Rwanda and small-scale hydraulics

Manuel Marin, 2013

This fact sheet describes a partnership experience to overcome energy poverty in Rwanda. This international partnership has enabled a larger part of the population to become energy self-sufficient and, as a result, to achieve economic and local development outside the agricultural sphere.

The Rwandan government in partnership with the Belgian government recently completed the construction of three small-scale hydropower plants in Rwanda. These plants are intended to supply rural communities, whose access to electricity was limited. The project is part of a 10-year strategy to increase Rwanda’s energy production by 900 Mega Watts, of which 5 MW will come from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and small-scale hydro. The idea is to use these environmentally friendly technologies to feed small local consumers. This is the principle of energy autonomy applied at the communal level, and it shows its effectiveness not only from an economic point of view, but also from a social point of view. Local communities immediately feel the benefits of electricity while the territory preserves its stability.

Several international organizations have been involved since 2009 in building a fleet of 20 small-scale hydropower plants in Rwanda. These include the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC). The project follows a study of the country’s renewable energy potential led by the Government of Rwanda, which identified small-scale hydropower as an economic development opportunity. In fact, Rwanda’s climatic and geographic conditions make it possible to develop this technique, which consists of using the natural flow of water to power a turbine and thus generate electricity. Three of the 20 plants of the project are currently operational, in Nkora, Cyimbili and Keya, providing a total of 3 Mega Watts. This capacity can be supplemented in the future by photovoltaics, which comes into play during the dry season when small-scale hydroelectricity diminishes. Conversely, in the rainy season, small-scale hydro is expected to take over when photovoltaics are less available}}

The 20 plants in the project will be aimed primarily at attacking the problem of energy poverty that affects many rural Rwandan communities ; today, 75% of Rwanda’s population is rural. Prior to the July 2011 installation of the Nkora, Cyimbili, and Keya power plants, residents in the area had access to only 6 hours of electricity per day. After the installation, this figure rose to 23 hours per day.

The Rwandan government’s goal is to provide energy to 70% of the population by 2017. At the same time, the demand for electricity will increase due to population growth and the development of mining activities in the north of the country. For this to happen, the installed capacity must be increased from 97 to 1,000 megawatts. This capacity will be obtained mainly from traditional sources, such as large-scale hydro (dams) and fossil fuel-based thermal (natural gas). However, 5 MW will come from renewable sources.

Residents who have benefited from the energy from the Nkora and Cyimbili plants are satisfied with the project. The residents of Keya, on the other hand, report irregularities in the supply, which the power plant officials attribute to the distribution network, which is not up to standard. These irregularities prevent the Keya area from reaching the same level of development as the Nkora and Cymbili areas, where access to electricity has allowed the opening of restaurants, cafes, and beauty salons. The inhabitants of these communities are becoming entrepreneurs and seeing their incomes increase considerably. When interviewed about the impact these projects have had on their lives, they repeat phrases such as «  these projects are a miracle for us  » and «  now that I have electricity, my life has changed ". These are the same people who worked on the construction of the plant. During its construction, encouraged by the company that supervised the work, they made savings that allowed them to finance the installation of their businesses.

These projects have also had a significant social impact. The new restaurants, cafés and beauty salons are community meeting places that strengthen relationships between neighbors. It also allows entrepreneurs to find new partners for their businesses, which is a virtuous circle for growth. Access to electricity has also allowed schools and hospitals to function properly, especially in Nkora and Cyimbili where these services were very poor. Residents no longer have to travel to Gysenyi or Kigali for medical attention. Teachers can plan their classes in advance. The number of hours that students work at home has increased since homes are connected to the new power plants.

Despite these improvements in the living environment, the inhabitants of the communities concerned are not yet fully aware of the advantages of small-scale hydropower over other sources of energy, particularly with regard to land conservation and management. It is true that the installation of the power plants has slightly deviated the course of the rivers and some families have been displaced. But they received compensation from the government. The inhabitants are satisfied with this solution. In addition, the new waterways were made to bring the rivers closer to the communities, giving them more direct access for washing clothes and making other household tasks easier. However, families still use wood for heating and cooking. Electricity is used only for lighting. The government encourages the use of electricity for cooking and heating to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Small-scale hydropower is a valid alternative to traditional hydropower, especially when it comes to supplying electricity to small rural communities. Its impact should not be measured exclusively in terms of improving the economic and social conditions of the inhabitants, but also of the other species living in the territory. From this point of view, small-scale hydropower is much more environmentally friendly than traditional hydropower, as large dams flood large portions of the territory. But they are complementary technologies. The Rwandan government is showing that both can be developed at the same time, in the same region, with different objectives. It is still too early to determine the impact of the Nkora, Cyimbili and Keya plants on the population. They have only been operational for a year. But what can be said is that this type of project is generally well received by the people. Energy development is a multidimensional problem. Finding a good energy solution for a given territory implies knowing how to highlight and articulate them in a coherent way.


  • Ministère des Infrastructures du Rwanda, Autorité de l’énergie, de l’eau et de l’assainissement et Rwanda Development Board, Energy, The Opportunity in Rwanda, 2012.

  • Ministère des Infrastructures du Rwanda, Stratégie de développement de l’électricité sur 7 ans pour 2011-2017, 2011.

  • Banque mondiale, Rwanda at a Glance

  • Société allemande pour la coopération internationale (GIZ), Rwanda