How This Cisco Youth Leadership Award Finalist Is Fighting to End Africa’s Water Crisis

Author: Khanyi Mlaba

Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award was established in 2018 to honor and uplift extraordinary young activists who have dedicated themselves to working towards achieving the UN’s Global Goals. Christelle Kwizera’s work towards ending water scarcity in Africa contributes to Goal 6, to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; and Goal 11 for building sustainable communities. Join us in taking action on these issues here, and you can have your say in which of the three incredible Cisco Youth Leadership Award finalists is named the winner by casting your vote here.

Christelle Kwizera is on a mission to eradicate water scarcity in Africa and, at just 26 years old, she’s already changed thousands of lives for the better. 

In 2014, Kwizera founded Water Access Rwanda, a social enterprise that aims to eliminate water scarcity and provide communities with safe and easily accessible water. Today her company successfully supplies over 70,000 people with water daily. However, Kwizera says it’s still just the beginning. 

“Our ambition is much bigger because, as I like to say, the crisis is way bigger than what we’re doing,” she tells Global Citizen. “We have 400 million sub-Saharan Africans who don’t have access to water, so we need to do way more to meet the demand in Africa right now.” 

Kwizera is one of three finalists for the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award 2020. This award was established by Cisco and Global Citizen to celebrate and uplift young people who are positively impacting the world, and to identify young leaders who are using their skills and resources to work towards achieving the Global Goals and ending extreme poverty. 

A public vote has launched to help decide the winner of the Cisco Youth Leadership Award, who will receive $250,000 USD in funding to support their organization. You can find out more about the three finalists, and cast your vote for who you think should win, here

The concept behind Kwizera’s business stemmed from a donor-funded project that she initiated while at university. 

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_002.jpgChristelle Kwizera and other team members at the Water Access Rwanda offices in Kigali, Rwanda. In 2014, Kwizera founded Water Access Rwanda, a social enterprise that aims to eliminate water scarcity and provide communities with safe and accessible water.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

At the time her interests were in creating employment for youth and empowering young people to become entrepreneurs, which she successfully advocated for throughout her university career. 

However when the former President Emeritus of her university gave her the budget and opportunity to run her own project, she realized that youth unemployment was not the only crisis that needed her skills and attention. 

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After reading about the lengths that some communities would go to in order to access water, she knew that something had to be done, and gave herself the responsibility of taking action.  

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_003.jpgResidents of Nyarubande, a small rural village in Mageragere Sector, Nyarugenge District, Rwanda. Water Access Rwanda started work in the area in 2017 after a woman from a neighboring community was eaten by a crocodile as she went to fetch water.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

“I was running some innovations to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs and planned to do something around that. Then I found out there were these communities that were being killed by crocodiles because the only source of water they had were these crocodile-infested lakes,” says Kwizera. 

The university project she launched in response focused on drilling boreholes and installing water pumps for people to have easier and safer access to water, which was by no means a new concept. As she and her team carried out the project over that summer, however, she started to realize that the process was not feasible. 

“By the end of the first year after that we did the project, most of the boreholes were having issues, so I was really convinced that we needed to find a more sustainable way to do things,” she explains. “I registered a company, I went back to school to finish my degree, and the young people we worked with throughout the summer, I hired them to start the company and we started drilling.”

Today one of the core focuses of her company is rehabilitating unsustainable boreholes and installing a state-of-the-art system called the INUMA mini-grid, which supplies piped, purified water that people can access either at a public water point or directly in their homes. 

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_Diptych copy.jpg(L) INUMA kiosk in Rwintare, Nyamirambo Sector. The INUMA mini-grid supplies piped, purified water that people can access either at a public water point or directly in their homes. (R) Felix Twizeyumukiza is a kiosk attendant for Water Access Rwanda.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

These mini-grid access points take between six and 18 days to install. Water Access Rwanda makes use of a four-step system to ensure that each point is held to a satisfactory standard. 

First they identify and inspect the perfect site; then an experienced team of technicians drills a borehole. From there they can construct the kiosk, a public facility where communities are able to access water. Each kiosk makes use of a solar-powered connection that is a sustainable power source for the water filtration system. The final step is a commissioning ceremony that inaugurates the community’s safe and sustainable access to water. 

Kwizera made sure that the water her company supplies is affordable for everyone and charges just $1 for 1,000 liters of water. She’s even made these payments easy to track. Water Access Rwanda has made their payment process simple by working with prepaid smart meters that link to mobile payment platforms; they’ve also trained young people to use this technology to sell the water at public access points. 

