Two years after launching East Africa’s first commercial solar field in Rwanda, the American-Israeli-led team at Gigawatt Global has broken ground on their second such venture in the region, in the rolling hills of Mubuga, Burundi.
The 7.5-megawatt field, located about 100 km. outside the Burundian capital of Bujumbura, will add 15% to the country’s electricity generation capacity, according to the company. Gigawatt Global executives kicked off the $14 million project’s construction at a ceremony in Burundi last week, attended by about 2,500 local and international government officials, investors, religious leaders and diplomats.
“Empowering economic and social development is at the heart of our green energy business,” said Michael Fichtenberg, vice president for finance and business development of Gigawatt Global.
“This high-impact development investment supported by leading international financial institutions signals that Burundi is open for development and business,” he added.
Gigawatt Global is an American- owned Dutch firm focusing on frontier solar and social development enterprise. One of the company’s operational teams is based in Jerusalem.
Gigawatt is perhaps best known for inaugurating East Africa’s first utility-scale solar installation, adjacent to Rwanda’s Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, in February 2015. The Rwandan project was the first to be grid-connected within the United States Power Africa Initiative, a program launched by former president Barack Obama in 2013, in which Gigawatt Global is a founding member.
“Gigawatt Global is expecting to deploy $2 billion in renewable energy projects in Africa as partners of the White House Power Africa initiative in the coming years, as renewables are taking the lead in power generation in Africa and emerging markets,” said American-Israeli solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, Gigawatt Global’s cofounder and president. “We are targeting sub-Sahara Africa as a high-impact and high-growth market, with a portfolio of small, medium and large power projects in the highest priority development areas,” he continued.
For Abramowitz, the Burundi venture will be his 12th solar field around the world, including those in Rwanda, the US state of Georgia and an unnamed Arab country, as well as eight fields in Israel.
The future Burundian solar field constitutes the largest private international investment in the country’s power sector in nearly 30 years, with the power slated to be sold for 25 years to REGIDESO, the national electric company, according to the Gigawatt.
The construction and grid interconnection of the project is expected to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2017.
“We are very excited at the groundbreaking of the Gigawatt Burundi solar field,” Burundian Energy and Mines Minister Come Manirakiza said in a statement following the event. “After their success in Rwanda, Gigawatt Global has proven it can be relied on to deliver efficient, clean renewable energy at reasonable cost, contributing greatly to our economy and society.”
In addition to the solar field itself, the company will be building a 12-km. transmission line in order to funnel the electricity produced by the field to the national grid, Fichtenberg, Gigawatt’s project leader, told The Jerusalem Post
. The company has received exclusive advocacy from the US Department of Commerce, due to the fact that the firm is considering including American solar panels in the field’s construction, he said.
As the project moves forward, Fichtenberg expressed his confidence that the solar field “will catalyze international investments in Burundi.”
“The country itself is a post-conflict country,” he said. “The government is taking proactive stances on reforming regulations to allow for private investments to come into Burundi.”
Anne Casper, the US ambassador to Burundi, made similar comments in a statement following the launch ceremony, stressing how the field’s success “will be a positive signal to other potential investors” who are waiting to see if Burundi has a stable and predictable investment environment.
“We are working together very hard and very closely – the US, Burundi, the Netherlands and Gigawatt Global – to make this project a success [and] to enable the whole country to get energy, and this will lead to the country’s economic development,” Casper said.
Burundi’s electricity supply comes largely from hydropower, but the country suffers from a severe energy gap and often has to resort to using costly and polluting diesel fuel. The electricity generated by the solar field will be able to either displace the power coming from diesel or expand the output to new customers, Fichtenberg explained.
“By adding additional electricity onto the grid now, it does allow for economic stimulation to happen,” he said.
In Fichtenberg’s opinion, the project could also specifically attract more Israeli companies to consider investing in Burundi.
“East Africa is a big destination for Israelis to go to do business,” he told the Post
“For Israelis to be able to see that there’s another country in East Africa that is open for business, that’s an important element for the local Israeli community as well,” he added.
In response to the field’s opening, Belayenesh Zevadia, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda, expressed support for the company’s newest project in a letter last week. Since the launch of the previous field in Rwanda, Zevadia stressed that she has been confident in Gigawatt’s abilities to repeat such efforts in other African countries.
“I am honored to hear that you chose Burundi to use the lessons learned from neighboring Rwanda and repeat the modern solar technology for clean, predictable and domestically produced energy to empower the people of Mubuga, Gitega,” Zevadia said.
The Burundian project has received financial support through a grant from the Energy and Environment Partnership (a joint Finland, UK and Austria fund) and the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries, in order to cover the studies relevant to constructing the field.
The field also has the support of the African-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Program and the Renewable Energy Performance Platform, which are currently engaging in the project with due diligence.