Solar powers Zim’s new green fields

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By Forbes

SOLAR power for watering crops isn’t just a pipe dream. In Mashaba, a Zimbabwean village near the town of Gwanda, renewable energy is helping to pump underground water to fields whose farmers previously relied on inconsistent rainfall, or on irrigation using (expensive and hard-to-locate) diesel.

In 2016, the NGO Practical Action began a project to access abundant water under the sand in the area, using solar mini-grids rather than diesel engines to generate the energy needed. As the solar-grids are now producing surplus energy, it’s not just farmers who are accessing this.

Shepherd Masuka, an energy technician for Practical Action, estimates that about 40% of the Mashaba community is hooked up to the mini-grids. This source of power is charged at different rates, for business, social, and domestic users. These range from 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for a school and clinic that are connected to the mini-grids (social use), to 30 cents for shop owners (business use).

Masuka is from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. He explains of his current work in rural parts of the country, “my day to day work involves the technical aspects like installation of the solar systems, the transmitter and distribution lines, and also maintenance of the solar system in the electrical network.”

It has also involved a lot of community education, from installation and continuing through maintenance. For instance, some residents were understandably cautious about the project because of negative experiences with poor-quality solar products in the past.

The solar system still isn’t flawless. As it’s dependent on the weather, users need backup sources for energy at night. But the solar mini-grids are reported to provide reliable, relatively affordable, and of course environmentally efficient forms of energy.

Masuka previously worked for the conventional power industry, but finds his current role more stimulating. He says, “now with renewable energy, with solar energy, it’s a bit more challenging and interesting. On a daily basis, you are meeting new challenges. You are meeting challenges which you have never experienced before.”

Masuka reports that all of the parts can now be repaired locally, though finding replacement parts was initially an obstacle. Local repairability is an important step forward for the sustainability of the project. Even more important for future durability is local ownership.

On June 20, the management of the Mashaba mini-grids and client service was officially handed over to local residents, who were already maintaining the project during Masuka’s absences. The local Community Electricity Supply Company is now officially responsible; this consists of a board of community members, village employees, and representatives of government departments and local authorities.

Far too many development projects languish after the initial implementation stages, due to lack of funds, repair capacity, or interest. Unused computers or wells are a common sight in many places where development organizations have come in, sparked a flurry of activity, and then left. So it will be interesting to see how the Community Electricity Supply Company fares, and whether this model of technician/NGO transfer can work for other solar energy projects. Practical Action is now operating in other parts of Zimbabwe to spread the ideas and specifications for solar irrigation.