More affordable and environmentally friendly energy is key to alleviating poverty, according to an initiative underway in Swaziland, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, but there are still sizable challenges in getting power to the people.
The initiative, Renewable and Efficient Energy for Poverty Alleviation in Southern Africa (REEPASA) aims to increase the use of renewable energy technology - such as wind- and hydropower - to generate electricity and promote more sustainable energy usage in the region.
The Renewable Energy Association of Swaziland (REASWA), an Mbabane-based NGO set up to promote the cost-effective use of renewable energy in the landlocked kingdom has been selected to carry out the REEPASA project.
"The issue of poverty has been looked at from many angles, and initiatives have been tried for job creation, agriculture, water, education; we are tackling the issue of poverty from an energy perspective. Most poor people use a large portion of their income on energy; by paying less for energy, the poor can use their resources for other things," Bongiswa Dladla, a project officer at REASWA, told IRIN.
Next to affordability, the need for energy has grave consequences for the environment, as Mthembisi Fakudze, another REASWA project officer, explained: "The rural poor, particularly women, spend a lot of their time collecting firewood. This is not an energy-inefficient means of heating and cooking, and it does damage to the environment."
Eighty percent of Swaziland's one million people live in rural areas and are heavily dependent on wood as a source of energy; school children are also often required to bring wood to school for use in the kitchen and for heating.
The stripping of forests for firewood has accelerated desertification, and across the country the practice has caused soil erosion and silted up precious water sources.
Power for the poor
The government, with the financial support of international donors, has begun a programme to bring electricity to all Swazis. According to the Southern African Development Community, only 27 percent of the population have access to electricity, with the vast 'powerless' majority being rural.
The Swaziland Electricity Board (SEB), a parastatal company, usually runs a main line to a community, and households then form associations, pooling their money to pay for extensions to their homesteads.
But even if connections are free, this does not ensure that all families have power, particularly in a country with deepening food insecurity and a shrinking economy. People often cannot afford to pay their electricity bills and service is suspended. The UN estimates that about 40 percent of Swazi's are facing acute food and water shortages.
|In rural areas most households can't afford to pay for the power and they can't afford the appliances|
"The UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] and World Bank did a household energy survey. In rural areas, most households, even if they have electricity, they don't use it for cooking. They can't afford to pay for the power, and they can't afford the appliances," Dladla said.
"According to the SEB, households spend 30 percent of their income on energy; for a household head who loses his job, or a household caring for family members with HIV/AIDS, that is a lot of money for energy."
According to the REEPASA initiative, Swaziland has the capacity to increase the output of hydro-generated power, biofuels and solar energy, but the initial investment required remains a constraint.
"The start-up costs for the technologies are high - a water geyser costs R2,000 (US$285) to R3,000 ($427) but a solar-powered water geyser costs R5,000 ($712), said REAWSA's Nontobeko Mlangeni. "However, once the initial purchase is made, there are no monthly energy bills, and in time the unit pays for itself, and eventually saves the household money."
REAWSA has stressed solar-powered and wind-powered pumps as an answer to the many community development projects that have failed due to a lack of electricity.
During a tour of the under-developed southern Shiselweni Region last week, the Minister of Regional Development, Sipho Shongwe, expressed his disappointment that crop irrigation schemes and boreholes drilled to provide water for schools and community centres had been abandoned and left to rust.
The water sources had not been exploited because the communities could not afford the fuel to run the pump generators. Mlangeni said that with solar-powered pumps, maintenance would be cost-free after the initial capital expense of purchasing the equipment and installation.
"We have done research on renewable energy technologies in Swaziland, and asked what is keeping people from using these," said Dladla. "The number one answer is always the high initial cost."