‘Where would I belong if not here?’

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village students welcome East Africa’s first solar field to their campus.

Yosef Abramowitz (center), Gigawatt Global’s president and co-founder, stands with Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village students at the opening of East Africa’s first solar field on Wednesday (photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Yosef Abramowitz (center), Gigawatt Global’s president and co-founder, stands with Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village students at the opening of East Africa’s first solar field on Wednesday
(photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
RWAMAGANA, Rwanda – After a short lesson on the electronics of solar grid connection, members of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village’s science club walked through the gates of their country’s first solar field – a sea of blue panels amid the tree-dotted mountains of eastern Rwanda.
“We hope you will be the revolutionaries,” American-Israeli solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz told them on Wednesday afternoon.
“Let’s show you how it works from electron to grid.”
The science club members – a group of 18 high school students in the village – were receiving a special preview tour of a new 8.5 MW solar field, to be launched by the American- owned Dutch company Gigawatt Global the following day. The first utility-scale solar power plant in all of East Africa, the field is now generating six percent of the Rwandan power supply.
“The humming you hear, that’s the sound of electricity changing from DC to AC,” Abramowitz told the students, from atop a staircase next to the field’s inverter cabin.
Abramowitz serves as president and co-founder of Gigawatt Global, alongside managing director and co-founder Chaim Motzen, who spearheaded the Rwanda project.
The new field is located on the grounds of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, established in December 2008 by Jewish South African-American attorney and philanthropist Anne Heyman, who died tragically in a horse riding accident in January 2014.
Located in Rwanda’s Eastern Province district of Rwamagana, about 60 km. from Kigali, the village is home to high school students orphaned during or after the Rwandan genocide.
With the rows of panels gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, the science club students eagerly asked questions about electricity flow.
“It is a great opportunity for students of Agahozo to be next to this site,” Fabian Izabayo, the project’s assistant site manager, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
A graduate of Agahozo’s first high school class, 23-year-old Izabayo had a long journey to his role as assistant site manager.
“Before Agahozo we had no hope in life,” he said. “We lost most of our relatives.”
Out of the 58 members of his family, Izabayo said that aside from himself only four remained following the 1994 Rwandan genocide – his mother, his young sister and two women from his uncle’s family.
“For my mom it was not easy to manage us,” he said, noting that they fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the genocide as refugees.
Once they returned, Izabayo said he spent his primary school years in the Western Province where he grew up, walking 10 km.
daily to school but receiving the highest marks in his class. He then spent two years in a Catholic junior high school in the Southern Province.
“Still we had no vision of life,” he said.
After completing his courses at the school, Izabayo returned to his Western Province home, where he was recruited by Jean-Pierre Nkuranga, who worked at the time with Heyman on establishing the future Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village.
“I didn’t even know any English,” Izabayo said. “He said if you join Agahozo we want you to maximize your potential. Those who lost families will get new families.”
When they arrive at Agahozo-Shalom, the students first take part in an enrichment year, during which they both boost their academic skills and take part in “Tikkun Halev” (Healing the heart) sessions with social workers. The students then decide upon their tracks of study for “senior years” four, five and six. While at Agahozo, the young men and women are separated by gender into “family houses,” which include 16 students and a “house mama” – typically an older woman widowed during the Rwandan genocide.
By senior year four, Izabayo said he was “becoming a man of confidence” and began to try to “think out of the box.” In year five, he launched a business club and was able to bring in local businesspeople to provide guidance to the group, with the help of staff members at Agahozo like then business director Trevor Green.
Some time after graduation, Izabayo began working with Green, who in 2013 founded the Remote Partners – an NGO that works with international companies as a local partner working in the energy, real estate, agribusiness, commodities trade and ICT sectors in emerging sub-Saharan African markets. Remote Partners, where Izabayo serves as assistant CEO, alongside CEO Ido Herman, became one of the on-theground partners for the Gigawatt Global solar field. In turn, the two became assistant site manager and site manager for the field.
“In Rwanda we have an energy problem,” Izabayo said.
Before the Gigawatt Global broke ground on the solar field, the national grid had a capacity of 110 MW, Izabayo explained. While this number has climbed to 140 MW today, it still means that the new solar field accounts for 6% of the country’s power supply.
“Without electricity we don’t have infrastructure,” Izabayo said. “This really helps Rwanda in terms of increasing infrastructure around the country.”
During an interview with the Post on Wednesday morning in Kigali, United States Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles likewise discussed the critical nature of expanding the country’s infrastructure. The US government has been a key partner in the project by providing an Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) Africa Clean Energy Finance grant, as well as including the field in President Barack Obama’s Power Africa program.
The new field will now allow children in some 15,000 additional households to “study for school by electrical light” and provide adults with the ability to perform tasks as simple as charging a cellphone, she stressed.
“So if you’re growing vegetables you can check out prices in the markets around you,” she said. “It’s all part of the building blocks of economic development.”
For Ornella Rwanziza, a 17-year-old science club member from Kigali, the solar field adjacent to their village carries national significance.
“I care about my country and I believe it is contributing to my country,” she told the Post, during the Wednesday science club tour. “Some of us are from places where we cannot get electricity. But if it’s giving [electricity to] a large scale of a country, that means our citizens are benefiting and it’s contributing to our country.”
At school, Rwanziza focuses on math, economics and computers, and said she hopes to go to university abroad to study architecture. Her goal is to integrate business and technology skills into a career in architecture – in Rwanda.
“For all the projects I think about, I think about Rwanda,” she said.
In the science club, she works on a number of projects but is currently focused on mobile application development, with the guidance of the Kigali-based HeHe Labs startup, Rwanziza explained.
“We are not inventing anything – we are doing it for ourselves,” she said of the science club activities.
Like Rwanziza, 21-year-old Joel Mutuyimana also hopes to pursue a university degree abroad, in electrical engineering. He too is involved in mobile application development in the science club and is pursuing a math, physics and computers track in school.
In Mutuyimana’s eyes, the completion of the solar field was particularly significant due to Rwanda’s commitment to growth as a nation.
“It means a lot to me because here in Rwanda we are developing ourselves,” Mutuyimana said.
“We came here and learned new things and new technology,” he continued. “It’s stimulating to think more and dream big, so in the future we can have more engineers.”
While both Mutuyimana and Rwanziza are considering higher education degrees abroad, as the sun began to set over the new solar field on Wednesday, they expressed their gratitude for the opportunities they have gained at Agahozo.
“I don’t know where else I would belong if not here,” Rwanziza said.
The author was a guest of Gigawatt Global.