EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Babuluki Sibanda sits in front of his teacher’s laptop trying to type his name.
With information communication technology (ICT) being one of the subjects incorporated into the new school curriculum, the young boy from the poverty-stricken Matankeni village in Gwanda South is one of those pupils in rural outskirts, who were fortunate enough to have practical lessons, thanks to the availability of the recently established solar power project.
Babuluki and his fellow pupils at Mashaba Primary School are proud beneficiaries of country’s first inclusive solar power mini-grid project in Gwanda that will see about 10 000 villagers benefitting.
“I am happy to learn computers and this was made possible by the availability of electricity. Before the connections, it could not happen, as my teacher’s laptop would be charged elsewhere,” he said.
Gwanda’s Mashaba Mini Solar Grid was established under the European Union (EU)-funded Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities (SE4RC) project that is erecting solar-powered decentralised mini-grids in isolated rural communities in Zimbabwe and Malawi.
The recently-completed Gwanda solar mini grid has 400 solar panels, with each generating 255 watts of power at peak.
This means that the project is generating 99kw after losses through transmission and is servicing a 40km radius through a 33 kilovolts (kv) power line.
The solar power is institutionalised with Mashaba Primary School, clinic, business centre and Rustler Gorge Irrigation scheme being the ones connected.
About 20km from Babuluki’s school, Mpokiseng Moyo (46) works in her wheat field that she has been irrigating following the connection of the solar power.
The mother of six could not hide her joy on how the project has changed her life.
“I was a cross-border trader before and used to smuggle goods to earn a living. I was never at home. Farming under irrigation was a daunting task, as the engines that pumped water into the fields would break down all the time. Moreover, it was expensive to travel to Gwanda to buy fuel.
“But today, things have changed. The solar power project has rejuvenated all of us and we are farming all-year round. It works and it is very cheap. I am now at home, no more cross border trade, I have something to do for the better of my family,” she said.
Farmers at Rustler Gorge Irrigation pump water from Shashe River to water their 32 hectares of land.
Of the 41 farmers at the scheme, 26 of them are females.
All the farmers produce crops on rotational basis, with each working on 0,2ha at each of the three blocks.
Besides the EU, the SE4RC in Zimbabwe is being sponsored by the Opec Fund for International Development and GEF Small Grants Programme, while Practical Action, Dabane Trust and SNV are implementing the project.
The Malawi component is implemented by Practical Action, Hivos, Card and Environment Africa.
Both the Zimbabwe and Malawi projects are funded to the tune of approximately $8,2m and all mini grids will benefit about 30 000 people.
Mashaba Primary School deputy headmaster, Obert Ncube, who is also the project’s spokesperson said the lighting up of the school following the installation of the solar power has brought positive results, as far as pupils’ performance is concerned.
“We are grateful to be associated with the project and that we now have electricity. We are able to implement the ICT programme as enshrined in the new curriculum.
“There is a big change, after the connection, teachers are now finding it easy to be deployed this side.
“We have retained most of the qualified teachers, who were shunning this area and this has a great impact on the side of children and this is because of power availability,” he said.
Ncube said the Grade 7 pass rate rose from 21,5% in 2014 to 53% last year, as the school is now a preferred destination for qualified teachers.
The government, through the Energy ministry, has been receiving proposals from companies to establish solar power mini grid plants, but most of the projects have failed to kick off, while some sponsored organisations and individuals have abused funds.
SE4RC projects officer, Shepherd Masuka said the success of the Mashaba solar power grid should be emulated by the government and other organisations for the better of the marginalised communities in the country.
“This is just a pilot project and is Zimbabwe’s first inclusive solar mini grid, but it has proved that it works for the better for marginalised communities. We urge the government and other authorities to emulate that. Renewable energy is the way to go. The power that we are generating is not enough for the whole nation. So if we expand the national grid it is more expensive, solar energy is accessible everywhere and anytime,” he said.
Meanwhile, registration of a community trust is underway – the trust will hold shares in the company on behalf of the community.
The next step is for the trust to form a partnership with an independent company, which will ensure that the energy company is run professionally and sustainably, adopting an appropriate tariff.
The pegging of tariffs will enable homesteads to be connected to the power grid.
Zimbabwe has been experiencing perennial power shortages.
The use of generators has became an alternative for some homes and irrigation schemes, but they being expensive to buy, securing fuel and spare parts is another setback.
Gwanda Rural District Council chief executive officer, Ronnie Sibanda hailed the project and said many farmers will benefit through irrigation schemes since the area lies in region five, where rains are erratic.
On the other hand, expecting mothers at Mashaba Clinic no longer need to bring candles and lanterns whenever they go into labour, as the whole medical institution boasts of solar power.
The nearby business centre has become a haven for the youth, who now visit the area for entertainment, as bottle stores can now play music and screen soccer matches.
But Moyo’s family seems to have benefitted most, as their mother is always at home, thanks to the solar powered irrigation scheme at Rustlers Gorge.