This summer, TKWW Omnimedia and Dot Dot News reporters joined the teachers and students from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University to Rwanda, Africa, and witnessed how they overcame various challenges with their knowledge and skills and helped 400 impoverished families without electricity in the mountain villages.
“With no electricity in some places, people have no choice but to use candles at night”
Electricity is ubiquitous in our daily lives, and we depend on it to operate our mobile phones, computers, televisions, electric boilers, microwave ovens, lamps, electric cars, etc. People, especially city dwellers, can never imagine a life without electricity. It is so indispensable that when an occasional power outage occurs, complaints will flood the power company, and discussions over the subsequent problems will fill the air until power is restored.
However, there are still many places in the world where people have no access to electricity. For example, people who live 9,400 kilometres from Hong Kong in Rwanda, Africa, and particularly in the mountainous areas still receive poor and inadequate supplies due to inadequate infrastructure.
"According to the Rwanda Energy Group, by 2022 about 70% of the Rwandan households have electricity supply, and that includes 50% that are powered by the national grid and 22% rely on off-grid supplies. By off-grid, it means something like solar panels and other sources other than the national grid.” Gloria MUGENI, a graduate of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a native of Rwanda, spoke about the electricity supply situation in her country.
Gloria, now a staff member of PolyU’s Service-Learning and Leadership Office (SLLO), took part in the service-learning programme “Habitat Green in East Africa” in Rwanda this year. Led by SLLO, a delegation of over 100 teachers and students from Hong Kong spent 14 days installing solar power systems in villages including Bicaca in the Rwamagana District of Rwanda’s Eastern Province, bringing basic electrical power to 400 impoverished families in the mountainous areas.
In the district where the PolyU programme provides service, the electricity supply is 48%, lower than in other districts in Rwanda. “This means that there are places where there’s no electricity, and it means that at night people need to use candle to light up the place.” Gloria was saddened by the lack of electricity in Rwanda.
If we are able to do something more, why not?
Rwanda is still developing. The country has been working hard to accelerate its efforts to meet the electricity needs of its population, and has been building power stations, such as the China-supported Nyabarongo II Hydropower Plant.
“Rwanda is investing lots of resources to move towards electrification. They hope to achieve electrification throughout the whole country. However, the country’s financial resources are limited, so they cannot meet the demand.”
Dr. Stephen Chan, Principal Research Fellow of PolyU’s SLLO, explained that the national grid generally installs electrical cables along main highways, so people living near main roads have better chances to access electricity. Those who live far away from any main road have to pull cables from the utility pole to their houses on their own. “It’s not free,” he added, “and most of the villagers simply can’t afford it.”
Many Rwandans living in rural mountainous areas far from main roads grow up and live without electricity since birth. Although they have mobile phones, they have to walk dozens of kilometres to an urban area to find a charging station and then return home when the phones are fully charged. Most parents instruct their children bring their phones to the charging station on the way to school in the morning.
“After the phones are charged, they go to school,” said Dr Grace Ngai, Head of SLLO and Associate Professor in the Department of Computing at PolyU. “As a result, the children are often late for school. This happens at least twice a week.”
PolyU brought its service-learning programme to Africa in 2013, when it started with the basics and then gradually expanded its focus from schools to the communities.
Dr Ngai explained that after connecting with local communities, they realised that the local villages in Rwanda had to confront so many challenges, and one of the biggest challenge that the PolyU team was able to contribute and help was about bringing a solution to their electricity supply.
Leveraging its expertise and professional experiences, PolyU has launced a service-learning programme since 2015 to install solar power systems in Rwanda, with the aim of improving the lives of people without electricity in remote mountainous villages by providing them with access to sustainable energy.
“Most of the time, these places have never had any artificial light. The light bulb we installed was just a weak one. But even such a light could bring them so much happiness. If we are able to do something more, why not?” Dr Ngai affirmed.
Make the most of daylight and speed up installation
Mud bricks, mud huts, rickety wooden doors, leaky tin roofs... In the village of Bicaca in the Rwamagana District, about two hours’ drive from the capital Kigali, these typical and simple self-built houses stand in stark contrast to the city’s high-rises.
