Transforming education through renewable energy

By Lazarus Sauti

A number of teachers in Zimbabwe and other African countries are unwilling to take teaching posts in rural areas because most schools do not have access to electricity, a fact supported by data from the United Nations (UN), which estimates that only 20 to 30 percent of schools in Africa have access to electricity. Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non partisan resea rch net work, recently released a report, which also notes that power shortages in Africa, especially the southern region are hindering socio-economic transformation and have strong repercussions for health and education – sacrosanct human rights.

“Without reliable connections to electricity,” notes the report, “it is unlikely that socio-economic development projects and public investments, like schools, can attain their proposed targets. “Further, the extension of technology initiatives such as the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), as well as access to e-services in schools and communities will not be sustainable.”

ICT expert and trainer, Consider Mudenda, says Zambia and Zimbabwe included Information and Communication Technologies, pillar of economic development, in their updated educational curriculums, but lack of reliable electricity is hindering the achievement of this goal. “Most teachers in Malawi,” adds Mudenda, “are also shunning rural schools due to poor infrastructure, lack of proper equipment as well as lack of electricity.”

While a number of teachers are shunning rural schools in Zimbabwe and other southern African states for different reasons, the story is different for Mashaba Primary School in Gwanda South as teachers, both old and young, are scrambling for teaching posts. One question, therefore, demands answers, “Why teachers are flocking to this school, which is situated in one of the country’s driest and marginalised remote area?”

The answer is simple: access to clean, reliable and renewable energy. Mashaba Primary School is connected to Zimbabwe’s first ever and inclusive solar power mini-grip project implemented in the region by Practical Action and supported by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation as well as Dabane Trust. The project, funded by the European Union, Opec Fund for International Development (OFID) and GEF Small Grants Programme in the tune of approximately US$3.2 million, is a 99 kilowatt plant with 400 solar panels each generating a peak of 255 watts.

Mpho Dube, a Grade 6 student teacher at Mashaba Primary School, boldly says electricity, which she is responsibly using for cooking, heating and lighting, attracted her to the school. She adds that the school has a WiFi area, thanks to the project, and this is making her work a lot easier. “It is difficult to prepare for lessons using candles and lamps. But with electricity, I just need an hour or even less. Research is also easier because we have a WiFi area,” Dube asserts.

Her superior, Mashaba Primary School deputy headmaster, Obert Joseph Ncube, says their association with Practical Action is helping the school to reach its goal of providing quality education in the rural area. He also says the educational benefits of the Mashaba Solar Power minigrid project, which is powering three cottages and all classrooms, take in lighting, heating and cooking, and access to modern technologies, over and above improvements in staff retention. “Access electricity, generated from the solar plant, helped us not only in attracting seven student teachers for the first time since 1999, but also in the retention of seven qualified educators,” Ncube, who is also the secretary for Mashaba Solar Power Project board of trustees, says.

“This shows that the renewable energy project is starting to deliver the social and economic benefits of electrification to our area, simply be enabling access to quality education, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.” He also says the project has significantly brought dramatic improvements to student enrolment, completion and high pass rates.

“The school has 171 female pupils and 169 male pupils,” adds Ncube, and it has seen an upward Grade 7 pass rate from 21.5 percent in 2014 to 53 percent in 2016.” Project manager, Shepherd Masuka says his organisation is helping villagers in Gwanda to escape poverty. “Lack of electricity at primary and secondary schools generates barriers towards escaping poverty. Accordingly, by powering Mashaba Primary School, we are empowering rural dwellers to escape poverty,” he says. Masuku adds: “In some parts of Gwanda, access to electricity was a dream. Now it is a reality. Teachers at Mashaba Primary School are using solar power to power up their devices and this shows that access to reliable and renewable energy is a foundational resource that is necessary for any application of ICTs and e-services.” Grade 7 pupil, Keubokile Dube, shares her joy.

“As a Grade 7 pupil, I am benefiting a lot. I am staying late to study in the light and this is enhancing my ability to fulfil my potential,” she says, adding that the school has a wellequipped computer lab and she is now well-versed with computer skills. Ronnie Sibanda, Gwanda Rural District Council executive officer, says the Mashaba Solar Plant minigrid project is modernising Gwanda.

“The project,” he says, “is a clear testimony that access to electricity transforms life; teachers, for instance, are using electricity generated from the station to prepare for their work while students, on the other hand, have unlimited access to electricity at the school and this is enhancing their education.” Sibanda also applauds Practical Action for working towards the reduction and eventual elimination of constraints to quality education and he urges schools, especially in other remote areas to embrace renewable energy as an avenue not only of enhancing access to clean, reliable and sustainable energy, but also of attracting qualified teachers as well as enhancing quality education in the process.

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September 2017
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