Rural transformation: Solar power is crucial in driving economic transformation, especially in rural areas. In Hamukungu and Kayanzi landing sites in Queen Elizabeth National Park, many locals are using solar for lighting, and running fridges and salons, writes GILLIAN NANTUME
A long and bumpy drive on the Kasese-Bushenyi highway will suddenly land one into the quaint but neat community of mud-brick houses that make up Hamukungu Landing Site on the shores of Lake George, Kasese District.
The landing site is mostly abandoned now because of the army operation to curb illegal fishing. The only visible economic activities are a number of bars.
There are a few permanent buildings, and since the landing site is located deep inside Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), the lack of electricity poles is quite conspicuous.
It was only in June 2018 that the residents of Hamukungu got to see electric power. But then, the lights are only at Hamukungu Health Centre II. At night, the rest of the village lies in total darkness.
Since it was built by the community in 1984, taken over by the government in 1990, and renovated by Medicin San Frontiers (MSF) in 2017, the health centre had no electricity until World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) recently installed four solar panels to the buildings.
Bringing a health centre back to life
And what a world of difference solar energy has brought! For the first time, proper laboratory tests are being carried out, patients are treated at night, and the maternal ward will soon be operational.
Ms Joy Kisembo, the nursing assistant, recalls that before the solar panels were installed, the facility would close before sunset.
“No medical personnel would risk an attack by wild animals to come and treat a patient at night. But now, we have security lights all around.”
The health centre also carries out routine immunisations because the refrigerator in which the vaccines are stored is permanently switched on. “Previously, we were using gas cylinders to power the refrigerator,” Ms Kisembo says, adding, “To replenish the empty cylinders, we would travel 30kms to Kasese Town. Some of the vaccines in the refrigerator would go bad.”
The health facility receives Shs500,000 as primary health care funds from the government every quarter, 10 per cent of which is used for equipment maintenance and repair.
To make ends meet, the community used to levy one tilapia off every boat. The fish was sold and the money kept by the local council treasurer to fund the needs of the health centre and police post. Out of this levy, the community was able to build mud-huts next to the health centre, which serve as staff quarters.
The excitement of solar energy is quite contagious. Jockus Muhindo, the laboratory technician, says all the redundant equipment in his care such as the centrifuge and microscope, are now working. However, the facility is yet to find the money to install iron doors, so the equipment is kept at the police post 200 metres away.
“The centrifuge machine separates plasma from blood and we need it for liver function tests and serum CRAG testing when monitoring clients on anti-retroviral treatment (ART). Since the beginning of the month we have been able to transfer three blood samples to Kagando (Mission Hospital). Previously, we used to transport unseparated blood samples some of which got spoilt on the way.”
Spoilt blood samples meant Muhindo had to summon the patient for drawing another blood sample. This procedure was traumatic and a wastage of resources to the patient and facility, respectively. The facility is now planning to acquire a PIMA machine that analyses CD4 count of clients on anti-retroviral treatment (ART) who number about 300. In the community of 1,000 people, the HIV prevalence is high due to a myth on the landing site, according to Muhindo, that ‘a woman only belongs to a man when she is physically with him.’
Even before the facility opens its maternity ward, medical workers are already giving antenatal care to mothers. The community is also fundraising to buy mattresses for the delivery room beds.
Agnes Natukunda, a 22-year-old mother of one, is impatient for the facility to have an operational labour ward.
“I gave birth to my first child at home. Now, I am seven months pregnant and I have visited the health centre twice for antenatal care. There are challenges to delivering at home so to avoid getting complications, I plan to give birth in Kagando or Rugazi (Rubirizi District).”
Kagando is 30km away and the journey on boda boda costs Shs10,000, while Rugazi is 50kms away and a taxi charges Shs15,000.
Natukunda’s neighbour, 26, Joy Itungo, is also heavily pregnant with her third child. She plans to give birth in Kasese Town, 30kms away.
Using solar to conserve wildlife
Hamukungu came into the limelight early this year when 11 lions were killed in QENP, not more than 500 metres away from the landing site. At that time, residents used to go into the national park to harvest firewood for cooking food and lighting their homes.
Since the death of the lions, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) banned them from going near the animals. As a result, the residents buy firewood and charcoal from a truck that comes to Kasese Town once a week.
