My Media Expedition to East Africa with the CSU Energy Institute

By Shelby Condit

The media team from the CSU Energy Institute traveled to Rwanda and Uganda to document the collaborative work being done with microgrids and energy access. Photo by Dan Zimmerle.

I rushed through a few airports around the world with fifty pounds of filming equipment in my carry on — tripods, lighting kits, a DSLR camera, etc. We wanted to be sure the gear made it. If it had gotten delayed in checked baggage, the whole thing would have been a bust. I left enough room in my backpack for some essentials: my laptop, a couple of books I hardly cracked, one change of clothes, and a toothbrush. Roughly thirty hours later (on not nearly enough sleep) we landed in Kigali, Rwanda.

I went to East Africa with our media team in September to cover the CSU Energy Institute’s work on microgrids and energy access. Those efforts are in collaboration with Xpower, a microgrid startup company located in the CSU Powerhouse Energy Campus. I’ve got a history of diving in deep, so it seems appropriate that my first international trip would involve work in somewhat-remote areas of Africa.

“The Energy Institute has really taken on access to energy, and electrification is one of those real needs in the developing world. There’s 1.3 billion people in the world without access to electricity.” — Bryan Willson, Executive Director of the CSU Energy Institute

Put simply, microgrids are small electrical grids that can function independently from a large-scale grid, usually via solar power and other renewable sources. The reason this technology is relevant in eastern Africa is because that ability for independent use of clean energy makes microgrids ideal for rural, hard-to-reach areas. Microgrids can provide electricity to places that are either difficult or impossible to connect to a national grid due to cost or accessibility.

Bryan Willson, Executive Director of the Energy Institute, admiring the AC/DC hybrid microgrid in the village of Gitaraga run by MeshPower Rwanda. Photo by Shelby Condit.

Rwanda, specifically, is an exciting place to follow in this development. Their government has set a goal to completely electrify the country by 2024 even though only about forty percent of Rwanda currently has access to electricity, according to Geoffrey Gasore at the University of Rwanda.

I appreciate having been a part of telling this particular story, because of the way this work is being done — through the assistance of a small company hiring local employees, in a way that is physically and economically accessible to developing areas.

“This program offers the opportunity to have impact not only here in Rwanda but it would be providing training for the ten eastern/southern African countries, so really having regional impact in an area that has great needs.” — Bryan Willson

This trip was highly important to me. I spent a (very) full week talking to energy experts, media professionals and people that have been directly impacted, all with a camera in my hands. I had the chance to speak with people that can now further their education, because they can do homework remotely and at night. I spoke to people like, Ivan Asiimwe, who, after growing up without electricity, are working now to help others in their community have access.

“We started about four years ago, and it was just for house lighting and small DC appliances. In May this year we introduced AC onto the DC system and we have an AC/DC integrated mini-system now, and that has greatly changed the whole environment.” — Ivan Asiimwe, Technical Manager at MeshPower Rwanda.
Shelby Condit and Bob Christian Raheemlyon on filming day in Gitaraga village outside of Kigali, Rwanda.

I also appreciate that we were able to work with the media department at the University of Rwanda. Bob Christian Raheem is a bright young student that is already making serious strides in his field and helped us with film, photography, and translation while in Rwanda. He has been working in various areas to produce short films, music videos, and magazines, all while working towards the betterment of his community.

As a non-traditional, first generation student, opportunities like this always seemed unlikely at best. I feel privileged to have surrounded myself with inspiring, forward-thinking folks. The transition from student to professional comes with time and experience. University sponsored programs like this give students like me a chance to grow professionally and personally, and I look forward to continuing this kind of field work in the future.

Overall, it was just an incredible experience. I think a part of me is still on a boat in Uganda.

On Lake Bunyonyi, Kabale, Uganda. Photo by Dan Zimmerle.