Not surprisingly, this village, far from the main roads, has no electricity.
The PolyU programme was brought to life by a delegation of more than 100 members, comprising of over 60 teachers and students from PolyU’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Department of Computing and SLLO, together with over 40 visiting students from the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) and students and teachers from Hong Kong secondary schools participating in a capacity-building project on service-learning. They flew almost 20 hours from Hong Kong to Rwanda. After only a short break in the dormitory, they started preparing for the service project in the mountainous villages.
“When you go to somebody’s house, please make sure you show people proper respect. Before you do anything, ask for permission (from the house owner) through the local youth to open the door for access. Make sure they understand what you will be doing in their house,” Dr Chan reminded the students. “Try to understand how people live here, and how technology is affecting, hopefully, having a positive benefit on their lives.”
Dr Zhang Youqian, Teaching Assistant of the service-learning programme from the Department of Computing and a PolyU graduate, explained that the solar power system consists of four parts: first, the solar panel that collects solar energy; second, the battery that stores solar energy; third, electrical appliances such as lamps and mobile phones; and fourth, the controller, which converts solar energy from high voltage to low voltage for storage in the battery. The required materials and equipment were shipped to Rwanda a few months ago, but for various reasons some of the equipment arrived later than originally planned, and the most important part, the batteries, were still on the way.
They couldn’t waste any valuable moment pondering when the batteries arrive. Fortunately, the PolyU team had a batch of spare batteries on site for testing, so they started the installation as planned. The only difference was that after performing the installation tests, they had to take the ‘test’ battery to the next house for installation and testing. This meant that the villagers had to endure a few more days without electricity before they could get their own batteries.
As the sun set at around 6pm, plunging the village into darkness, the PolyU teachers and students had to make the most of the daylight to speed up the solar power system installation. Every day they travelled back and forth between their dormitory and the village, carrying solar panels, wires and tools that were shipped across the ocean from China, and worked from dawn to dusk.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and get engaged in volunteer service.”
As the car turned off the asphalt road onto the yellow dirt track, the dust was so thick that the plants on either side of the road were shaded in two colours: green, for those growing far from the road, and khaki, the colour of the earth, for those growing near the road. Locals with bananas and buckets on their heads walked slowly and casually through the clouds of dust. Many first-time visitors to the Rwandan mountains were astonished by the sight and couldn’t help but pull out their mobile phones to capture what they saw along the way.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and get engaged in volunteer service,” Wang Dapeng, a student from PolyU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering spoke enthusiastically about the project. As a mechanical engineering student, he was passionate about putting his knowledge into practice to serve those in need through service-learning.
Service-learning, with its emphasis on experiential learning, has been a mandatory requirement for four-year undergraduate programmes for ten years since 2012.
The programme integrates meaningful community service with students’ learning and self-reflection, encouraging them to apply their professional knowledge and skills to help the disadvantaged and promote community development. With the exception of one year during the pandemic-induced hiatus of 2020-22, PolyU staff and students have been visiting Rwanda every year since 2013 to deliver service. In 2023, when the pandemic ended, Wang Dapeng finally embarked on his first service-learning experience in Rwanda.
Since the installation of 400 solar power systems was to be completed within two weeks, the PolyU students were divided into several groups. Wang Dapeng teamed up with several Hong Kong students and worked together. With the advantage of being tall, he was responsible for carrying ladders and pulling wires. Most of the houses in the village are made of mud bricks, which are made by mixing mud with water and drying it. Therefore, the structure of the walls is not very stable and the students need to be flexible and adapt to different wall conditions when it comes to wiring. “We not only need to consider whether the wiring can work, but also think about whether the lives of the households will be affected after the wiring is completed,” said Wang Dapeng. “And you have to think about the children. You can’t put the wires at points where the children can easily reach.”
