Solar Energy powering rural areas

By Lungelo Ndhlovu

When Kalani Ndlovu bought a 14-hectare farm in rural Umguza in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North Province he was determined to invest in solar energy and improve livelihoods in this area.

Ndlovu says he uses solar energy for lighting and irrigation purposes and grows citrus fruits and enough maize and vegetables to sell, even during the drought seasons.

“The most exciting thing about this farm is that I am pumping water using solar energy. I found water in seven boreholes that are on my farm. Two of them are running on solar and the other three on generators. With solar, I am pumping water every minute … to fill up a 40 000-litre reservoir for my animals, fields and domestic use,” said Ndlovu.

Electrification has been one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history.

Fifteen years into the 21st century, it is hard to imagine that more than 1.2 billion people around the world have never been reached by the electricity grid, and another 3 billion people have limited grid connectivity.

According to the United Nation’s ‘sustainability for all’ initiatives: “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity and an environment that allows the world to thrive.”

Providing reliable grid connectivity to large swaths of rural areas in Africa, South East Asia, Central and South America, remains a daunting challenge and an expensive proposition for many governments.

The Department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (Agritex), says the Zimbabwean government is pushing to upscale solar and biogas uptake, to complement the rural electrification programme to assist those who live in rural areas.

“Firstly, we started to talk about biogas here in Zimbabwe around early 1995-1996. We did pilot projects in Zhombe, Midlands Province and the uptake was very low because people did not understand the technology.

“Today, we realised that with shortages of electricity in Zimbabwe and Africa in general, there is need to think renewable energy and promote the use of biogas and solar systems,” said Matabeleland North Provincial Agritex Officer, Mr Dumisani Nyoni.

In Zimbabwe, rural households use firewood to meet more than 90 percent of their fuel needs. But many families find it increasingly difficult to gather enough wood for cooking and heating. It is difficult (to gather enough firewood), because of the country’s laws that prohibit the indiscriminate cutting of trees, especially those such as red teak, used in the making of furniture and roofing products. Women and children are mostly burdened as they endure long distances in search of firewood.

“We are not allowed to cut trees near our homesteads. So we now go up the mountain in search of firewood. It is very hard especially when we have to carry the load on our heads considering the distance to and from the mountain.

“I normally tie a large load so that it lasts me a week or longer but this has affected my back,” said Sibonokuhle Ndlovu from Ntshene Village at Esigodini area.

The energy challenges facing Zimbabwe are urgent and daunting but there are several off-grid technologies and other clean energy solutions that can improve energy access such as: like mini grid, micro grid; solar lighting, solar home systems, small hydro, solar water heaters; clean cook stoves, biogas, and renewable energy based solar pumps.

These can be exploited to make a significant contribution to the country’s energy situation.

A load forecast report on domestic households and institutions in rural off-grid areas in Zimbabwe, the Rural Energy Master Plan (REMP) 2016, indicates that the potential additional rural electricity demand by 2034 is between 500 MW and 900 MW, assuming all rural customers will be grid-connected.

Setting up a solar grid system might be costly initially, but has huge benefits in the end.

“Establishing the solar system at my farm cost me about $5 000. Initially the costs might look high, but I am enjoying the benefits from both biogas and solar. I am planning to extend my solar project, to sell some of the units to my neighbors and even to the national grid,” said Ndlovu.

Ndlovu said his biogas system produces 7 kilograms of gas per day, which is enough to cater for a day’s cooking needs.

“We are using less than 1 kilogram of methane for our cooking needs, for a family of 15 people. We are always left with a surplus of gas since we use solar for our lighting,” said Ndlovu.

Mrs Vannie Dube, a widow staying in Madiliwola, Umzingwane area at Esigodini, also invested in a solar home system, and her rural life experience has completely changed.

“Before establishing the solar home system at my home stead, life was very hard. I needed to keep in contact with my children who are living abroad and had to walk long distances to charge my mobile phone.

“With solar, I just charge my battery at home and I can access news from my television set and radio. I’m always informed on what is happening,” said Mrs Dube.

Many rural people felt that investing in solar and biogas is very expensive and unrealistic due to the economic hardships. But  Kalani Ndlovu believes government should initiate an affirmative action policy whereby every rural  household has biogas for cooking and heating, to promote solar and biogas.

Energy and policy expert, Tafadzwa Dhlakama, a Legal Researcher for Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), said biogas use in Zimbabwe is still a long way off because of the amount of organic material needed to feed the digester.

“For example sugarcane farmers in Chiredzi and Triangle, have been supplying sugarcane to local sugar milling plants for processing. One sugar milling plant has been using the by-products from sugarcane grown around Chiredzi and Triangle towns to produce electricity using a biogas digester.

“My general observation is that decentralised biogas use in Zimbabwe is still a long way as its effectiveness depends largely on big sources of biomass. The drive to promote biogas use should not be seen mainly from a commercial point of view or large scale production, (but) rather at household level where one only needs at least four cows to feed a bio-digester daily.

“The people who are living in energy poverty and have greater access to biomass resources (farm ‘waste’, cow dung, Jatropha seed cake, forestry, etc) are in the rural areas, “ said Dhlakama.

Post Author: Muaz Cisse

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