By Tendai Chara
‘’We used to buy our own fuel from Gwanda town, more than 60 km away – to power our diesel pumps. We would also pay for transportation of the fuel, ‘’ says a smallholder farmer, Mpokiseng Moyo, at the Rustlers Gorge Irrigation Scheme in Gwanda district, in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South Province.
“Now, there’s no need for us to travel long distances to buy diesel to pump water for irrigation. We’re now using solar power,’’’ says Moyo.
Moyo is one of 10,000 community members benefitting from energy services from the country’s first inclusive solar-power-mini grid – the Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities project, established five years ago to bring clean modern energy to off-grid, isolated communities in Mashaba area, Gwanda South.
Health and education services are poor in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, partly because these services do not have access to electricity. People, especially those in rural areas, have been heavily depended on other forms of energy such as biogas and firewood for cooking and heating, and petroleum based fuels for lighting.
The rural electrification rates in Zimbabwe were as low as 7% of households at the start of the project in February 2015.
In Gwanda district, as is in most of Zimbabwe, the local economy is driven by agriculture. Changes in weather patterns have turned this into an often losing gamble for smallholder farmers who rely on rain-fed rainfall.
Zimbabwe rural communities have limited livelihood activities which makes connection costs unaffordable even if they had access to the grid. The initiative’s target communities in the district are 2 kilometres from the grid, but even if they were closer, they would not be able to connect to or pay for electricity.
Innocent Katsande, Practical Action Southern Africa Knowledge Management and Communications Coordinator, said the Mashaba mini-grid project was “alive and kicking.”
“We handed over the project to the community in June 2019, and the project is fully functional. This project transformed lives in the areas of health, education and business activities.” Katsande said.
The €2,7 million project was jointly funded by the European Union (EU-ACP), the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The project was being implemented by Practical Action as the lead partner working with Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) and Human Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (HIVOS), being the technical partners. Dabane Trust, Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD) and Environment Africa, where the implementing partners.
With the abundance of sunlight in Gwanda district, the project is generating 99 kilowatts at peak and servicing a 25km radius through an 11kilovolts (kV) power line.
This decentralised mini-grid connects clean energy to two business centres, a clinic, a primary school that includes a study centre and three irrigation schemes. A resource/study centre has also been set up to enhance pupil learning experience as well as develop information and communication technology skills in the community.
This will house facilities that include provision of e-learning, Internet, after hours’ study and community information.
Nine energy kiosks for household energy requirements, such as lighting, communication/ mobile phone charging, entertainment (television and radios), battery charging, among other low energy uses, have been established.
Before the new technology, farmers from Mankonkoni, Rustlers’ Gorge and Sebasa irrigation schemes, harvested five tonnes of maize per hectare. The yields have now gone up to 10 tonnes of maize per hectare and with the new hybrid maize varieties, the yields can go up to 15 tonnes per hectare,” said Gwanda South crop and livestock officer, Uteng Silaigwana.
The three irrigation schemes, established in 1960s, had struggled to produce yields and the situation was worsened by the negative effects of climate change and flash floods.
Mashaba Clinic serves more than 6,000 villagers. Both the clinic and nurses’ houses have been electrified, it is easier for nurses to prepare for work at home and being able to deliver a better service to the community.
The main challenge was the preservation of vaccines at the maternity department which are stored at more than 2 and/or more than 8 Degrees Celcius. “In maternity cases, most deliveries occur at night and when we do not have lighting, it is very difficult, ‘’said Sikhangele Ndlovu, a senior nurse at the clinic, which now boasts of Internet connectivity.
“Our business was a struggle and we were forced to close early because using paraffin lamps or candles was expensive. But with electricity, we have diversified our products because of the refrigeration options,” said a local businesswoman, Violet Ndlovu, who runs a grocery shop.
Owing to increased profits, she has managed to sent her two children to university – one at the University of Zimbabwe while the other one is studying in China.
One key success factor for operating mini-grids is human capacity development. Training and technical skills are essential to address the operational challenges that such systems require.
‘’Our job as local technicians is to monitor the grid. We also provide tubing and wiring services to local clients. We charge for our services, and use this income to sustain our families, ‘’ says Silindiso Moyo, a local technician trained under the project.
“Our other role is to maintain the solar plant and the transmission line. In plant maintenance, we will be checking the solar panels, batteries, inverters and everything within the plant, ‘’ she adds.
Through the establishment of the solar mini-grid to power productive and social use in the country, the Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities project sought to contribute to the achievements of the Sustainable Energy for All targets, which looks at closing the energy gap while facilitating for sustainable energy access for all by 2030.