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Bart Magura

An integral approach to electrify off-grid Zambian villages

According to the world energy outlook 2016 study of the International Energy Agency, only five percent of the scattered rural population in Zambia has access to electricity. A solar powered mini-grid provides an interesting approach to electrify these remote areas. Italian solar manufacturer OffgridSun, Zambian solar company Pressinnovate and the Technical University of Delft conducted a 7-month feasibility study with the aim of finding a scalable solution to electrify off-grid Zambian villages. The study was funded by the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket).

Five remote villages in different provinces of Zambia, were targeted for the study. In each village a workshop was held which explained the idea of a solar powered mini-grid, followed by questions and feedback from the participants. Furthermore 50 questionnaires were held to collect socio-economic data and each building in the village was mapped with its location, purpose and energy need. For the village with the most favourable conditions a full design and business plan was made. This was followed by in-depth interviews with the inhabitants of the selected village over a period of three months, conducted by students of the Technical University of Delft. Meanwhile a consultant explored the government regulations and licensing requirements for power generation and distribution.

The first, and perhaps obvious, conclusion of the study was that there is a real need for electricity in the Zambian village and that the positive impact on the lives can be vast. The enthusiasm from the inhabitants was overwhelming and here I will just name some examples of the benefits the solar system can have. A solar pumping system could provide access to water for drinking, washing and irrigation of farm lands. The health centre struggled with the lack of light for child births and the refrigeration of vaccines. A grocery shop owner expressed the wish for a fridge to cool drinks and attract more customers. The barbershop can only cut a small number of people each day since it is expensive and time-consuming to charge the batteries. Lighting for a household means getting rid of the harmful and expensive kerosene lamps and increasing the night hours for studying and social gatherings. A school is giving computer lessons, to their 859 pupils, using a small and expensive generator and only five computers.

But what kind of system and how to implement it was not so straightforward as the potential benefits. In the beginning of the study the idea was to install a mini-grid for the whole village, but this turned out to be a suboptimal solution. For a mini-grid to be economically feasible, the buildings need to be relatively close together and the connected users should have a large power need on a regular basis. This was the case for the market area since the shops and businesses were close to each other, they needed the electricity, and had the income to pay for it. By also providing productive appliances on credit and training them in the use, more electricity would be needed from the mini-grid, increasing its revenues while also stimulating the local economy.

The households had varying incomes, but most of them could not afford the connection and electricity fee needed to make the mini-grid economically viable. They were also located far apart so the costs for cabling and the energy losses would be too high. For these reasons, solar home systems in multiple sizes offered with pay-as-you-go or micro-credit to accommodate for the different income levels of households, would be a more suitable solution.

The final group, the public buildings, require yet another solution. The large distance between them, their low disposable income for electricity and the relatively small power consumption, made a mini-grid not feasible. A stand alone solar system for each building would be more appropriate and cost-effective. By donating the systems for the public buildings, community goodwill would be created, benefitting the commercial mini-grid implementation and the sales of solar home systems. Moreover, the access to electricity would lead to an improved service of the school, health centre and community centre impacting a large area, even beyond the village, that is relying on these services.

If the mini-grid for the market area, the solar home systems for the households and the stand alone solar systems for the public buildings are going to be installed, a strong local management, accepted by the community, is absolutely vital. Starting a village solar shop with well trained and motivated entrepreneurs, is a must before installing the other systems. The village solar shop will have the responsibility to train the inhabitants in the use of their system, to maintain and repair the systems, to sell the solar home systems on pay-as-you-go or micro-credit to the households, to offer productive appliances on credit and to collect the fee’s for the mini-grid. Financial, managerial and technical support for this village solar shop should be in place. The community leaders should be involved in this shop from the beginning so that it will be accepted and supported by the community.


Bart Magura is Business developer Sub-Saharan Africa at Futura Holding LTD