Christelle Kwizera

8 min read
01 Jan 2024

n Rwanda, two out of three people live in poverty and access to safe water is a challenge. Christelle Kwizera, the founder of Water Access Rwanda, made it her mission to change this through social entrepreneurship and technology. While in her third year of university, she embarked on a summer project to tackle the clean water crisis, and after seeing her solutions make a difference, she formally launched Water Access Rwanda in 2014. Since then, Christelle has provided water solutions to communities throughout Rwanda and in other East African countries, and has changed the landscape of social entrepreneurship in Kigali and beyond. 

Christelle Kwizera, Managing Director of Water Access Rwanda — Photo by Alex Niragira

How did you become interested in engineering as well as impact and social entrepreneurship?

I have always been interested in entrepreneurship. Something about taking risks and growing the value of ideas and companies always appealed to me. Even when I was young and couldn’t quite process what it was all about, I was always making money at every opportunity I found. I put on dance performances for visitors at home, I sold celebrity posters to classmates and I charged my dad when I helped him out with his work. My path to engineering was a little more complicated. I received great grades in school and that actually kind of limited me to three fields, in the African parenting sense of things: medicine, law and engineering. I have always been in love with aerospace engineering and I had eyed several great aerospace engineering schools, such as Embry-Riddle. I even got accepted there, but unfortunately didn’t get enough scholarships to be able to afford it. Fascinated by watching MacGyver make bombs out of everyday objects in order to escape tricky situations, I decided instead to pursue mechanical engineering. I got accepted to attend Oklahoma Christian University and received enough scholarships to fund my education. 

How did you come to find your clean water focus?

The connection to water and geophysics came during my third year of university. During what should have been a summer project to drill for clean water, I found a life calling: to end the water crisis and youth unemployment. However, up until the time we arrived in the community and started drilling, it all felt a bit impersonal to me. I was doing the finance, the planning, training people and working on the tech side, but at that point the number of people who didn’t have access to clean water was just a number for me. I hadn’t really seen their faces.

When I was very young, my family struggled with access to clean water, but I only associated it with outages once in a while. It was eye-opening for me to go into this community and see people who had never had access to clean piped water. The only water source within a ten kilometer radius provided unclean water, and that unclean water contained crocodiles. The local school there had a low pass rate for national exams, and I wondered whether this was connected to the water supply. Research found that the water contained huge amounts of lead, and if you consume lead from a very young age, you will have developmental issues. I learned that thirty percent of children there were stunted, and that this was connected to the lack of access to clean water. I became a better advocate. I understood the problem more and it all started to become more of a reality for me. I decided that I was going to invest my life in this. 

What were some of your early challenges while starting up and how did you overcome them?

In the early stages, I had two main challenges. The first was that I was young and everyone treated me like I was a child. The second was that I had to be honest in realizing that my solution was not sustainable. It took a lot of courage to say that UNICEF, the Rotary Foundation and everyone else promoting a model of hand pumps for rural communities was wrong. These are big organizations and it was a challenge to have to admit that I was doing something wrong. I ended up giving myself the credit I needed, and now we have the first borehole-fed rural water mini-grid in the world.

There was also the issue of education in the communities where we installed boreholes. Early on, I was driving by a field and I passed a borehole that worked perfectly, but people were passing it and going to the river. I stopped and asked everybody fetching water in the river why they weren’t using the borehole. They said the borehole had worms in it. The river water did too, but it wasn’t clear water so they couldn’t see them. I later saw a lady drinking water from a river where a man was cleaning himself uphill. I asked why she was drinking that water, and she said it was fine because he was her husband. It was baffling to me that we were providing a solution and still there were so many examples of it not working. I realized there was a need for a bigger presence in the community. You can’t just drill and leave. You have to stay. We needed longer-term education and training for using boreholes and pumps. 

What do you believe was your biggest mistake, as well as your best decision as a founder?

The biggest mistake I made was to enter into a long-term professional partnership without putting down the terms in writing first. The best decision I made was diving into the world of entrepreneurship, a world I did not understand. 

You have to be humble enough to accept simple beginnings and slow growth. At the same time, you should also be ambitious enough to envision major gains and massive growth.

How did you make your business model profitable, and can you highlight any early successes in that journey?

Drafting projections before engaging is a key aspect of what I do. The learning points were to see that often the reality is interrupted by many aspects not considered in a model. This has meant that we’ve had to stay lean and figure out innovative ways to make money that were not in the model we started with. We actually threw out all the models that didn’t work, because traditional hand pump business models were not working. We needed to innovate and do better. 

Do you have any specific business case examples?

One example of this is when we realized that boreholes cost around two thousand to four thousand dollars, and communities didn’t have that money. In 2015, we introduced services such as filters, which were cheaper, so people didn’t have to invest in boreholes. We noticed that farmers were more willing and able to afford pipes and water systems. In 2016, because drilling is the core business of the company and the highest revenue source we have, and because we have a passion for giving people safe drinking water and creating employment for young people, we started building waterways for farmers. That way, the community had access to lay pipes, and could pay farmers a small amount so they could buy diesel for their pumps. We established this for a few farmers, and it became a win-win. Because the community had water nearby they didn’t have to invest in any infrastructure, and the farmer would receive revenue. 

What professional advice would you give to people in the early stages of starting up?

You have to be humble enough to accept simple beginnings and slow growth. At the same time, you should also be ambitious enough to envision major gains and massive growth. 

How would you describe the startup ecosystem and community in Kigali?

The ecosystem here is quite nascent. We still have many gaps to fill and not enough exciting startups. Many startups have set their bars quite low, and I feel they could be setting them much higher. In terms of where the ecosystem is headed in the future, we do need more A-players, people who are committed to creating value for businesses in Kigali. I do think it’s still growing. Water Access Rwanda has been one of the leading voices of social entrepreneurship here. Before, the focus was on tech entrepreneurs and ICT, and we came in as the first self-described social enterprise in the country. We were able to demonstrate how to combine being for-profit and caring about a cause. 

How have you impacted the ecosystem?

I think we established a pretty good standard of what a social enterprise can do in the Rwanda ecosystem. We’re really leading in terms of quantifiable impact around different issues, and we’re seeing more social entrepreneurs joining the ecosystem. Many young entrepreneurs now prefer to describe themselves as social entrepreneurs. Of course I can’t take all the credit – when we started, many other enterprises were being founded at the same time. Now we employ a bunch of the people involved in those original enterprises. We were part of the first generation of young entrepreneurs and had a massive impact in terms of job creation. We’re also changing the narrative around making money – it isn’t only reserved for mature entrepreneurs. For the ecosystem to grow, you need more players going for big revenue and impact. The ecosystem still has a long way to go. 

What are the pillars on which you hire the right people for your team?

Potential team members for Water Access Rwanda have to love what we do above all else. They have to be willing to fail, accept the failure and learn from it. Finally, they should be stubborn in their commitment to our vision.

How do you foster a great team dynamic and culture?

We make sure there is lots of open communication during the work day, and also have parties with great food when we can afford it!

Christelle Kwizera, Managing Director of Water Access Rwanda — Photo by Alex Niragira

What are your top work essentials?
A great team that understands ideas and delivers implementation tactics. 

At what age did you found your company?

What’s your most-used app?

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
It hurts to have questions and no answers, but equally so to have answers and have nobody to ask. 

What’s your greatest skill?
Empathy, understanding systems and the courage to challenge the status quo. 

This article is included in Startup Guide Kigali, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!