While the students were busy, the teachers were also out and about in the village, monitoring the progress of the installation and offering advice when needed. “The students are doing this for the first time. There are many common problems. They usually work slowly at the beginning, but that’s okay. They get familiar with it very quickly and can complete the installation in two or even three houses in one morning.” Dr Chan, who dedicates himself in service-learning for more than 10 years and has been with PolyU’s service-learning programme throughout its development, was very pleased with the students’ performance after checking the progress of several houses. “The teams I have seen so far are all making good progress. The most important thing is that the students are working hard, so they will become proficient rapidly.”
“We are not satisfied with repeating the same thing over and over again, so we give ourselves a bigger challenge each time,” said Dr Chan. This time, they had an increased target of 400 houses to be installed and aimed to develop an intranet in the local villages. They set up a server in the village to store information to facilitate the villagers, such as crops growing techniques and education activities for their children. Villagers could use their own mobile phones to access the intranet to access such practical information. The PolyU team also set up a satellite TV system to enrich the locals’ entertainment lives.
“Because it is quite possible that their fate could be changed.”
From installing solar power systems to setting up TV and intranet, the PolyU team hopes to use technology to increase local access to information, improve basic education and connect them to the world. These efforts have one central goal: to create a better future for the next generation of Rwandans.
“When we work with The Hong Kong Polytechnic University to install solar panels in houses, there are two main issues to consider: one is safety, and the bigger issue, the major one, is the children,” said Wilson KABAGAMBA, Project Manager of African Evangelistic Enterprise (AEE-Rwanda), a Rwandan NGO and PolyU’s local partner in Rwanda. “We are trying to make sure that whenever they go to school, they can come back home and do the revision.”
Rwanda is a country that values education. On the back of the 500 Rwandan franc note are portraits of children studying. Along the mountain road leading from the outskirts of Kigali to the village of Bicaca, there are four or five schools, including primary, secondary, and vocational schools. But on nights when there was no electricity, children in mountainous villages could only study by the dim light of candles or small torches.
When Wang Dapeng was wiring a house, he saw an exercise book at the bedside in one room, full of check marks on it, revealing that the child had very good grades. “If what we are doing can allow them more time to study, they may have a greater chance to enter a better middle school, or even to leave the village to study at a city university,” he said emotionally, “just like how the generation of our parents experienced in China years ago. I think it’s very meaningful.”
“Because it is quite possible that their destiny could be changed,” Wang Dapeng said.
“We truly appreciate what you have done for us. God bless you.”
And it was just as Wang Dapeng wished. Oliva NIYITEGEKA, a mother of seven children with five are students, is a resident of a neighbouring village who received a solar power system from PolyU three years ago. In the past, her children could only study at daytime. Now they managed to take notes and study at night with solar power and lighting. Their academic performance has improved dramatically, and they have been able to move up to the next grade in school.
While the children have benefited from it, the working conditions in the village have also welcomed advancement, which in turn improves the financial conditions of some families. “We see a change and we have better development. I feel very happy.” Oliva was extremely grateful for PolyU’s help and their return visit, “We truly appreciate what you have done for us. God bless you.”
Valens NYANDWI, a villager who received a solar power system this year, said he could finally say goodbye to lightless nights, and as a teacher, he could prepare for classes and do research at night. “Solar energy will help me and my family,” he said. Fransine NYIMANA, another villager, was happy to have a solar power system in her home. She used to trip over the door when entering her room after dark, but now she can easily avoid this. She said, “The biggest change for me is that I can work more hours, I can leave work whenever I want because I can (still) cook and eat with light. My children can also study worry-free.”
“We hope to bring the techniques to them.”
“I feel like, we’re putting on the light, turning it on, that not only makes me satisfied, but also the people that we are helping. I see the joy in their face, the light in their face, the hope that they get from that. It’s pretty amazing,” said ZAIDI Syed Muhammad Askar Hussain, a Pakistani student from PolyU’s Department of Computing. Reflecting on the first day of installation, he admitted that it was hard work, especially communicating with the villagers. “We don’t speak the local language, so we have local (CFC) students to help us communicate, but their English is also limited, so we have to explain to them in very simple and basic English.”
With the existence of the language barrier, PolyU staff and students worked together with local students in Rwanda to communicate with the villagers about the details of the installation, such as where to install the lights, where to place the wires, and where to put the batteries, etc. Before entering a house, the local students also helped the PolyU team to get permission from the owner to start the installation.
