The trouble with rural electrification in Uganda

There was once a boy who lived with his grandmother in a house without electricity. The pennies that the old woman scraped here and there went to her grandson’s school dues at a nearby public secondary school.

After covering some necessities, the balance was hardly enough to buy kerosene for the evening lamp. The boy, a day scholar, excelled in spite of the darks odds.

Uganda has one of the lowest electrification rates in Africa with an access rate of 28 per cent as quoted in the Draft Energy Policy 2019. With this low reach, there is limited productive use of electricity in Uganda’s rural areas.

While we have achieved increased electricity generation capacity from 317MW (2002) to 1,182MW (May 2019) and electrification access from five per cent in 2002 to 28 per cent in 2019, the pace of growth is not fast enough and this is the current source of grief for the minister of Energy and Mineral Development.

Only seven per cent rural electrification has been achieved in 17 years lamented Energy minister Mary Goretti Kitutu in a recent NTV news report, bitterly complaining about the dismal performance of the Rural Electrification Agency.

Giving examples of other countries which have beaten the odds to deliver power to the rural population, she posed the all-important question: “What is wrong here?”

You will probably find the answer to Uganda’s rural electrification problems in a report somewhere. The challenges have been well documented.

However, many Ugandans (yours truly included) can narrate from first-hand experience the challenges of accessing the national electricity grid.

Having worked in coordination with a rural electrification team, when the Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit Briefing Paper (May 2017) lists affordability of wiring houses as a problem, I can confirm that it is a real issue.

The government agency may extend the electric poles all the way to the doorsteps of rural folks but if houses are not built to standards sufficient for wiring and the costs of wiring are beyond the capacity of the recipients, it is an exercise in futility.

Sometimes after you have worked through all the other issues like compensating land owners in the pathway of the power lines and getting power to the village, you will be asked the question: “Who is paying the bill?” High connection costs, high power tariffs as well as complicated application processes are getting in the way of rural electrification, Madam Minister!

While some effort, however little, has been made towards extending power to rural areas, more needs to be done in terms of developing smarter and more cost-effective methods of taking power to the countryside.

The Energy Policy 2019 lists lack of skilled manpower, targeted research and development as part of what is undermining the energy sector’s long term sustainability but studies exist to show what else we could be doing as a country.

According to a report, “The Alternative Energy Strategy for Uganda, A Civil Society Perspective” by National Association of Professional Environmentalists (2013), Uganda receives 2500-3000 hours of sunshine per year. According to www.weather-and-climate.com, Saudi Arabia, one of the countries with the highest solar energy potential, receives 3230 hours.

As we limp towards more rural electrification, some grain millers in distant towns across the country and students with no midnight oil to burn may finally be able to access much needed power and light if we are willing to consider and put our energies towards developing alternative energy sources which are easier to deliver.

Ms Nampewo is a writer, editor and communications consultant
[email protected]

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