Powering up development in rural Africa

Powering up development in rural Africa 

As Daniel Rea, founding Trustee and former Chair of the North West Zambia Development Trust, walks through the main street in Ikelenge, Zambia, he cannot help but be proud of the impact that he and his team have had on the local population.

School grades and attendance are improving; the local economy is growing; access to healthcare has broadened; and living standards are rising.

A dark and harsh reality

Just 10 years ago, this rural village in the North-West of Zambia was stuck in a cycle of poverty and outward migration. Most people survived on subsistence farming and there were few employment opportunities within hundreds of kilometers of the village. On a good day, the local hospital, founded by missionaries over a century ago, might have used their diesel generator for 2 to 3 hours in the evening, but even this was unreliable and prohibitively expensive.

“Only about 3 percent of rural Zambians have access to a steady source of power, which makes it very difficult to improve productivity or enhance development outside of the cities,” noted Mr. Rea. “When you really get down to the root causes of urban migration, many of the motivators – things like improved standard of living or greater employment opportunities – are directly related to access to power.”

Making change happen

Recognizing this, Mr. Rea and a group of interested parties (including a UK-based doctor, a church group, Mr. Rea’s uncle and others) set their minds towards harnessing the upper reaches of the Zambezi River – just 56 kilometers from its source – to power a 750 kilowatt hydroelectric facility.

“In 2004, we had a good idea, a thousand pounds in the bank and absolutely no experience with either fundraising or building something this technical,” admitted Mr. Rea. “Yet just three years later we opened the facility after having raised over US$2 million dollars from charitable organizations and individuals.”

Amazingly, the entire project was delivered by local villagers who – under the guidance of international experts – built the facility to a very high global standard. This approach provided three big benefits; first, the project injected much-needed income into the community; secondly, it created a local capability for developing similar projects; and, thirdly, it drove costs down to around half of what a typical build would normally cost using international contractors or developers.

A catalyst to development

Today, the isolated mini-grid reaches out for 30 kilometers and serves approximately 360 residential customers and around 20 nonresidential users including the hospital, several schools, a commercial farm, a clinic and a handful of other social institutions. Electrification has also spurred investment in equipment and technology that would have otherwise been impossible: the hospital boasts incubators, sterilizers, electric washing machines and a new operating theater; schools, local businesses and even the public sector have also been investing.

“It’s really had a snowball effect for development; the government is now building a big new secondary boarding school, lots of administrative offices and staff housing and, as a result, a new mini-town center is forming,” said Mr. Rea. “It’s quite exciting to think that a tiny little project in a forgotten corner of Zambia could trigger that kind of change in a community.”

Making it pay

While the project has certainly achieved significant benefits for the community, it has not been without challenges. The operation currently recoups only around two-thirds of its operating expenses and therefore continues to rely on individual donors to subsidize its balance sheet. “One important lesson we took from this experience is the importance of securing an anchor customer right at the beginning,” noted Mr. Rea. “Villages don’t actually use that much power so – relative to the capital costs of putting in power lines – the revenue from residential services is often barely sustainable.”

Opportunity is – literally – on the horizon. The Zambian power authority (ZESCO) has recently announced plans to expand its grid to within 100 kilometers of the facility and Mr. Rea is seeking to persuade them to extend the final distance and link up to the hydropower plant. This would enable him to negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) that would allow the plant’s excess power to be fed back into the network – benefiting the grid (which is in permanent power deficit) and the community scheme (by providing critical extra income).

Encouraging local growth

Mr. Rea also anticipates that local productivity will increase, thereby using up some of the excess power. Already a new aggregates business and a pineapple processing plant have sprung up to take advantage of the access to power. Individuals are also becoming more productive.

“We’re already seeing a shift from people using their power to run lighting or a radio towards more productive uses such as operating sewing machines, welders and irrigation pumps,” noted Mr. Rea. “It’s the point where power is being used productively rather than just for improving the standard of living that marks a jumping off point for development and for our facility.”

Keeping the lights on

Securing the appropriate technical capabilities has also been a challenge. For day-to-day operations, the organization relies on “the smartest guy in the village” who has been trained to manage a wide range of basic operational issues. But for more technical or regulated aspects, the facility relies on a group of committed volunteers who either provide advice and support over the internet or – if needed – jump on a plane and spend time at the site.

“We’ve got experts from New Zealand, the UK and across Africa who provide advice over email and others that fly in for up to three months to work on safety line maintenance and other technical requirements,” noted Mr. Rea. He himself has been a volunteer for 10 years now, transitioning from supervising construction to taking responsibility for operations. With a full-time ‘side’ job in Lusaka, he now spends one or two weekends a month and most of his holidays at the site, travelling the 1,000 kilometers when he can, and doing the rest of the work by email in the evenings.

“The reality is that you need to have a threshold of competent professionals to keep the thing operating and there is a cost associated with that even when it is being provided by volunteers.” However, as Mr. Rea notes, for smaller facilities with low technical requirements, creating a virtual pool of experts who are able to visit the site if needed offers a sustainable and efficient approach.

“All we need to do now is connect to the national grid or secure another anchor customer and the facility will be fully sustainable indefinitely; just imagine what the impact will be on the population not only in this village, but also across the district over the next two or three generations.”

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