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Kwizera has an undeniably sharp entrepreneurial mind which, paired with formidable teamwork, has propelled Water Access Rwanda to where it is today. For running her social enterprise, Kwizera prefers to look at her beneficiaries as customers, empowering them and giving them the opportunity to have a say in how their needs are met. 

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_011.jpgRegine Nyiransabimana, left, and Christelle Kwizera enjoy a glass of water. Kwizera made sure that the water her company supplies is affordable for everyone and charges just but it is $1 for 1,000L access to water.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

“What I wish people would know is that people in poverty, they have less, it doesn’t mean they have nothing,” she continues. 

“When looking at people in poverty I find a lot of leaders tend to think of them as people with no ambition who, if given the money, would not self-service [or use] the services that the government would grant for them,” she continues. “But every person in poverty, they dream of a better life, they want a better house, they want to provide for themselves, they want better roofing, they want water inside, they want electricity inside their homes. So if they get the money, they’re going to invest in these projects for themselves.”

In order to alleviate the water crisis, Kwizera believes that world leaders need to reconsider how they look at people in poverty. Instead of seeing people who have absolutely nothing and require handouts, she urges leaders to recognize the potential for a whole new market. 

“I hope world leaders really understand and look at the bottom of the pyramid as a market,” she says. “It’s a market waiting to be unlocked and there’s truly some investments to be made.”

Water Access Rwanda

Water Access Rwanda
A worker lays down new pipeline for water access in Nyarubande, a small village in Mageragere Sector, Nyarugenge District, Kigali City.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

Water Access Rwanda

Water Access Rwanda
Workers look at new pipeline to be installed in Nyarubande. Water Access Rwanda recently raised funding to provide residents with water at their homes. The pipeline will lead water to households, reducing the time they usually spend walking for it.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

Water Access Rwanda

Water Access Rwanda
Community members in Nyarubande help Water Access Rwanda employees with the digging and pipe installations.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

Water Access Rwanda

Water Access Rwanda
Pictured here is Nyarubande, a small village in Mageragere Sector, Nyarugenge District, Kigali City. Water Access Rwanda started work in the area in 2017, when it first installed a public water point where the community could access purified clean water that was much higher quality than the Nyabarongo river.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

The demand for Water Access Rwanda’s services seriously increased this year, as the need for protection against COVID-19 by means of hand washing and social distancing grew. Kwizera explained that although there were new challenges, she is grateful to be living through this time because of the lessons she has learned during the pandemic. 

Throughout Rwanda’s national lockdown, when it came to running her business, her main priorities were leading with compassion and ensuring public safety. 

Due to lockdown restrictions, many of her customers were unable to work, and this affected their payment for water. 

“We started giving away basic free water so that people wouldn’t lose access or return to [old] ways of fetching water,” she explains. 

As one of her lifelong passions is to create and secure employment opportunities for people, she placed all her energy on keeping every person in her company employed throughout the lockdown. 

“I was looking at businesses all around me,” she says, “They were suspending staff to keep cash in the company. I chose something very different, I chose to focus all our cash on employees.” 

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_012.jpgA team member is photographed at the Water Access Rwanda offices in Kigali, Rwanda.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

This paid off and Kwizera is happy to report that her plan was a success, meaning she was able to keep her employees’ jobs safe, while continuing to provide water for those in need. 

Although she acknowledges the strides that she has made in the fight against the water crisis, she emphasizes that she cannot beat the crisis alone and encourages young people to invest in projects that will help to uplift communities. Her most persistent advice is to start working towards the vision of a better world, in spite of any fears people may have. 

“If you’re just scared of failure and you don’t act, in the end you’re just condemning yourself to failure,” she says. “But if the fear of that failure pushes you to act and avoid failure, then that’s a good thing. So I just suggest you live with that fear. I let it motivate me instead of letting it prevent me from acting.”

GCPrize2020_Christelle Kwizera_JacquesNkinzingaboForGlobalCitizen_013.jpgPictured here is a broken hand pump, which Water Access Rwanda works to remove and replace with INUMA kiosks. Not only do the hand pumps break, but the water is not always safe and hard to pump. Each INUMA kiosk provides supplies piped, purified water.
Image: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen


Join Global Citizen in December 2020 to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.

The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize here

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