By Kizito Makoye
TURA, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As darkness falls, Dora Mjungu and her two brothers cram themselves around the faint flame of a kerosene lamp, struggling to finish their homework before their mother blows out the lamp to save the fuel cost.
"I don't dare to go to bed before getting it done. If I did, I would rather stay at home because my teacher would be mad at me and hit me hard as if she was killing a snake," said Mjungu, as the lamp, made from a used cooking oil tin, cast scary shadows on the sitting room walls.
For years, 14-year-old Mjungu, a pupil at Usinge primary school in remote Tura village in Tanzania’s Tabora region, has been trying to convince her mother to buy a Chinese-made solar lamp, which would not emit smoke that makes her cough.
Her mother says pupils have long survived studying by firelight or even moonlight, and “circumstances are such that I cannot afford any other kind of lamp."
But their household will soon be among hundreds to benefit from a new government-run solar power project, intended to bring electricity off-grid areas of rural Tanzania.
THE SOLAR GRID
More than 840 households – and, crucially, small factories - in Tabora, Dodoma and Katavi regions so far have been connected to solar grid systems, in which large numbers of solar panels feed batteries housed in shipping containers, with the power then carried out to the community on distribution lines similar to those used by Tanesco, the state-run power utility.
"I am very happy to be part of this project. I hope my children will now spend more time studying in bright light and they will no longer suffer from the smoke," said Mjungu’s mother, Mama Dora.
Edward Ishengoma, an alternative energy commissioner in the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, said 14 solar containers, each with the capacity to supply electricity to 60 households or businesses, have been installed by Elektro Merl, an Austrian firm, at a cost of 13 billion Tanzanian shillings, or $6 million. Chinese firm Chicco has also been contracted to supply solar units.
The funds, which come from a loan from Austria’s government to Tanzania, include maintenance and repairs for five years, officials said.
The project aims to reach people in remote villages not covered by the country’s Rural Energy Agency projects, Ishengoma said. After the pilot phase of the project ends in July this year, he said, the government plans to install 600 more solar "generators" in villages around the country.
"People can also use these solar generators for their economic activities since they contain power outlets that can be connected to simple machines such as water pumps and welding,” he said. “We hope that they will find them useful and improve their life.”
Styden Rwebangila, the solar project’s coordinator, said the government hopes to connect solar power to schools, health centers and churches as well as part of its development initiative called Big Results Now.
The solar generators “are very powerful,” he said.
Salum Maulid, who runs a small sawmill in Tura village, said the solar generator in his village – which sits a stone’s throw away from his home - is now powering the machines he uses in his work.
"It has really simplified my work; I get enough power to run the drills and electric saws,” he said.
The new solar energy access is currently being provided free of charge, government officials said, though arrangements are being made to ensure users contribute something to cover the project’s ongoing costs.
Similar projects are being implemented in Senegal, Mali, Cameroon and Gambia, officials said.
Tanzania has a very low level of electricity consumption per capita, with only 18 percent of the country currently connected to traditional grid power, according to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals.
While diesel generators provide power in many unconnected areas, they can be expensive and polluting, experts say, noting that renewable energy offers a cheaper and less polluting alternative, once systems are in place.
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Laurie Goering)