More than 10 000 people are now benefiting from Zimbabwe's first solar-powered mini-grid in Gwanda rural district giving farmers a much cheaper and reliable energy source. The Mashaba solar-powered mini-grid was funded through a four-year 7,1 million project for Zimbabwe and Malawi under the European Development Fund (EDF), the main instrument for European Union (EU) aid for development cooperation in Africa, the Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP Group) countries.
The project was implemented by a consortium of NGOs with Practical Action as the lead partner supported by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, Hivos and the Dabane Trust.
This project, which was funded to the tune of 2,7 million seeks to help the local community to survive droughts, enhance food security and improve livelihoods through connecting them to the Mashaba solar-powered mini-grid.
"We are quite excited about the level of support which we were given by Practical Action and its partners to give us electricity," said Thomson Makhalima, a councillor for Ward 19 in Gwanda South constituency.
"This solar power station has brought a new lease of life to our people. We are very happy and grateful for this important project.
"We are now empowered and we want to do more to grow more crops in our three irrigation schemes, support better health care at our clinic and education at our schools."
The small and decentralised solar power system operates independently of the main grid managed by the country's power utility, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority.
It offers greater stability and independence than traditional off-site power stations giving the local Gwanda community control over their energy needs.
At present, the mini-grid provided power to a radius of up to 25km helping to boost economic activities in three irrigation schemes -- Mankonkoni, Sebasa, Rustlers' Gorge -- as well as Mashaba and Msendami business centres and Mashaba Clinic and Mashaba Primary School.
The installation of the solar system is helping the local community to make significant savings on energy costs while at the same time promoting a cleaner environment.
"Solar power is cheaper and very useful to our irrigation project. We are now growing crops and planning to expand our heritage," said Tsepile Nare of Pathana Village and a beneficiary of Sebasa Irrigation Scheme.
"We are quite happy that we are now able to grow crops using cheaper energy. Diesel is quite expensive and inaccessible here in Gwanda rural."
Most irrigation schemes in Gwanda South had their equipment and infrastructure destroyed during the Cyclone Eline-induced floods of the 1999-2000 cropping season.
Practical Action, the UN, FAO and other development aid agencies have helped to rehabilitate the irrigation schemes in this drought-prone district.
The revival of the schemes faced viability problems due to constant power outages and lack of diesel to run water irrigation pumps.
However, the construction of the Mashaba Power Plant is now helping smallholder farmers in the area to transform their activities through access to cheaper and cleaner energy sources.
The micro-grid has 400 solar panels and storage batteries.
A smart management technology is also deployed to balance supply and demand as well as to sell power through a vending system managed by locals.
This local community through the Community Electricity Supply Company (Cesco) sells power to irrigation and commercial entities for 30c/kw, 18c/kw to residents and 10c/kw to the school and clinic.
"This is a very important project to us," said Winnie Sebata, the Cesco supervisor.
"It's serving our community both economically and socially. We are generating about $1 500 a month from 18 customers. We save around $500 a month and we use it to buy gadgets and spares for the maintenance of our solar plant."
The local power committee was trained and equipped with skills to run the plant by Practical Action.
"Practical Action has empowered us immensely. We greatly appreciate their support. They have put us on firm footing into the future. The Practical Action team together with our local community worked hard to make this project a success. I am very grateful for this."
The mini-grid is the face of Zimbabwe's future electricity supply system which will help increase access to clean energy and reduce power problems facing the country.
The Mashaba plant could be key to helping Zimbabwe achieve its climate change targets of reducing carbon emissions by 2030.
Such a system allows local communities in remote parts to access power, do peer-to-peer transactions and release surplus power to the national grid where possible.
In addition, local communities are able to grow both financially and economically through improved access to power without power utility firms such as Zesa.
Gwanda District is prone to droughts and improved access to power will lead to increased resilience, enhanced food security and better adaptation to climate change.
The availability of power will also lead to improved access to markets, better extension service and agricultural information and finance.