Some years ago, I was in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and local people were keen to show me the home-made, locally-developed hydroelectric ‘plant’ they had created. It no longer worked, because one day, the person watching over it wasn’t keeping close enough track and the system burned out.
But for a while, the village had enjoyed power – no longer kerosene lanterns and cooking fires.
They showed it to me because they wanted technical help to make such a system work, and I spent a lot of time back at home seeking possible sources of such help. Mostly unsuccessfully, I am afraid, although I did connect up one person from the local NGO I was working with to the BRAC training centre in nearby Juba.
I was thinking about this story as a consequence of two stories I read in the past week – one about Malawi, and one about New Orleans.
In Malawi, which is one of the world’s least-electrified countries, Colrerd Nkosi grew up in the northern village of Yobe Nkosi with no electricity. He went away 25 km to Mzimba for his secondary school education and then moved back home.
He found he missed having electricity, so he began experimenting. A fast flowing river ran past his house, and when he put his bicycle in the stream, the force of the water turned the pedals. He experimented with dynamos and created a turbine which brought power into his home.
With no prior training, he turned an old fridge compressor into a water-powered turbine and put it in the nearby Kasangazi River, generating electricity for six households. Now the village is supplied by a bigger turbine, built from the motor of a disused maize sheller — a machine that skims kernels of corn off the cob – and power is carried along metal cables strung from a two-kilometre (one-mile) line of tree trunks topped with wooden planks.
The users don’t pay for the power but give Nkosi about $1.00 (0.85 euros) per household per month for maintenance, although this really doesn’t cover the costs so he also pays for repairs from his own pocket.
As well as generating over 400 volts of power for his village, his Kasangazi Hydro-Electrical Power Plant has supported the creation of two other hydroelectric power stations in nearby villages and trained other volunteers to run and maintain them. Over 2,000 people have benefitted from his sustainable and locally generated electricity.
In 2018, he won a Commonwealth Point Of Light Award, presented by Queen Elizabeth II, for his amazing innovation to bring light to his community for free
There is potential to provide electricity for 1,000 households from that single turbine, he says, and if he installs another turbine further down the same river, there is even more potential.
Having electricity means students at Kasangazi Primary School no longer have to do their homework by candlelight, as Colrerd did when he was growing up. The village school is now the only one in the area with electricity. It means people can watch television at the home of Nkosi’s cousin, Satiel. “I cannot ably explain in words how this has changed my life,” he says. “I am now able to do so many things.”
And there is an environmental benefit, because people no longer need to cut down trees to make charcoal.
Nkosi hopes to create similar systems for other villages, and he has an advocate in local councillor Victor Muva, who points out that none of the constituency’s more than 18,000 inhabitants are on the national grid. He has been lobbying the government to help Nkosi expand his work, and says that the ministry of energy has promised to help “design a system that produces adequate power” and “construct power lines that are safe and reliable.”
Nkosi, who is self-taught, wishes he could find a sponsor to help him fulfill his dream of going back to school to further his knowledge and pass on what he’s learned to others.
His initiative really matters when you realize that only 11% of Malawi’s 19 million people have access to electricity, and just four per cent of the rural population is connected to power, compared to 42% in urban centres.
Now it may seem a stretch to move from Malawi, which has so little electrical power, to Louisiana, which does – at least in normal times. But in the devastation of Hurricane Ida, these are not normal times in New Orleans, and temporarily, most of its residents are in much the same boat as a lot of Malawians. They have no electricity.
So a group of NGOs that work on solar power projects (some in areas hit by disasters, like Texas and Puerto Rico) came together to help out, bringing in approximately $1 million worth of solar equipment to aid relief efforts.
Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox told Rolling Stone that “his non-profit, Solutions Grassroots, along with Empowered by Light and the Footprint Project, have acquired 12 10KW solar systems, donated by Tesla, and an array of other smaller solar systems…. Linking up with local organizations, from other climate groups like the Alliance for Affordable Energy to cultural institutions, the goal is to begin distributing this solar tech around New Orleans and other hard-hit areas”.
This Malawaian man single-handedly brought power to his village, and it’s even clean energy. AFP in EuroNews, Sep. 3, 2021
Colrerd Nkosi, the Malawian self-taught electrician who powered up his village. Africa News, Aug. 31, 2021
Malawi Inventor Lights Up His Whole Village Basically for Free–Starting With a Bicycle and a River. Good News Network, Sep. 9, 2021
Points of Light: Celebrating outstanding volunteers across the Commonwealth. DCMS blog, Feb. 13, 2018
Climate Activists Are Hauling Solar Tech to New Orleans to Help Restore Power. Rolling Stone, Sep 3, 2021