Technology fighting climate change in Gwanda

By Lazarus Sauti

Gwanda – More than a century after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, most villagers in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries are still living without electricity.

This sad development even on a regional scale was recently noted by the SADC chairperson, King Mswati III of Swaziland during the SADC Energy Investment Forum in Swaziland when he said: “Access to electricity in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is still below 20 percent and over 190 million people in the region live without power.”

A newly released survey by Afrobarometer also buttresses the fact that more than 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s population live in zones served by an electric grid, but the households do not have electricity.

To those who are lucky to be connected, power outages are the order of the day and the cost to businesses is huge.

Gwanda, a province so famous for its mopani, isinanga (acacia), umgangu (marula), umkhomo (boabab) trees and other shrubs – bushes that testify that the place is arid and hot, is one zone where most households do not have access to power.

In fact, villagers cut down trees, especially mopani for cooking and heating. They also use kerosene lamps for lighting.

“Asikabi lamagetsi, sisebenzisa inkuni ukubasa umililo (We don’t have access to electricity so we rely on firewood for fuel),” says Sibahle Dube from Halisupi village.

“Like most people here, I rely on a small kerosene (tin) lantern with an open flame for lighting, and I spent more money on paraffin.”

The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MISC) 2014 noted that more than 70 percent households in Zimbabwe use solid fuels as well as kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting.

Using firewood, shrubs and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting, however, contributes to both health and environmental problems.

“Emissions of firewood and kerosene lights not only contributes to global warming, but also to severe indoor air pollution, an environmental problem and a hidden killer in Zimbabwe,” says environmentalist, Edson Nyahwa.

“Indoor air pollution,” adds public health practitioner, Priscilla Mano, “causes dry eye diseases and increases the risks of incurring pneumonia and lung diseases as well as possible asthma and tuberculosis.”

In light of the myriad problems associated with using solid fuels, Practical Action, supported by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation as well as Dabane Trust, and funded by the European Union, Opec Fund for International Development (OFID) and GEF Small Grants Programme, under its “Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities” programme is using solar technology to fight climate change, as well as other environmental and health problems in Gwanda.

Mashaba Solar Power Station, sited in Olifandi village, ward 19 in Gwanda South Province, about 800km away from Harare and approximately 12km to the new Mlambapeli border, which connects Gwanda (Zimbabwe) and Bonongwe (Botswana), is a 99KiloWatt plant with 400 solar panels each generating a peak of 255 Watts.

The solar plant, protected by a solar-powered electric fence, has 48 batteries in each of its three containers, and is powering four load centres: two irrigation schemes (Rustlers Gorge and Mankonkoni), a clinic (Mashaba Clinic) connected to a business centre (Musendami Business Centre) and a school (Mashaba Primary School) also connected to a business centre (Mashaba Business Centre) and targeting 10 000 villagers in Olifandi, Mashaba, Mlambapeli, Snukani, Musendami, Mathangeni and other surrounding villages.

“The objective of this project is to fight climate change and enhance food security in Gwanda,” says Shepherd Masuka, Practical Action’s Project Manager for Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities.

He adds: “Remember, this region is very dry and receives little rainfall. We are, therefore, using solar technology to abstract water from Shashe and Thuli Rivers for irrigation, as well as household use.”

Masuka also says his organisation is running two similar projects in isolated Nsanje and Chikwawa Districts in Malawi, where more than 10 000 people are also expected to benefit directly and indirectly.

Project spokesperson, Obert Joseph Ncube, says 6 000 villagers who are currently benefiting directly from the Mashaba Solar Power Station are grateful to be associated with the project, which is not only a viable solution to address both poverty and energy sustainability but a catalysts to better education and healthcare in Gwanda.

“We appreciate to be associated with this awesome project, which is enhancing food security, improving quality education and healthcare as the 23km-power line is disbursing power to Mashaba Primary School, Mashaba Clinic, Rustlers Gorge and Mankonkoni Irrigation Schemes as well as Musendami and Mashaba business centres,” he says.

Ncube, who is also the deputy head at Mashaba Primary School said that the project, supported by the Ministry of Energy and REA, is also going to provide power to Sebasa Irrigation scheme, which is still under construction and the board of trustees, elected by the community, is planning to build an energy centre and a study centre, as well as targeting Mlambapeli border post as its potential customer.

He said people are still benefiting institutionally – as a group, but the board of trustees is working on modalities to sell power to individuals who need it for their home and business use.

“On top of environmental and health benefits, the project helped Mashaba Primary school to retain its teaching staff as all cottages (three) and classrooms are connected. The school has 14 teachers (7 qualified and 7 student teachers), and they are using the power for cooking, lighting and entertainment.

“It also enabled nurses at Mashaba Clinic to use refrigerators to store vaccines and drugs, and this, without doubt, reduced the need to travel to electrified health centres,” he said, adding that the clinic is now a 24-hour healthcare facility, including maternity delivery and emergency services, thanks to the project.

Plant operator, Habathuse Moyo (43) says the project, designed exactly to serve poor rural communities and started in 2015, empowered locals like him through creating employment opportunities.

“I was trained to operate and maintain the solar system and this created employment for me,” he said. “I am now able to feed my two children as well as paying school fees for them.”

Moyo also said: “Other villagers provided labour by constructing the power station as well as the 23km-power line.”

Rustlers Gorge Irrigation Scheme secretary, Mpokiseng Moyo, says the project transformed the lives of the scheme’s 41 members, who include 26 women and 15 men simply by helping them to double their production, as well as increasing the hectarage under irrigation.

“We used to rely on diesel for power, but we are now using solar for irrigating our wheat, which occupies 8.2 hectares,” Moyo affixes, adding, “Diesel is expensive and pollutes the air as compared to solar power which is not only cost-effective, but a clean, renewable and sustainable energy.”

She said instead of spending more hours fetching water to irrigate crops per day, most farmers, especially women are now using this valuable time to do other household chores.

For ward 16 Councillor, Thompson Makhalima, the Mashaba Solar Power Station, which entails 95 percent less carbon pollution than solid fuels, is critical to Zimbabwe’s electrification plan and a considerable step in helping the country achieve its established national goals for tackling climate change and improving living standards.

He urged other development partners to establish solar plants in the country to discourage deforestation, fight energy poverty and boost the lives of rural communities, a fact supported by Masuka, who adds that since solar is accessible anywhere, other organisations can engage Practical Action and use its diagrams to establish solar plants in other areas.

Practical Action’s communications officer, Martha Munyoro-Katsi, said the project is helping the country to fulfil Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1, which aims to end poverty in all its forms; SDG2, which aspires to end hunger and achieve food security; SDG3, which intends to ensure health lives and promote well-being for all; SDG4, which ensure inclusive equitable quality education; and SDG7, which endeavours to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

“Section 73(1) (a) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe also provides that every person has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and Practical Action, through the Mashaba Solar Power Station, is helping the country to realise this goal simply by providing renewable energy that is not harmful to the environment and people,” she said.

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