The Power of Electricity
Rather than wait decades for investment and infrastructure to reach their off-grid rural town, the people of Nyangezi in South Kivu chose to harness the power of the Bishalalo River to innovate their own response to Congo’s energy deficit
The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world — 91% of people live without reliable electricity.
The impact of energy poverty
Lack of access to modern energy services has an enormous effect on people’s lives. Many rely on small candles to light their homes at night, but in the absence of any first responder services live in constant fear of fire. Others see opportunities to earn a living stifled by their inability to run their business at night.
60 million people across the country depend on wood fuel for cooking and other basic energy needs. Yet the World Health Organisation estimates that exposure to smoke from the simple act of cooking is the fifth-worst risk factor for disease in sub-Saharan Africa, causing almost 2 million premature deaths per year.
DRC’s chronic energy deficiency persists despite the country being assessed as having the highest potential for hydropower in the whole of Africa (World Energy Council). SNEL, the national electricity company, has 17 hydroelectric plants across DRC, but only 11 have a capacity of over 10 megawatts. Despite a production capacity of 100,000 megawatts from hydropower alone (GEF, 2014), DRC’s installed capacity is just 3% of potential, 70% of which comes from two hydro plants at the Inga Dam in Western Congo.
This situation is exacerbated by the low efficiency of the energy supply chain (i.e. production, transportation and distribution). In most cases, power is supplied in rural areas by means of generators connected to small decentralised networks. However, the economic and environmental costs of these energy sources are becoming more difficult for communities to bear, due to the increasing cost of fossil fuels and the rapid rise in deforestation.
In response to a lack of state-driven infrastructure, overseas governments and foundations have supported a handful of mini-grid investments across North and South Kivu, with two now operational in Kivu. Yet, with a population of close to 20 million people, across Kivu, electrification rates in rural areas remain at just under 1%.
Bringing community micro-hydropower to Nyangezi, South Kivu
Rather than wait for large-scale infrastructure projects to eventually reach their rural town, community leaders in Nyangezi took the initiative to innovate their own solution. They established the Solidarité Coopérative pour le Développement Intégré, or SOCODI, a community-led commercial entity to install the first micro-hydro power station on the Bishalalo River with the aim of bringing a reliable and affordable supply of clean energy to Nyangezi.
This was a significant undertaking for local people. It required SOCODI to build the expertise necessary to engineer, install and manage both a working hydropower station and a commercially-viable enterprise. Led by Domitille Vumilia, SOCODI began the installation of the Bishalao station in 2015.
Ensemble provided the finance and project management support to help install the power station. Channels were dug, turbine houses built, generators and controllers installed, fuse systems innovated and connections made to homes and businesses.
Turning ideas into innovation
Four years on and the results are significant. The plant at Nyangezi is now one of just three working micro-hydro plant stations in the whole of Kivu, a huge accomplishment.
Launched in 2018, it has since brought tangible progress to the community. 86% of business and residential customers surveyed reported positive changes in their life as a result of using the SOCODI service. As well as giving light to study and power to charge household appliances, the connection has opened-up income-generating possibilities from chicken farming to screening football matches and films for the local community. The plant’s size and design has also helped avoid environmental disruption by providing a cheaper and safer alternative to kerosene and candles.
In June 2019, the Ensemble team visited Nyangezi to interview local people about their experience of using SOCODI’s service.
SOCODI’s short-term goal is to connect 1,000 homes, businesses and schools, as well as a local maternity hospital. This could bring a reliable and affordable modern energy supply to over 50,000 people.
The framework developed through Ensemble’s collaboration with SOCODI is replicable across other locations in Kivu. Ensemble has identified three other sites in the region and is keen to bring our expertise in project management and the commercialisation of community micro-hydro power stations to these other initiatives.
For more information about how you can support Ensemble’s work with community micro-hydro power stations in Kivu, please contact Vicky Nida via firstname.lastname@example.org.