Mashaba — With worsening droughts drying fields and hydropower, solar energy is providing a way forward in rural areas
Until recently, farmers in this town in southern Zimbabwe struggled to water their crops, frustrated by poor rainfall and the regular breakdown of the diesel engines that powered their irrigation systems.
As in most areas of rural Zimbabwe, rain-fed agriculture provides most of the jobs in this part of Gwanda district, some 130km (80 miles) southeast of Bulawayo.
But sparse rains over the last decade, a worsening problem associated with climate change, have caused many harvests to fail, and cut into the country's generation of hydropower, which provides much of its electricity.
In Mashaba, however, the community's luck is turning. In 2015, the town installed a solar mini-grid power station that has helped green the hot, arid area transform into a hive of entrepreneurial activity.
The off-grid power system, with 400 solar panels that provide nearly 100 kilowatts of reliable power, has made it possible to effectively irrigate crops, boosting farming yields and fuelling economic growth. Local leaders say schools have become more productive and medical facilities safer.
The $3.2 million mini-grid was funded by the European Union, the OPEC Fund for International Development and the Global Environment Facility as part of a drive to promote universal access to modern energy in rural areas. Its construction was overseen by Practical Action Southern Africa, a development charity.
The plant powers the Mankonkoni and Rustlers Gorge irrigation schemes, which cover 32 hectares (79 acres) and 42 hectares (104 acres) respectively; the Mashaba Primary School; a business centre with three shops; the Mashaba Clinic; and the Masendani Business Centre, which has four shops and an energy kiosk.
A board of trustees selected by the community is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the mini-grid, and community members have been trained to maintain and operate it.
The mini-grid will be co-owned by an independent power producer and the community through the trust.
Thomas Makhalima, a Mashaba councillor, says an estimated 10,000 people are benefiting directly from the clean power grid.
In their area, often affected by drought, "we depend a lot on government relief aid. But the food donations have lessened because some people can feed themselves through the irrigation schemes", he said.
Makhalima said a third irrigation project will soon be connected to the grid, and negotiations are advancing to connect a new border post with Botswana at nearby Mlambapeli as well.
Mpokiseng Moyo, a mother of three who grows winter wheat on a plot of 0.2 hectares (0.5 acres) at Rustlers Gorge, said that in the past she could barely produce a tonne of food.
Now, since the new power supply was installed, she can easily harvest 15 tonnes, she said.
Moyo is one of 41 farmers - 26 women and 15 men - who collectively own an irrigation plant that services the 42 hectares at Rustlers Gorge.
"Before being connected to the solar grid, we irrigated our crops using diesel pumps and travelled as far as Gwanda (more than 100km away) to buy diesel for the pumps," she said.
"The pumps broke down many times, affecting productivity. But with solar energy we are able to farm throughout the year without any hassles," Moyo said.
Selling the surplus harvest has made it possible for her to send her children to school and buy provisions for the family, she said.
POWER FOR SCHOOL, HOSPITAL
Obert Joseph Ncube, the deputy head of Mashaba Primary School, said the school's enrolment figures and exam results have improved because the presence of a reliable power supply has dissuaded teachers from transferring to other schools.
"We've registered an improvement in Grade 7 (pass) results from 21.5 percent in 2014 to 53.9 percent in 2016, which is a positive upward trend premised on our retention of all qualified staff," Ncube said.
At Mashaba Clinic, health workers no longer need to work by torchlight at night, including when delivering babies.
"It was difficult for us to operate or suture patients using candlelight or mobile phones, which meant procedures took longer to finish, or we had to wait till daylight or refer the patients elsewhere," said a health official at the clinic, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pregnant women who come to the clinic to give birth are no longer required to bring their own candles, kerosene lamps and matches.
According to the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, only about 40 percent of Zimbabweans have electrical power, and only 13 percent in rural areas.
Rural communities meet 94 percent of their energy requirements from traditional fuels, mostly wood.
The biggest test for the Mashaba community will be to keep their solar grid functioning. At present, community members do not pay for electricity while they await a determination on the tariff to be charged.
"We've installed a prepayment system but we are still working on the tariff system. Once a tariff is agreed with ZESA (the state-owned power utility), the energy regulator and the community, users will then start paying," said Shepherd Masuka, Practical Action's project officer for sustainable energy for rural communities.
The income will be used to maintain the grid, he said.
Ncube, who also serves as secretary for the Mashaba Board of Trustees and a spokesman for the grid, said that people are happy to pay to keep power coming.
"We've had meetings with farmers and they are already putting aside some grain reserves so that when they are asked to start paying for electricity they are ready," he said.
- Reporting by Tonderayi Mukeredzi; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering