WEST NILE-When the sun sets and night falls, it’s the sun, ironically, and not the moon that lights up most of West Nile’s rural communities.
Without a network of electricity from the national grid penetrating the villages, residents have found a unique way of survival.
This region, which lies astride the mighty River Nile, that generates power for the rest of the country, has been without power for decades. For most of independent Uganda, urban West Nile relied on thermal power. When the generators reverberated, the towns had power to run electrical machines and light up the night.
As they endure the long wait, the residents have found a way out of the problem. They have found inspiration in God’s gift of the sun and man’s ability to convert it to energy a.k.a solar.
Although it has been around since the 19th Century, it has not been harnessed on a large scale in Africa, let alone Uganda. Several households and businesses in West Nile, just like most of rural northern Uganda, have turned to solar.
The consolation is, while hydropower has installation costs and periodic bills, solar power’s initial costs are on panels and battery, wiring and electricity. Maintenance costs can be incurred at a future date.
At the home of Ms Jennifer Anguko, 45, of Owaffa Sub-county, there is a flurry of activities. Several mobile telephones are plugged in power sockets, charging. Meanwhile, a long wire leads the panel out to tap sunrays.
Ms Anguko is a happy woman in her grass-thatched hut. She says solar provides clean energy and saves money that would have been spent on electricity bills.
“Here there are no electricity poles but we are grateful for the gift of sun which has made us have power 24-hours in our home. It is an expensive venture at the start but the benefits in the long run are enormous,” Ms Anguko, who used Shs1.2 million to install the solar, says. “But now I don’t regret having spent the money.”
Solar has also become a source of income to West Nile residents. For Ms Anguko, she uses the solar to charge phones for people in her village. Each phone is charged at Shs500 and she says on a good day, she could charge 30 phones which amounts to Shs15,000.
Mr Julius Ocen of Nebbi says solar has increased energy efficiency in his home. But that is not all, “the environment too is smiling,” he says. “You save quite a bit if you buy solar. And most people here use the savings from local schemes to buy solar or even acquire solar loans that are provided by banks.”
FINCA, a financial institution, offers solar loans through its Agricultural Business Initiative.
“I no longer dream of connecting electricity because the 85 Watts solar provides adequate power supply for the family,” Mr Ocen says.
Just like telecoms have penetrated a large portion of rural Uganda, solar seems to be doing the same as hope for hydroelectricity wanes.
The only challenge is during rainy season where only installations with strong batteries store power for more hours.
A technician with Solar Systems Limited, Mr Tabu Guma, says most rural areas go for solar because it is less costly than using generators, which are expensive to maintain. “They rather invest big and have less maintenance costs,” he adds.
Mr Tabu said 85 Watts solar panel with a battery, inverter and charger controller is installed at Shs2.1 million.
A phone user in Obongi Town in Moyo, Mr Salim Ahmed, says: “Solar has enabled us to charge phones at home unlike in the past where we had to ride bicycles for several kilometres to town where there are generators.”
With this technology, rural residents in West Nile are also able to watch television and catch up on the latest in the news, and thrive on small scale businesses.
Radio stations such as Pacis invested huge money to set up solar panels to provide power in case electricity is off.
At night, most of the upcoming trading centres and homes are lit and a first time visitor may think this twinkle has been around for long or that electricity is connected to the homes.
For students, the adage of “burning the midnight candle” while revising for examinations or doing homework may just change. Better lighting has been provided.
In this creeping revolution, health centres have also not been left out. Many have installed solar energy. This has enabled late optical work and emergencies to be handled impeccably.
Rural schools, churches, mosques and local government offices also rely heavily on the solar system. In Yumbe District, the main street is illuminated at night by solar lights installed by German Technical Cooperation.
Solar power has become a necessity. The main challenge in the region, however, remains providing alternatives to charcoal which represents 90 per cent of the national energy consumption. Charcoal is used mainly for cooking and is responsible for the disappearing forest cover. Experts say the use of alternative energy can alleviate the pressure on forest resources.
THE REGION'S WOES
For many years, the residents gave up on hope of ever getting connected on the national grid of hydropower generated in Jinja District. The politicians, especially in the opposition, got fodder during campaigns or whenever an opportunity at the podium came.
That was extinguished, or was it, in September 2012 when the 3.5MW Nyagak 1 hydropower plant was commissioned. Hope came alive again. The project implemented by the West Nile Rural Electrification Company Limited (WENRECO) since 2006 had come to fruition.
Hardly two years and hope for the rural communities is fast fading. Of the eight districts in West Nile sub-region, only two -- Adjumani and Moyo -- are on the national power grid. But its distribution does not go beyond the townships there.
Out of grid
The six others; Arua, Koboko, Maracha, Nebbi, Yumbe and Zombo had counted on the Nyagak project for illumination. However, the singular supply line along the main road to the region only feeds the towns of Nebbi, Paidha and Arua, leaving a big chunk of the area in darkness.
The site manager West Nile Grid Extension, Mr Ken Mulwanda, while briefing officials from the Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Limited and ministry of Energy two weeks ago, said the extension of power lines to trading centres and major towns has started on the 78km MV line from Nyagak to Arua via Vurra, with poles being erected by workers of WENRECO.
State minister for Energy Simon D’Ujanga said more people would be connected by December.