Young Rwandan students from the Centre for Champions (CFC), a vocational school run by AEE-Rwanda, were excellent local partners to join the PolyU students. In addition to facilitating communication, they were trained to install solar panels alongside the PolyU students, completing the installations together and acquire learning by doing, so that they could take over some of the maintenance once the PolyU team left Rwanda.
“Today I feel better because I work with HK students. So hardworking,” said Fabrice NSHIMIYIMANA, a local CFC student. After a few days of working with the PolyU students, he felt more in tune with them. He successfully installed solar panels on the roof and installed lights in the bedroom and outside the house. Fabrice learnt a lot of practical skills from the Hong Kong students after just a few days of working together. “I communicate with them so easily because we work together every day. I have experience with them,” he said.
“We hope to bring the techniques to them. Rather than just giving them some things to use, we hope they can improve their own techniques and skills, which will contribute to their future development,” said Dr Chan. He had received some good news: some of the local young people had found good jobs because of the skills the PolyU team had taught them.
“The work we’ve done here might not be too big, but I think that we’ve really made a change in the houses that we’ve worked on,” said RAI Manish, a Hong Kong-born Nepali and a student of the Department of Computing at PolyU.
“When the villagers can use their systems and turn on their lights, our effort is complete!”
The installation of the solar power systems progressed smoothly, and the installation of the 400 houses was almost complete as time went on. Nevertheless, the 400 batteries had not yet reached them on the day before the completion of the installation work. The PolyU team had tried all possible ways to get the shipping company to deliver the batteries, but there were so many hiccups such as the shipping and trucking, and the complexity in going through customs in different countries. “We were really worried,” Dr Chan admitted. “If the batteries cannot arrive tonight, we really don’t know what else we can do. We might disappoint many villagers.”
Finally, at around 11pm, a lorry carrying the long-expected batteries that the PolyU teachers and students had been waiting for days and nights arrived. Everyone was so excited and rushed out to unload the batteries until the next-day morning. Dr Chan couldn’t help but smile as he said, “Hopefully, 400 batteries will be distributed in a few hours tomorrow morning. When the villagers can use their systems and turn on their lights, our project is successfully completed!”
Early the next morning, many residents lined up at the village’s entrance to collect the batteries. PolyU teachers and students worked in groups and went door-to-door to finish the final step of adding batteries so the lights could be turned on. When the lighting tests were completed in all the houses, it simply concluded that the PolyU team did effectively solve the basic electrical problem for 400 impoverished families in the Rwandan mountains.
On that day, numberous locals from Bicaca and nearby villages flooded in to thank the PolyU team for installing solar power systems to improve their lives. Despite the language barrier, the villagers expressed their gratitude to the PolyU students and teachers in a variety of impressive local ways, including performing traditional dances, making traditional handicrafts, and writing and directing playlets to tell the story of how the solar power systems have helped to eliminate nighttime darkness.
“We are united with the local residents, bursting with energy.”
Dr Ngai has participated in PolyU’s service-learning programme on solar power systems in Rwanda since its inception, and has witnessed many moments of residents turning on the lights. She recalled that the most memorable point is her first time. “The owner of the house was a lady who caught our students’ hands tightly and kept shaking their hands, repeating something we didn’t understand,” she remembered. “Later they told me that she was saying, ‘God bless you, God bless you.’”
“In a house that relies only on daylight, you can feel the bright smiles on the faces of the locals when you turn on the lights.” After a field study of PolyU’s solar power systems, Lin Hang, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Rwanda, said that PolyU had been deeply involved in Rwanda for 10 years, from popularising computer education to solving the problem of access to electricity through solar power techniques in response to the practical needs of the local people, demonstrating Chinese people’s willingness to share and help, and sense of social responsibility.
Wang Dapeng recalled one of the most memorable moments of the service-learning project, when the local adults and children collaborated to help with the wiring and the installation of the solar panels. “I was really touched because I really felt that we were working as a team with the local people and I recognised the impact we could make,” he added.
