The Powerful Impact of Geospatial Data in Planning Zambia’s Power Sector

Zambia is a beautiful country known for its vast open spaces and abundant wildlife. It is also well-endowed with solar irradiation and powerful rivers, resources with the potential to produce ample electricity for both urban and rural areas of the country. However, at present, only 27% of the overall population has access to electricity (62% of the urban population and 4.5% of the rural population).

The Government of the Republic of Zambia recognizes that to meet its goal of delivering access to electricity to 66% of the population by 2030, it must invest in grid extension as well as “beyond the grid” solutions where it is not yet economically feasible to extend the national power grid.

Power Africa partners with countries like Zambia to undertake comprehensive electrification planning, helping to ensure the development of a resilient and least-cost power system that continues to meet demand over time. Recent work funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Zambia demonstrates how geospatial data can be used to unlock insights during the electrification planning process.

By mapping the physical locations of infrastructure, such as transmission lines, households, and businesses, geospatial data plays an important role in identifying where the electricity grid will likely extend and where off-grid technology, such as household solar panels, will be more economical.

In collaboration with the Zambian Ministry of Energy and Rural Electrification Authority (REA), the USAID Southern Africa Energy Program (SAEP) developed a geospatial model to serve as the basis for Zambia’s new electrification strategy, with an emphasis on off-grid solutions.

The model maps the country’s population centers; current grid lines and substations; and localities most suitable for solar, hydro and other renewable power generation. The end result is a map showing Zambia’s lowest-cost electrification options (grid extension, mini-grids or solar home systems) for each currently unelectrified household across the country.

The geospatial model indicates that if Zambia wants to meet its energy access goals on a least-cost basis, only 34% of currently unelectrified households nationally would be serviced by the grid, with off-grid solutions servicing the remaining 66%. (NOTE: Includes mini-grids powered by solar and solar home systems. Hydro mini-grids are not included as their cost is always greater than the cost of solar mini-grids.)

Zambian officials now have strong evidence that off-grid investments must be part of an overall energy strategy and supported through business-friendly policies.

The new geospatial model has been well received, not only by Zambian energy officials participating in the planning process, but also the private sector. A number of Power Africa’s private sector partners have highlighted the usefulness of the electrification strategy and its accompanying geospatial model, pointing out how it’s helped them to target new markets and make strategic decisions about where to recruit new staff and open sales offices. Some off-grid companies are already reporting increased sales as a result.

Here are some direct quotes from our partners, in their own words:

“The model allows us, with demographic-based analysis, to prioritize our outreach to areas most underserved by the grid. Previously, our agent recruitment was arbitrarily determined by our field staff; now our growth is guided directly by this model. We have benefited greatly from the support from SAEP in Zambia so would be keen to engage with you on our entry strategy in Malawi.” — Vitalite

“This is the most data-driven approach we have used to expand to new locations. I am happy to say that our CEO absolutely loved the work you have done…Now we don’t just focus on one village over a weekend, we also go to nearby settlements identified by the geospatial model that are off the beaten track.” — Sunny Money

To ensure the geospatial tool continues to benefit the private sector in the long term, USAID is supporting Zambia’s Solar Industry Association of Zambia (SIAZ) by teaching SIAZ’s members how to update the model using new demographic data and hone in on specific locations. Solar household system (SHS) companies are now using the tool to fine-tune their “route to market” strategies, plan for expansion, and make smarter, data-based business decisions. In this way, Power Africa is contributing to local ownership and self-reliance in Zambia’s growing off-grid sector.

More than a year ago, with the launch of Power Africa 2.0, the initiative committed to increase its focus on the enabling environment for private investment in Africa’s energy markets. USAID’s work in support of data-based electrification planning in Zambia (in partnership with Zambia’s government and private sector) shows that we’re making good on our commitment. Geospatial modeling — when integrated into comprehensive electrification planning — can provide governments with a clear path to least cost energy access, and just as importantly, provide businesses with the certainty they need to open that next sales office.

Note: For those who wish to explore the geospatial model, this detailed description contains instructions on how to download and use the SAEP-created Google Earth files.