CHARLES CHISALA, Samfya
THEIR shrill voices and vigorous gestures reflect the joy they feel in their hearts at the sight of the visitors from Lusaka. Not even their advanced age will stop the energetic grandmothers from expressing their joy.
The small group of about a dozen women are members of the Kafita Co-operative Society at Mpanta village in Samfya district, Luapula Province.
As they sing and dance, one of them lights a match and sets a small bundle of dry grass on fire, then puts out the flame with a single blow of air from her mouth. The others cheer.
Her message is that â€œwe are done with the primitive sources of light such as kerosene lamps and grass because we now have solar energyâ€.
The women could not wait to share their co-operativeâ€™s success story with the visitors led by Rural Electrification Authority (REA) chief executive officer Geoffrey Musonda last weekend.
Kafita Co-operative Society has been successfully running the first-ever solar mini grid power plant in Zambia in a partnership with REA since 2014.
Under the arrangement the 28-member co-operative raises revenue through the sale of solar generated electricity to fellow villagers and businesses and invests part of it in agricultural production projects.
Individual members of the society contribute part of their share of the earnings towards payment for the electricity. This is one of the reasons the project has won global recognition. It is sustainable and helping to reduce poverty in the surrounding villages in a tangible way.
This is the success story the women were eager to share with the REA team and the rest of the world last Sunday.
It is no wonder that the Mpanta Solar Mini Grid power plant has won the prestigious â€˜Woem4Energyâ€™ international award after being voted a shining model of community-driven women empowerment through renewable energy at an expo contested by 70 countries in Italy mid last year.
World Access to Modern Energy (WAME) presented the award to the cooperative with a cash prize of K40,000 in Italy.
The renewable energy scheme, the first ever in Zambia, is supplying 450 households, public facilities and businesses in eight villages surrounding the mini grid power plant with electricity generated by a field of 300 PV model giant solar panels.
The neat rows of panels are connected to a battery house which houses 700 giant batteries storing the energy captured from the sun. The electricity is then transmitted to the villages through overhead lines mounted on wooden poles, the same type Zesco Limited uses to supply hydro-electricity to its customers.
The government has invested K9 million into the project. A worthwhile investment indeed.
Mr Musonda said the scheme is a partnership between REA and the local community and described it as an â€œexciting successâ€ story.
Kafita Co-operative Society chairperson Ulbano Bwalya said it was formed by the villagers and the Mpanta Womenâ€™s Club in 2010.
â€œBy the time REA was completing the construction of this solar plant and installation of equipment, we were already engaged in low-level crop and livestock production. REA approached us to enter into a partnership in which the community would take over the running of the plant including the collection of tariffs,â€ Mr Bwalya explained.
The co-operative grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
It has been able to pay salaries and allowances for REA trained accounting officer Paul Nkumbula and technician Danny Kasolo, who both travelled to Italy to receive the prestigious award.
â€œAs Mpanta community, we are very proud to win the prestigious award. We have invested the K40,000 cash prize in income generation activities, including food crop production [vegetables, rice and beans], poultry, livestock [goats] and fish farming,â€ Mr Nkumbula said.
He said the award has given the co-operative and entire community confidence that its work is making an impact not only in Zambia but at global level as well.
â€œMembers of the co-operative use part of the money from the other income generating activities to pay for the electricity. This has improved the customersâ€™ payment rate during the fish ban period. Almost all the 450 have been paying as compared to only 150 during the 2014/2015 ban when people did not have alternative sources of livelihood,â€ Mr Nkumbula said.
â€œThis has ensured sustainability of the scheme.â€
Sylvia Chishala works in an electrified restaurant and boasts of booming business.
â€œThere is so much business. Solar power has changed everything in this village. We can now serve cold drinks and customers can eat comfortably at night because there is plenty of light,â€ Ms Chishala said.
Mrs Regina Munse says electricity has helped her son to pass his Grade 12 examinations with good results because he was able to study at night, unlike in the past.
â€œWe are happy. We have electricity at night and during the day,â€ she said.
And Mr Bwalya disclosed that since the co-operative is already familiar with solar technology it has applied for one of the 2,000 solar powered mini milling plants under the presidential initiative through the Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF) and is hopeful that the application will be successful.
â€œIf our application is accepted, we intend to use the solar milling plant to produce mealie meal for sale to the local community and feed for our new fish farm and poultry. We already know how to manage solar technology through the training we received from REA and the experience we have gained since 2014,â€ he said.
Mr Bwalya said the United States (US) government has already seconded a fish farming specialist from the Peace Corp who will be based at Mpanta village to work with the community as a volunteer advisor.
And Mr Musonda said REA is excited that the scheme has won an international award and praised the community for demonstrating rare resilience towards the new technology.
â€œAs REA, we congratulate the Mpanta community for winning the international award. We are going to install two more solar mini grid plants in Lunga district and Kafue National Park in the first quarter of this year,â€ Mr Musonda said.
He said he was happy to see many businesses coming up around Mpanta village, including barber shops, restaurants and bars as a result of the availability of affordable solar generated electricity.
â€œWe are excited by the good things this community is doing. We are expecting the community here to pass their knowledge and skills to their counterparts in Lunga, which is not very far from Samfya,â€ Mr Musonda said.
Lunga member of Parliament Emerine Kabanshi must be anxiously rubbing her hands in anticipation of a similar success story in her constituency.
An example of what can be achieved when the government partners with a community that has a positive attitude towards development.
CHARLES CHISALA, Samfya