By Rodgers K. Muyangwa
Increased access to electricity is one of the objectives of the Government of Zambia in the electricity sector. This led to the establishment of Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) in Eastern Province with the support of Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).
Three companies energy companies were formed in Nyimba, Chipata and Lundazi. These were Nyimba Energy Services Company (Nesco), Chipata Energy Services Company (CHESCO), and Lundazi Energy Services Company (Lesco) were supplied with fifty (50) watts Solar panels on a pilot basis.
NESCO received 100 systems while CHESCO and LESCO received 150 systems.
This paper is as a result of a recent visit to the three towns in Eastern province and aims at highlighting broadly the general socio-economic benefits that have accrued to the local communities in the wake of the project.
2. Operations of ESCOs
How do the ESCOs operate? The solar systems are still owned by Government through the Department of Energy. The ESCOs are just operating them through the provision of a service just like ZESCO , the customers pay a monthly fee for use of the solar systems.The current fees are K50,000.00 in Nyimba and K45,000.00 in Chipata and Lundazi respectively. Upon payment of Installation fees customers are supplied with the solar systems after which they pay monthly charges as indicated earlier. The solar systems are able to light four bulbs and power a black and white TV or a radio.
3. Clientele spread.
The customers that have benefited from the services of energy companies are as following , Schools, Clinics, small entrepreneurs farmers and individual households
Besides being able to listen to the radio and watch TV the following were the other immediate benefits accruing from the use of solar systems.
i) Longer trading hours for Small business owners and Individuals.
The small business entrepreneurs stated that they have been able to grow their businesses due to longer trading hours since they installed solar systems. The traders also pointed out that the use of solar systems had significantly reduced the risk of fires which were a common accident in places that still used other fuel forms like kerosene and candles.
The other major benefit accruing from the use of solar systems was said to be the reduced indoor pollution.
ii) Improved exam pass rates in schools
School authorities reported that they have recorded increased pass rates as they are able not only to adequately prepare lessons but also that the pupils have longer evening study times from 2 to 4 hours. At one of the schools of the schools, Kalambakuwa Basic Schools, the Head teacher Mr E. Miti stated that the solar systems have also proved to be cheaper than using a diesel generator. Before the solar system was installed Mr Miti stated that the school consumed about 20 litres of diesel for two hours for five (5) days. He therefore stated that the fee of K50,000.00 per month spent on solar was far cheaper than the diesel.
At Chankanga Basic school the head teacher Mr. Tembo expressed happiness at the improved lighting system. He also stated that since the solar systems were installed about 5 years ago all the teachers at the school have been able to undertake further education to diploma level. He said that the solar energy was used for lighting, listening to radio and watching TV. He was happy that he was up to date with the happenings in the country and the world at large.
The schools that had solar systems had recorded overwhelming enrolment as they were preferred.
iii) Other benefits
Other advantages were that solar was a cleaner and stable source of lighting that has also added beauty to the school and teachers houses.
Some customers mentioned that communication has become relatively easier as they are able to charge cell phones using solar power.
5. Opinions about the monthly charge.
Although the amount of service fees was said to be quite high , all the customers interviewed stated that they would rather struggle to pay the service fee rather than not have the service.
6. Problems and challenges.
Both the Companies and customers complained about the performance of the batteries which the said had a short life span of maximum three years. They also complained about the limited scope of uses for the solar power. The suppliers also complained about some illegal and substandard solar systems that were reported to be selling on the market.
The solar system project in Eastern province has proved to be a popular service that can generally be said to have opened doors of opportunities for the people. Although the monthly charges are said to be high for the basic services of lighting four bulbs and powering a radio or black and white TV, the majority of people visited indicated that they would rather continue struggling to pay for the service than have the service terminated.
It was reported by ESCOs that the number of potential customers on the waiting lists was about 400 in Chipata and 300 in Lundazi.