Christelle Kwizera is a force to be reckoned with. At 26, in 2020, she won the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award in recognition of her incredible work as the founder and managing director of Water Access Rwanda — setting her on a path to having an even greater impact with her work.

The innovative social enterprise, which Kwizera set up in 2014 while she was still at university, helps to provide clean water to rural areas across Rwanda while providing training and employment to young Rwandans.

Her team finds boreholes (a type of narrow well that can be used for extracting groundwater) that are no longer in use and rebuilds them. They then add in their own state-of-the-art infrastructure that can pipe safe, purified water to public access points or directly into people's homes. By 2020, the organization was successfully supplying water to around 70,000 people every day. But Kwizera has always had ambitions to do more.

The $250,000 Cisco Youth Leadership Award prize funding has helped her achieve some of those goals, despite the set-backs of COVID-19, by enabling the organization to scale up as well as innovate the technology they use. The prize was awarded during the Global Citizen Prize ceremony in December 2020, and, after getting over the initial shock of being announced as the winner by Nick Jonas, Kwizera said it was her 10-year plan to get safe water to over 30 million people.

As well as building water pumps, the enterprise produces and sells water collection systems that people can use in their homes or community buildings to harvest rainwater and purify it. Water Access Rwanda has also developed a new model to help farmers living uphill or far from a water source to irrigate their land.

With water scarcity affecting 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, the expansion of the organization’s work has the potential to make a huge difference.

In a video interview with Global Citizen filmed in December, Kwizera explained that in the year since receiving the prize, the Water Access Rwanda team has grown to 85 people, including 10 new technical apprentices (a key part of their mission is reducing youth unemployment) and they've had to expand their offices to make room for more staff.

They've also added 122 water points, driving the total number of water points they’ve created up to 370. They’ve also installed more solar panels to their water points to increase their use of renewable energy powering the water pumps.

Even now, having achieved so much to reach new communities with safe water, Kwizera has her sights set on doing more: “We went from 67,000 users towards the end of 2020, to now having 88,000 users… but we wish we could have gone to over 100,000.”

“We did hit another big milestone, however, which is that we have now officially sold and distributed 100 million litres of safe water through INUMA [the company’s trade-marked water pumping system],” Kwizera continues. “So there's a lot to celebrate and there is a lot to learn and a lot to plan for next year.”

But all these gains took hard work. With the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc and lockdowns throughout 2021, Kwizera faced a year with even more uphill battles than usual.

In the first six months of the year Rwanda faced rising COVID-19 cases and restrictions on travel which were very disruptive to Water Access Rwanda's work. In a video diary Kwizera filmed last June, she described how members of her team were out of action having tested positive, while a temporary lockdown meant they could not leave the capital city, Kigali, where they are based.

“This is always bad for us as we need to be able to go into different rural areas to keep the water running,” Kwizera said in the video diary entry. “Today we are drafting a plan to see how we can still keep the water running, while also running at half staff capacity,” she added.

In her next video diary, Kwizera said she was concerned about her team and their exposure to COVID-19. “We’re almost frontline workers, we’re not like doctors, but keeping water running in communities does mean we are also exposed.”

Despite these immense difficulties, in the second half of the year things started to get better. “August to December was full of activities for us,” Kwizera told Global Citizen. “Things started picking up again.” August was the end of Rwanda’s last lockdown, and she said she hoped it would be the last. 

“One of the key numbers I'm really proud to present from this year is that our users saved an average of 58% on their water bills, meaning owning our system led to them saving money,” Kwizera continues. “And this is why we hope to see fewer water outages, reduced spending on water, and increased rainwater harvesting — which in turn leads to less runoff and flooding — going forward.”

Having trained up new people and developed new versions of their products by November 2021, Kwizera said they were busy catching up on a huge backlog of orders and looking forward to an exciting 2022.

“It’s been a long, long year, but we were still able to continue our operations during COVID-19 and we are now looking at a better outcome for the future,” Kwizera said in December.

“And this was all, in a big part, due to the support from Cisco and Global Citizen, so I want to take a moment to say thanks for this amazing award,” she added. “I hope that, based on the achievement and the growth we're finally seeing after a period of reduced activity, that we are going to make that promise of reaching millions of people across Africa with safe, affordable, reliable water.”

The Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award, was launched by Cisco and Global Citizen in 2018 to recognize and lift up a young person who is positively impacting the world. 

Global Citizen Asks

Defeat Poverty

This Cisco Youth Leadership Award Winner Is Providing Clean Water for 88,000 Rwandans Amid COVID-19

By Helen Lock