“I think it’s a joy to actually be part of what people are doing to develop Rwanda, even having in the front row of facilitating (and) helping with translation. So, I feel like I’m able to give back to my country,” said Gloria, a PolyU graduate and staff member from Rwanda.
“There is one thing I want the students will remember: When we go to a place for service-learning, the tasks that we do are not just an assignment; what they do will have a real impact on other people,” said Dr Ngai.
“What you do in service-learning really affects people.”
The success of PolyU’s service-learning project in Rwanda has attracted the attention of neighbouring Tanzania, which sent a team led by Tanzanian MP Justin Lazaro NYAMOGA on a site visit to Rwanda to examine the possibility of bringing the project to Tanzania next year. “We are hoping that we also have a parallel project going on in Tanzania next summer,” said Justin.
As a working member of PolyU’s service-learning programme, Kefa WALES from Volunteers for Community Development (VCD) in Tanzania participated in this year’s project in Rwanda. “We learnt a lot from the project in Rwanda,” said Kefa. He was confident that the programme would be extended to five communities in Tanzania next year.
“As an African country, Rwanda, we are always welcoming whenever someone is bringing a support,” said Wilson, Programme Manager of AEE, a Rwandan NGO. He said that from the national level to the lower levels, they appreciate China’s support. Mr Godfrey KAYIGANA, Director General of Community Development and Social Affairs of the Ministry of Local Government (MINALOC) of Rwanda, pointed out that there are still areas in Rwanda without electricity and water, and that the government is actively seeking solutions to address citizens’ concerns about access to energy, water, and transportation. He acknowledged that many people in Rwanda make a living through links with China in business and academia. “They are getting a lot from China, making the two countries become brothers and friends, to exchange and support one another,” he said.
Kefa also mentioned the many projects China was doing in African countries, including the involvement of Chinese companies in planning a railway project in Tanzania. “China has been doing a really good job in Africa, especially in helping these developing countries to be successful.”
“That is why we want to come to Rwanda.”
“This project helps the poorer mountain communities and their members to get electricity from solar energy, which makes their lives easier. This is of great practical significance,” said Mr Wang Xuekun, Chinese Ambassador to Rwanda. He remarked that PolyU’s service-learning programme in Rwanda, which ranged from computer training to solar power system installation, had improved the lives of many Rwandans over the past decade since its inception in 2013. It also allows PolyU staff and students to learn about Rwanda and make friends with locals through the project.
Mr Wang stressed that forging closer ties between peoples is an essential part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which China launched in 2013. It means that the peoples of the two countries should understand each other, cooperate with each other, and build friendship and mutual benefit. This, he said, was also the spirit of PolyU’s service-learning programme in Rwanda. “I told my friends in Rwanda about this project. They all gave us a thumbs up and said, ‘Excellent!’ ‘Thank you, Chinese people.’ They appreciate our project. We need to tell the story of China well through these concrete projects.”
“Service-learning has two parts: one is service and the other one is learning. It means that you have to apply your professional knowledge to serve others. Our students went to Rwanda and helped the local people by installing solar power systems to provide electricity. They used their skills and knowledge, and this is called service-learning,” said Professor Jin-Guang Teng, President of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
He pointed out that some countries along the Belt and Road are still developing countries and their societies and economies are not as advanced. There are many things that we can help with. “The Belt and Road Initiative is advocated by our Nation. We hope that what we are doing can not only meet the goals of the university, but also align with the national strategy in Belt and Road countries, to promote China’s development vision and tell China’s stories well.”
Prof. Teng said PolyU aims to nurture socially responsible talents. “Our students should possess a strong sense of national identity and a global perspective, so they are encouraged to go to Mainland China and overseas more often to broaden their horizons. They should also have a sense of social responsibility to understand, serve and make positive changes.”
With solar-powered light, there is no more fear of darkness in the night. By the end of the summer the lives of 400 families in the mountainous areas of Rwanda were transformed by the visit of PolyU teachers and students.
“That’s why we want to come to Rwanda,” said the PolyU service-learning team.
■ Reporters: Su Ting, Ding Min, Ren Qing, Tang Wenhan
■ Written by: Su Ting