When Kalani Ndlovu bought a 14 hectares farm, in the distant rural areas of Umguza in Matabeleland North Province, he was determined to invest in solar energy and improve livelihoods in this area.

The farm owner says, he uses solar energy for lighting and irrigation purposes and has managed to grow citrus fruits and enough maize and vegetables to sell, even during the drought seasons. This year he is expecting to harvest 40 tons of grain under irrigation system.

“The most exciting thing about this farm is pumping water using solar energy. That is my best baby. I dug and found water in seven boreholes in my farm. Two of them are running on solar and the other three on generators. With solar, I’m pumping water every minute when there is sun, to fill up a 40 000 liter reservoir for my animals, fields and domestic use,” said Ndlovu.

Mr Kalani Ndlovu, Mjayeli farm owner showing his off-grid solar system

Electrification has been one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history. Fifteen years into the 21st century, it is hard to imagine that more than 1.2 billion people around the world have never been touched by the electric grid, and another 3 billion people have limited grid connectivity.

According to the United Nation’s ‘sustainability for all’ initiatives, “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity and an environment that allows the world to thrive.”

Providing reliable grid connectivity to large swaths of rural areas in Africa, South East Asia, Central and South America, remains a daunting challenge and an expensive proposition for many local governments.

The Department of Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) says the Zimbabwean government is actually pushing to upscale solar and biogas uptake, to complement the rural electrification program to assist those who live in rural areas.

“Firstly we started to talk about biogas here in Zimbabwe around early 1995-1996. We did pilot projects in Zhombe, Midlands Provinces and the uptake was very low because people didn’t understand the technology. Today we realised that with shortages of electricity, in Zimbabwe and Africa in general, there is need to think renewable energy and promote the use of biogas and solar systems,” said Matabeleland North Provincial Agritex Officer, Mr Dumisani Nyoni.

A biogas digester in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, rural households use firewood to meet more than 90 percent of their fuel needs. But many families find it increasingly difficult to gather enough wood for cooking and heating because of Forestry Commission rules which prohibit cutting of many trees as a result of issues to do with deforestation, especially those such as red teak, used in the making of furniture and roofing products. Women and children are mostly burdened as there are tasked to walk long distances in search of firewood.

“We are not allowed to cut trees near our homesteads. Now we are tasked to go and climb the mountain in search of firewood. It is very hard trust me, especial when you have to carry the load on top of your head and the distance to the mountain. I normally tie a large load so that it lasts me a week or longer but this has affected by back,” said Sibonokuhle Ndlovu from Ntshene Village at Esigodini area.

The energy challenges facing Zimbabwe are urgent and daunting but there are several off-grid technologies and other clean energy solutions that can improve energy access; like mini grid, micro grid; solar lighting, solar home systems, small hydro, solar water heaters; clean cook stoves, biogas, and renewable energy based solar pumps that can be exploited to make a significant contribution to the country’s energy situation.

Biogas used for lighting in Zimbabwe. Photo: The Standard

A load forecast report of domestic households and institutions in rural off-grid areas in Zimbabwe, the Rural Energy Master Plan (REMP) 2016 indicates that the potential additional rural electricity demand by 2034 is between 500 MW and 900 MW, assuming all rural customers will be grid-connected.

Setting up a solar grid system might be costly initially, but has a lot of huge benefits at the end.

“Establishing the solar system in my farm costed $5000 United States Dollars. Initially the costs might be too much, but I’m enjoying the benefits from both biogas and solar. I’m planning to extend my solar project, to sell some of the units to my neighbors and even to the national grid,” said Ndlovu.

Ndlovu said his biogas system produces 7 kilograms of gas per day, which is enough to cater for a day’s cooking needs.

“We are using less than 1 kilogram of methane for our cooking needs, for a family of 15 people. We are always left with a surplus of gas since we use solar for our lighting,” said Ndlovu.

Mrs Vannie Dube, a widow staying in Madiliwola, Umzingwane area at Esigodini, currently invested in a solar home system, and her rural life experience has completely changed.

“Before establishing the solar home system at my home stead, life was very hard. I personally needed to keep in contact with my children who are living abroad and had to walk long distances to charge my mobile phone. With solar, I just charge my battery at home and I can access news from my television set and radio. I’m always informed on what is happening,” said Mrs Dube.

Many rural people felt that investing in solar and biogas is very expensive and unrealistic. According to Kalani Ndlovu, the government should initiate an affirmative policy whereby in every house hold there is a biogas for cooking and heating, to promote solar and biogas.

“All what the government need to do is to build the biogas digesters and get the community to buy in because many people have got cows. For house hold, all they need is 100 kilograms of cow dung per day, to produce enough methane for heating and cooking on their 20 cubic biogas digester. For those who don’t have, networking of gas can be achieved to other homesteads as such arrangements can reduce the costs associated with establishing a biogas system.

Energy and policy expert, Tafadzwa Dhlakama, a Legal Researcher for Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) said biogas use in Zimbabwe is still a long way off because of the amount of organic material needed to feed the digester.

“For example sugarcane farmers in Chiredzi and Triangle, have been supplying sugarcane to local sugar milling plants for processing. One sugar milling plant has been using the by-products from sugarcane grown around Chiredzi and Triangle towns to produce electricity using a biogas digester.

“My general observation is that decentralized biogas use in Zimbabwe is still a long way as its effectiveness depends largely on the entities receiving big sources of biomass. The drive to promote biogas use should not be seen mainly from a commercial point or view or large scale production, rather on a small scale. The people whom are living in energy poverty and have greater access to bio mass resources (farm ‘waste’, forestry etc) are in the rural areas. It is as such that the promotion of biogas use should be looked from the lenses of decentralization to, especially the local community and what mechanisms should be put to ensure its realisation.”

Lungelo Ndhlovu

About Lungelo Ndhlovu

LUNGELO NDHLOVU is an award winning freelance multi-media journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. http://www.chronicle.co.zw/chronicle-pair-wins-mining-awards/ He specializes in news writing, photography and video production, covering major news, features and local events for various media organizations. He also researches and writes about news stories on digital platforms and visual journalism. He contributes Feature stories for Zimbabwe Papers Organisation (The Chronicle) http://www.chronicle.co.zw Ndhlovu is also Reuters Foundation Trust (TRF) ‘Following the Aid Money’ Investigative Reporting Program Alumni (2016) http://www.trust.org