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When rural Rutooma got electricity

By Agather Atuhaire

One villager’s life changed but others still wait in vain

Tuwangye Yorokam excitedly tells anyone willing to listen how electricity has made everything exciting in his village of Rutooma in Bwizibwera, Mbarara district in western Uganda. Tuwangye, 42, lives in a village about eight kilometers away from the nearest main road.

Until five months ago, his village did not have electricity but is one of the few villages that have benefited from a recent surge in the rural electrification programme.

“The nightmare of walking 8km to the urban centre to charge my mobile phone is now over,” he says, “We can now have something to do for leisure like watching soccer and news on television.”

He is also excited that his four children can now revise their school work at night on better and cleaner light than the tadooba, the traditional kerosene tin candle. Other areas in western Uganda that have recently got electricity include Muzizi, Kayonza, Rugyeyo, and two others in Buhweju.

All these places have tea factories and the electrification is designed to modernise agriculture.

According to a new report, almost all the new districts have been connected to electricity including Sembabule, Kibaale, Kanungu, Oyam and Kaberamaido.

New diesel generators have been installed in Moyo, Adjumani, Moroto and Kalangala.

The report compiled by energy minister Irene Muloni also says five rural fish landing sites of Majanji, Bukakata, Kasensero, Wakwala and Bukungu now have electricity.  Several of these areas have agro processing industries and medium enterprises.

A report from REA also shows that 426 grid extension projects countrywide have been implemented to support social and economic projects in communities and institutions for rural transformation.

The new connections are a result of 16 MW of electricity that has been added to the grid by independent power generation, primarily from small hydro generators, and a bagasse plants.

According to the report, another 22 schemes are in the final stages of completion and should see more villages lit up.

REA has installed solar projects in schools, health centres, water supplies and communities.

According to the agency’s latest report, 7,566 solar PV systems were installed under since the start of Energy for Rural Transformation (ERT) programme in 2001.

The agency has also reportedly implemented main grid extension infrastructure developments ranging from small to large projects like district headquarters, economic and social rural centres and communities like trading centers. It has funded grid extension, mini-grid, and stand-alone solar home systems.

However, not every villager has been as lucky as Tuwangye and his Rutooma village mates. Recent statistics show that about 90 percent of the over 30 million Ugandans and about 95 percent of the over 25 million rural dwellers still have no access to electricity.

What Tuwangye and many other Ugandans do not know is that Uganda is not supposed to be in such a state of darkness. It has a total landmass of 241,000 square kilometres, with considerable resources for renewable energy production that remain unexploited, largely due to the perceived technical and financial risks.

With the exception of biomass or firewood, which contributes over 90% of the country’s energy, the remaining renewable sources, contribute only about 5% of the country’s total energy consumption.

The Rural Electrification Agency (REA)is still dreadfully far from achieving its targets because a decade after the programme was inaugurated; rural access to electricity now stands at 6 percent. It is doubted that at this rate, it will achieve 10 percent which is about 300,000 connections by 2012. The government itself admitted that REA is lagging behind.

The Minister of State for Energy, Simon D’ujang, said that REA has failed to achieve the short term goal of 10 percent rural electrification by 2012.

The government in 2001 instigated the rural electrification strategy and plan (RESP) with an aim of increasing rural access to electricity which was then at 1%.

The government of Uganda, like most people, realised that energy is the engine for economic growth and development, and a vital input into all the productive and social sectors of the economy. They focussed on the rural areas where over 80% of the population lives without electricity.

REA, which is the Secretariat of the Rural Electrification Board (REB), manages the Rural Electrification Fund (REF) for promotion of rural electricity access and connectivity in an equitable manner for the whole of Uganda. REA’s target was to achieve at least 10% electricity access for rural Uganda and the overall vision of universal electricity access by 2035.

The semi autonomous agency is funded by the World Bank, the Japan International cooperation Agency (JICA), Swedish International Development cooperation (SIDA), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), African Development Bank (ADB), GTZ, the Ugandan government and the consolidated funds.

But the Programme Officer for Electricity at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), Bwesigye Don Binyina says it is almost impossible for REA to achieve 10 percent rural electrification by next year when it has not met targets for the last two years.