David Duli, WWF’s country director, says it is important to look at the drivers affecting wildlife, and these include markets, finances, populations and energy.
“Energy, a developing industry, brings out development in terms of industrialisation and domestic use. Energy has a large bearing on the environment, which is filled with wild animals and biodiversity. So you cannot conserve wildlife and forget about people and their needs,” he says.
Renewable energy such as solar, does not destroy the environment. Every time the villagers look at the development that solar has brought to them, through a company that is working on wildlife conservation, they will learn to value the animals around them.
Mini-grids are the future for rural electrification
About 20kms away from Hamukungu, on the other side of QENP, is Kayanzi Landing Site. In the middle of the trading centre is a solar mini-grid fitted with 20 solar panels, each 250W.
The impact of the mini-grid on development is almost tangible, because four years after its construction as a pilot, Kayanzi mini-grid connects 65 households, Kayanzi Primary School, a resort hotel and local video halls to solar energy.
Every household pays between Shs20,000 and 50,000 as down payment for the connection, while they make monthly payments of between Shs7,000 to Shs20,000 depending on their usage. The village has 320 households.
Unlike Hamukungu, Kayanzi is congested with many houses next to each other. According to Duli, a mini-grid system is good for such a settlement instead of an individual system for every house.
“In a mini-grid, only one centralised unit is installed to distribute power to more than 200 homes. It can power equipment such as fridges and TVs, and this being a fishing village, this is good for development because the fishermen can store their fish in fridges, and salons and juice makers can operate.”
The mini-grid is managed and operated by one man, Sadik Baluku.
He says before installation, the community was sensitised on the benefits of solar energy by the district resource officer. “The solar system is made in Germany and the batteries have a lifespan of 10 years. There is also reliability of sufficient light even without sunshine.”
The grid is now owned by the community, the local government and the Ministry of Energy, with the support of Rural Electrification Agency (REA). However, not all households in Kayanzi are connected, with the main complaint being that installing solar energy is expensive.
Duli agrees that the price is a big challenge and discussions are ongoing to make it more affordable. “The mini-grid has a large capacity but the problem is with the tariffs. The system is highly automated and if you do not pay, you are disconnected.”
Another reason for the few clients is that being a fishing village, when there is a lull in the fishing season, the fishermen migrate to another landing site. In that season, the landlords do not renew their connection to the grid until other tenants come in.
Solar to improve academic performance
Kitabu Primary School in Kyerumba Sub-county on the western part of QENP, is easy to miss. Located in a valley, at the foot of a steep hill, 22kms out of Kasese Town, the school has 630 pupils and 12 teachers.
The student population is made up of children whose parents are subsistence farmers or poachers in the national park. When they fail to raise the school fees of Shs5,000, the parents offer the school chicken and goats in exchange.
Until recently, most of the female students dropped out in Primary Six to get married. Some boys also drop out to start businesses, such as selling and buying beans. However, the head teacher, Laurence Muhindo Mubatsi, says with the installation of a solar system at the school, some of those who would have dropped out will be compelled to continue with their education.
“We have 37 pupils in Primary Seven now and 36 of them joined the boarding section we introduced a few weeks ago, after we got solar energy. Collective revision of study notes in the night and early morning is now possible, and we are hoping for our first batch of students in Division One.”
The solar system lights the Primary Six class, and two others which were converted into a dormitory for boys and girls. The cost of installation was Shs7m and every child had to pay Shs3,000 to meet part of the down payment. Members of the community also supported the school.
The solar system is also used as a learning aid. Previously, when students were taught about electricity they could not grasp the meaning and uses of electric light and energy.
“We hope to purchase a laptop, printer, and photocopier so that we do not have to travel to Kasese Town to set and print our exams,” Mubatsi says, adding, “Besides, pupils will learn how to use a computer when they see one.”
On a brighter note, teachers who used to escape to Kasese Town to charge their phones can now charge them at school and this has increased the amount of time they spend with the pupils.
Reducing inequality within and among nations has always been a global goal if sustainable development is to be achieved, and one way to do this is to make available renewable sources of energy to the least developed areas. Sustainable development goal (SDG) 7 talks about ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
Off-grid electrification will go a long way in helping the country to meet its electricity access targets in rural areas, such as Kasese, where previously, the district had a 10 per cent coverage of electricity.