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Renewable energy driving Zambia’s rural economies

05/05/2015

Providing cheap and clean power for the areas’ population, the small power plants are stimulating income-generation activities and helping reduce poverty in the country..

“The night when power was finally on in our school, I stayed awake and stared at the light bulb for the whole night. I was too excited to sleep, and I was also afraid that the bulb might go off anytime,” said the Headmaster of Timba school in the Shiwang’andu area in northern Zambia with a bashful laughter.

“Electricity has simply changed our lives. The school is attracting better teachers, and children are able to learn computers at a young age now.”

That was back in the year 2012 when 2,000 people in this rural area of Zambia got to use electricity for the first time. Like the majority of the country’s rural population, residents in Shiwang’andu had never had access to electricity because the area is not connected to the national grid.

With only three per cent of the rural population and less than half of the urban population connected to the national power grid, Zambia is facing significant energy challenges, which directly hinder the country’s economic prosperity, social development and, consequently, people’s living standards. However, the country is blessed with immense renewable energy resources:  it possesses a potential hydropower capacity of 6000 MW, of which less than a third is used, and solar radiation which is among the highest in the world (about 6600 MJ/m²).  But to harness the potential renewable energy for rural electrification, financial and technical barriers have to be removed.

In this context, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the United Nations Environment Programme, the Global Environmental Facility, the Government of Zambia, Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation Limited (ZESCO), Development Bank of Zambia and Rural Electrification Authority, joined forces to develop three renewable energy based mini-grids in Zambia.

Today, they are all in full operation. Providing cheap and clean power for the areas’ population, the small power plants are stimulating income-generation activities and helping reduce poverty in the country.

Residents in Shiwang’andu started receiving electricity from a 1 MW small hydropower plant installed at the end of 2012. It was the first hydro plant constructed in Zambia since the 1970s. Today, the plant provides power to the local communities 24 hours a day. Twenty-five thousand people are now connected to the grid and energy access has helped transform the rural backwater into a bustling administrative district in Muchinga Province. With the creation of the new Shiwang’andu district, schools, roads, health care facilities, residential buildings and associated public services are being developed, and this has created a number of jobs for the workers from the surrounding communities. For instance, the hydropower station employs 13 permanent workers.

There are clear signs that small businesses in the area have boomed since the provision of electricity access. There are more restaurants and bars in the area than ever before, and shop owners can now play music and television programmes to attract customers. Small stores also mushroomed because shopkeepers can now sell cold drinks throughout the day, which was quite a luxury previously, and they can have longer opening hours.

Around 200 kilometres away from Shiwang’andu district, in the village of Mpanta in Luapula Province, a solar grid generating 60 kW of power has been installed. The solar panels connect more than 600 households and provide electricity for eight hours a day to schools, houses, shops, a clinic, and a church.

This small community on the shore of the Bangweulu Lake relies mainly on fishing. Musema Tasiki is a fisherman who used to have to get up at 3 a.m. every day to mend his fish nets before setting out to the lake before dawn. He returns at 7 a.m. to sell his catch to the nearby villages and earns one or two dollars a day. Musema said the electricity has improved his family’s life.  “With the light bulb, I can prepare for the day ahead to mend my nets in the evening so that I don’t have to get up so early the next morning. Also, we don’t have to burn charcoal to light our house at night, and my son can study in the evenings now.”

Meanwhile, access to electricity is also encouraging young people and women to start their own businesses. Musema’s neighbor, Charwei, is a housewife. On top of taking care of house chores, she now makes fritters at night and sells them the next day in the market. In this way, she can bring some extra income to the family.

As humble as they are, businesses such as Charwei’s have given local people more confidence in life and bigger chance to prosper. This is precisely what UNIDO’s project aims for.

 “We are not only looking at how to provide people with necessary electricity for daily usage, but also how to give them the opportunity to transform local products and add value to the local economy. In that way, they will be able to be engaged in productive activities and therefore improve their quality of life. I believe electricity will serve as an accelerator for businesses, it will enable private enterprises to emerge and develop while creating more employment opportunities,” said UNIDO’s Diego Masera, who managed this project.

As part of the same project, UNIDO also helped initiate a 1MW biomass gasifier in the Copperbelt region in central Zambia, in cooperation with the local energy company for the same purpose.

According to Masera, “The project had such a remarkable impact that ZESCO, the national energy company, asked UNIDO to implement a new project to build four more power plants in the country. Some investment banks have expressed their interests in funding the new power plants, which will mobilize approximately EUR 100 million - that is ten times more than the funds received to finance the first project. So far, we’ve done preliminary feasibility studies at five sites and have chosen four to install small hydropower plants”.

“The technical assistance can be replicated and scaled up. So far, UNIDO’s renewable energy projects have been implemented over 50 countries across the globe, and they change lives and drive sustainable growth in those rural communities,” added Masera.

Anh Tuan

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