“Rural electrification was at 6 percent in 2009, the same rate at which it still is today, if it has not registered any increase in two years how will it increase by 4 percent in less than a year?” Bwesigye asked.

As a result, many rural villages have waited for electricity in vain. Tinkasiimire George of Bumbaire in Bushenyi district said transformers and electric poles were planted in his village about three years ago but nothing more has ever been done.

“It is as if we wanted poles for the decoration of our village,” he said.  Like Tinkasimiire’s village, many other rural dwellers have said they are tired of hearing the same song of bringing free electricity to their villages. Byamugisha Wilson of Ngoma village in Sheema district says apart from being asked to pay money for the poles to be brought closer to their homes, the electrification process is taking years to be completed.

“They were planting poles on the road and they said every one needed to have a pole 200 meters from his house to get electricity,” he says.

Byamugisha said for anyone to have a pole closer to their houses and eventually get connected to what was supposed to be free electricity had to pay a minimum of shs500, 000.

Only a few people in rural areas have such money and the “equal access to electricity” that the programme targets, is unlikely to occur.

Byamugisha said only three people in his village paid that money. Unfortunately to this day, they wake up to stare at the “useless electric poles in their compounds and nothing more has been done”.

“I wonder how long it will take,” he says. “These poles were set up early last year and no other development has commenced,”

It is not clear what is derailing the programme that has got such financial support, especially from the World Bank which gave it, US$6 million in June and a US$120 million loan in July. Other sponsors have also injected in millions of dollars.

While the latest report from REA talks about limited local government budget as one of the implementation constraints, observers and funders say there is rampant misallocation of the available funds due to poor monitoring.

Bwesigye from AFIEGO says the World Bank complains of monitoring issues surrounding the project and that it even suggested a joint monitoring partnership with them.

“We have agreed on a multi-staking partnership with the world bank because it (World Bank) says that the money seems to be channelled to wrong hands,” he said.

A public sector representative on the Rural Electrification Board, Sebidde Sentongo, says it should be the responsibility of all the concerned parties to make sure that the money allocated to this project achieves its objective.

“The public sector, government, civil society organisations and other Ugandans should participate in the monitoring role to ensure that the concerned people deliver,” he said.

The Minister of state for Energy, Simon D’ujang, says although there are many funders, financial issues still exist especially because of many partners involved in the project.

“Each partner waits for another to take on some projects and the funding ends up delaying or even not coming through,” he says.

But critics have also questioned the practicability of rural electrification because of so many issues that the government did not put into consideration before embarking on the programme.

Bwesigye says sustainability of rural electrification hangs in balance because the government did not consider that rural people would not afford the type of electricity they are installing for them.

“You cannot give someone who survives on only one dollar or less a day the type of electricity where he or she has to pay monthly bills and think they will sustain it,” he said.

“Uganda has so many other alternatives of renewable energy notably solar and geothermal and that is the type of electricity that would work for rural areas,” he says.

D’ujang also agrees with Bwesigye and says rural electrification is putting more emphasis on the use of solar energy because it is more sustainable and less costly with the tax exemption announced in this financial year’s national budget.

“Solar energy is the most appropriate for rural areas which is why we lobbied for a tax exemption on the solar equipment,” D’ujang said.

Government also faces a challenge of productivity of this electricity because it will not boost economic development if the beneficiaries do not have the ability to economically utilise it. The REA report itself says the end users of electricity are not using it productively. “There appears a low demand factor and revenue accruing to the end users remains low and this reduces the economic benefits of rural electrification,” the report says.

Sebide Sentongo wants more education of users during the first stages of the programme for the project to be put to good use. “What economic use are these people using the electricity for? Instead of enhancing their development it is depriving them of the little income they have through payment of bills,” Sebide said.

The report also notes cases of resistant and uncooperative communities that refuse to allow the passage of electricity lines on their lands, pressure for electrification from political leaders without putting into consideration whether it makes economic sense or not and the inadequate local capacity to invest especially in renewable energy projects and undertake construction of infrastructure. All these issues need to be addressed for REA to effectively light up the countryside and brighten up the lives of more villagers like Tiwangye.

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