Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For addressing water scarcity and youth unemployment in East Africa with a simple, durable solution

Roughly half of Rwandans don’t have access to safe drinking water within 30 minutes of their homes, according to UNICEF. Collecting water from rivers and dams puts people in danger of water-borne diseases—and crocodile attacks—and often keeps young girls out of school. Yet the cost of digging an individual borehole can be out of reach for many people.

So mechanical engineer Christelle Kwizera started thinking big: Rather than fund individual boreholes, what if she created a mini grid to service multiple families—slashing per-person costs by supplying water to more people? With US$15,000 fundraised while finishing her undergraduate degree in the United States, the then 20-year-old launched a project to do just that.

Seven years later, Kwizera’s social enterprise, Water Access Rwanda, supplies some 70,000 people with reliable, safe and inexpensive water. The project also addresses the challenge of high unemployment among young people by creating steady jobs as water sellers.

The mini grid system is known as Inuma, the Kinyarwanda word for dove. Water Access Rwanda rehabilitates existing boreholes or drills new ones, installing solar-powered kiosks fitted with heavy-duty filtration systems. Local residents can either access water at the kiosk’s public tap or have the water piped into their homes, using prepaid meters. 

So far, 77 million liters (20.3 million gallons) have been pumped through the mini grids, reaching homes, schools, businesses and farms in Rwanda, and across the borders in Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When COVID-19 struck, Water Access Rwanda launched a government-backed project to connect schools to clean water—an imperative for the hand-washing necessary to fight virus spread. 

Even with all the progress, Kwizera says the organization is just getting started. When she won Cisco’s 2020 Global Citizen Prize in December, she wasted no time planning for how the US$250,000 might help Water Access Rwanda expand.

“In 10 years, we’re going to be servicing 30 million [people] and more. We’re going to create over 13,000 jobs, because when we give water, we also create jobs,” she said. “Our ambition is much bigger because, as I like to say, the crisis is way bigger than what we’re doing.”

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