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Flicking the switch and making connections

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When light and power are available at the flick of a switch, 24 hours a day, it is easy to forget what life is like in their absence. It is easy to forget just how transformative energy can be to every aspect of the human condition. It is easy to take for granted what we have.

A few weeks ago, I travelled to Kenya and Uganda, meeting local communities, other international organisations, politicians, and visiting some WWF projects. In Kenya, according to figures from the World Bank, some 56% of the population had access to electricity at the end of 2016 – one of the highest proportions in Africa. In Uganda, the figure was just 27%. To the north lies South Sudan: there, the figure is barely 9%.

These stark numbers illustrate the extent of the challenge we face in bringing power to poorer parts of Africa. But a visit to the fishing village of Hamukungu on Lake George (12km away from the main grid), and the village of Kitabu, both in Uganda’s Kasese District, paints a vivid picture of the extent of the opportunity.

Light comes to Kitabu Village

Kitabu Primary School which is 16km away from the main grid is enjoying the benefits of electrification after the installation of solar system at the school. The project has enabled about 700 students to study after dark. Barely a week after the installation of solar lights, the school, which was previously a day school only, set up a boarding section for the candidate class.

The school has become a centre for the whole community, providing light and hope for parents that their children’s academic performance can improve with more time to read.

Power comes to Hamunguku Health Centre

Solar panels were also installed in a large scheme that provides power to  Hamunguku Health Centre II.  The clinic demonstrated what electric power can mean for the health of the local people. Refrigerators allow for the storage of vaccines and other vital drugs. Electric lights mean that babies can now be delivered at night; before, expectant mothers were forced to wait until daylight if they needed help in childbirth.

The health centre will also have microscopes for laboratory tests to ensure proper diagnosis of diseases and a computer for data storage and future monitoring and follow-up of cases.

Isaiah Owiunji, programme coordinator for the climate, energy and extractives programme in WWF-Uganda says in terms of the EU funded project, WWF will  install solar panels in similar 20 heath centres and 47 primary and secondary schools in three models districts of Kasese, Masindi and Arua. These model districts which serve as ‘champions’ for achieving 100%  energy access in Uganda are spread across the northern Albertine Rift region – a region known for its rich biodiversity globally. The project will also establish six solar mini-grids with capacity to connect up to 1000 households and 200 businesses as a way of livelihood improvement. In addition, over 17 000 households will benefit from solar home systems.

Power for mobile phones

Perhaps the most profound and long-lasting impact of electrification is on the economic prospects of local people.

In a continent sorely lacking in fixed infrastructure, the mobile phone has become much more than a means of voice communication: it is increasingly used for mobile banking, providing access to microfinance and a range of services and markets. Without a means to recharge these phones, however, many avenues for economic participation and poverty alleviation are closed off.

Much of my work, as an environment minister, as a climate negotiator, and as an environmental activist, is about joining the dots – making connections that bring people and planet together. Nowhere are those connections clearer and more vital than in the type of project represented by Kitabu and Hamukungu.  This experience was well articulated by Isaiah when he said “My fulfilling moments in life come when I see the little contributions we make changes lives of our people permanently.””.

More funding can make all the difference

These projects help deliver across the range of sustainable development outcomes – poverty alleviation, good health and education, as well as clean energy and climate action. They promise multiplier effects, creating virtuous circles of growing prosperity, self-sufficiency and security.

They are, however, chronically underfunded. Many governments on the continent remain more focused on extending electric grids, favouring city dwellers – and incumbent utility companies – over rural communities. But, as Guarav Dahal, a colleague in Nepal recently wrote, such connections are expensive, unreliable, and often rely on polluting fossil fuel power generation.

The transformational potential of rural renewable energy electrification projects in places like Kitabu and Hamukungu is truly inspiring. They have the potential to change lives, empower individuals, and provide a better future for the next generation. They are worthy of our support, and of greater attention by governments, NGOs and donors.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy programme. He is based in Berlin.    

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