THOMAS SAKALA, Lusaka
ABOUT 38km south-east of Choma in Singani chiefdom, not far from the Zambezi escarpment north-west of Lake Kariba, lies Sikalongo, a rural community.
Sikalongo is a missionary station which was established by the Brethren in Christ Church (BIC) several decades ago.
Records from the Brethren in Christ World Mission indicate that during the first half of the 20th century, missionaries established a church, clinic, and primary school in the area.
Later, the church set up Sikalongo Bible Institute (SBI), which was to provide pastoral training. And in the 1970s, with the help of the community, the mission built a secondary school.
Until 2005, Sikalongo was not connected to the national power grid. People in the community used solar power and diesel-powered generators for lighting, and firewood for cooking – a trend common in rural Zambia.
The Central Statistical Office (CSO), a department under the Ministry of Finance of Zambia that collects and analyses data on economic and social indicators, says firewood and charcoal have been Zambiaâ€™s main sources of energy, accounting for over 70 percent of energy consumption.
Many people who grew up in rural areas recall living without electricity; using candles, axing firewood, pushing a bicycle laden with a 12v battery for charging at places installed with solar panels, as was at SBI.
The above scenario was common years ago but now the times are changing.
However, only few people and institutions both in urban and rural areas are now using solar energy to power households, schools and equipment such as telecommunication and water pumps.
Sikalongo was privileged to have been connected to the power grid in 2005 by the Rural Electrification Authority (REA).
REA was established by the Zambian government in 2003, when Parliament enacted the Rural Electrification Act No. 20 to increase availability and access to power by the rural population.
This followed Governmentâ€™s realisation that in rural areas, access to modern sources of energy was as low as 3 percent of the population.
According to the CSO, in 2003 the population of Zambia was 10,757,192 of which 65 percent and 35 percent resided in rural and urban areas, respectively.
Differently, only one of 33 people in rural areas accessed modern sources of energy.
Zambians have been using solar for years, but not to the degree REA envisions in its quest to electrify all rural areas by 2030 through grid extension; mini hydro power stations and biomass generation; and solar energy.
A plan of how the above methods of electrification will be exploited to attain the â€˜2030 goalâ€™ is detailed in the Rural Electrification Master Plan (REMP), an electrification plan that REA prepared with support from the Government of Japan.
Briefly, the REMP identifies 1,217 Rural Growth Centres (RGC) around the country for electrification. When electrified, RGCs will raise the rural electrification rate from 3 percent to 51 percent.
RGCs, which include schools, clinics, storage sheds, markets and police posts, are social or economic focal points with the potential to grow once connected to power.
According to REA, solar energy is energy created from sunlight, or heat from the sun.
There are at least two types of solar energy technologies: solar thermal and solar power. The article illustratively likens the former to solar geysers seeing they convert sunlight into thermal energy.
In contrast, solar power entails the conversion of sunlight into electricity by photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. PV is a technology that converts natural sunshine directly into electricity.
As noted above; times are changing and peopleâ€™s lives are improving in rural Zambia.
Presently, REA is installing 85 Watt Solar Home System (SHS) in RGCs countrywide under the Solar Programme of Rural Electrification.
REA information officer Ndekela Mazimba explains how solar power installed by REA improved the learning environment at Isokwe Primary School, on an island on Lake Mweru, 4km from Nchelenge. REA fitted SHS to power a 1×3 classroom and four staff houses.
Ms Mazimba says the school, the only public facility on the island, is servicing an estimated population of 1,000 and has 318 active leaners.
Logically solar was the best source of energy for Isokwe Primary School since its location discounts the chance of connecting it to an extended power grid or setting a mini hydro in the immediate future â€“ it would be a costly venture by many measures.
There are many such projects putting a smile on the faces of the rural population.
For instance, from 2005 to 2015 alone, REA undertook solar projects at over 521 chiefs palaces across the country, including: Chief Mwenda, Chief Mwanza, Chief Siachitema, Senior Chief Imwiko Anangâ€™anga II and Chief Mukwikile.
Through its solar programme, REA is improving the standards of living of the rural population.
Pupils can study in the night, newly recruited teachers and nurses are not shunning the far-flung schools and clinics, due to electrification of their communities. And social amenities are now coming up in these areas, creating a semblance of urban areas.
While REA focuses on rural electrification, Zambia has other solar projects by other actors, meant to ease the 1,000MW deficit ZESCO Limited reported in May 2016. Projects like the two 100MW solar power plants President Edgar Lungu commissioned on May 7, 2016.
The US$1.2 billion solar plants in the Lusaka South Multi-Facility Economic Zone are Zambiaâ€™s first mega solar photovoltaic projects.
Another such solar plant is the Mphata Solar mini-grid, in Samfya, Luapula Province built by REA, with funding from the United Nations Industrial Organisations (UNIDO).
The mini-grid is expected to generate 60KW electricity to supply to a cluster of villages in the Mphata fishing community with a population of about 6 000.
The fishing community will benefit in many ways including, preserving fish through refrigeration.
Evidently, solar power is improving the social and economic freedoms in rural areas and the completed solar projects attest to REAâ€™s tenacity for the task.
Further, the potential of solar power is asserted by the fact that Zambia has about 3 000 sunshine hours annually as revealed in the Zambia Renewables Readiness Assessment (RRA) of 2013. This is fitting for solar photovoltaic exploitation.
Zambia has a power deficit and low electrification rates of 45 percent in urban and 3 percent in rural areas, and aims to reach 90 percent and 51 percent access by 2030 in urban and rural areas respectively.
Hence the need to get â€˜all hands on deckâ€™ by all stakeholders, including REA, government, investors and cooperating partners.