switch to another technology when she finds the perfect model.
Starlight’s solar lamps cost 3,000 Rwandan francs ($3.60 USD) — similar lamps on the market cost more than twice that price. The lanterns can already be found in 50 homes in Ariane’s home village.
Building trust in the solar sector
Solar technology is still relatively new and unknown in rural Rwanda. As a result, Ariane has faced a challenge in gaining trust from clients and investors. Her customers are rural families, most of whom have always relied on kerosene lamps in their homes.
“Solar is cheaper than kerosene, but if you tell people they have to pay you a large amount of francs at once, it can be a challenge,” Ariane explains. “That is why we want to create other payment methods. This includes instalments so customers can afford the product.”
“Solar is cheaper than kerosene, but if you tell people they have to pay you a large amount of francs at once, it can be a challenge,” Ariane explains. “That is why we want to create other payment methods. This includes instalments so customers can afford the product. ”
Until Starlight can increase production, Ariane says the business is relying on various forms of capital. That includes several entrepreneurship competitions. Recently, Ariane and Starlight came in third at a competition held by the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Initiative. That prize money was invested directly into research and design for Starlight’s solar products. Ariane is also an Accelerate Academy Entrepreneurship Fellow with These Faces Have Numbers, where she has received mentorship and the chance to pitch global investors.
Since her high school study days, Ariane has received a diploma in electronics and telecommunications engineering. Due to interest and passion, she has taken many courses in solar engineering. “Through interest, you search and find new knowledge,” Ariane says. Her advice to other youth is to follow the path of passion, and create an innovation around something they love.
For Ariane, that is solar — what is it for you?
At DOT we’re excited to bring you inspiring stories that highlight the impact of daring young social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship and social innovation is an ongoing journey, so we invite you to follow along with Ariane by following her on Twitter at @Ariane_Umuringa.
This #DOTYouth Spotlight was developed as a part of DOT’s 2017 Unconference in Kenya, supported by the Mastercard Foundation and the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada.