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Rural poverty in Zambia can’t be eliminated without access to electricity, says World Bank

THE World Bank says poverty reduction, “a huge challenge” Zambia faces, cannot be eliminated without access to electricity, especially in rural areas.

And World Bank senior energy specialist Christopher Saunders says access to electricity is extremely expensive, especially in a country like Zambia where the population density is low.

Submitting to the parliamentary committee on energy, water development and tourism on Wednesday afternoon, World Bank country manager Ina Ruthenberg said the institution was contemplating exploring new approaches to get the private sector better involved in rural electrification programmes.

Ruthenberg told the committee chaired by Mbabala UPND member of parliament Ephraim Belemu that the World Bank regarded energy as a big sector.

“We have 19 projects and that’s a commitment of US$1.15 billion. You will notice that energy is a big sector for us we have been supporting and we continue to support. While the portfolio used to be a bit more heavy on the infrastructure side on energy, it will increasingly be on the access side. But we did have an access [to electricity] project before and it was a successful project – it closed in 2015. Under that project, we had 500,000 people connected and so, this was encouraging. On that basis, we developed a second operation; the government requested us to continue to work on that. This project just got launched and actually it’s half a year now and it will address connectivity on the rural base,” Ruthenberg explained in her initial remarks.

“Very importantly, we want to explore new approaches to get the private sector better involved. So we are very committed to this agenda [because] we think it’s absolutely critical.”

She added that access to electricity, particularly in rural areas, was extremely low in Zambia.

“That needs to change! If you talk about poverty reduction and particularly in rural areas [where] Zambia faces a huge challenge, it (poverty reduction) has to go with access to electricity. So, it’s an ingredient you cannot go beyond because in order to have good healthcare, in order to have a good education, in order to be productive you need access to electricity,” Ruthenberg submitted.

“So, it’s (rural electrification) fundamental, in our view, and we want to be engaged in this as we go forward and as this project is being implemented successfully and speedily. We stand ready to scale it up and that’s been the kind of conversations I have been having with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of National Development Planning who share exactly that spirit and that agenda and encourage us to go down that road.”

And Saunders told the committee that rural electrification was a complex and expensive challenge.

He, however, was quick to indicate that Zambia was not the only country that was grappling with such a challenge.

“With the question in mind [of] ‘what are the challenges as it concerns rural electrification and rural access,’ first of all, I just wanna bring the context of…. Tragically and perhaps comfortingly, Zambia is not alone in this challenge [of poor access to electricity in rural areas]; over a billion people worldwide don’t have access to modern electricity and over 600 million of those who don’t have access to electricity are in Africa,” Saunders said.

“So Zambia is not alone in the challenge; it’s a very complex challenge and it remains an expensive one. To highlight [further], access to electricity is extremely expensive, especially in a country like Zambia where the population density is low. We could obviously expect the infrastructure costs to be much higher than they are in densely populated areas. The other thing to highlight is that the World Bank in a recent study found out that worldwide even when the [electricity] grid is present in Sub Saharan Africa, 57 per cent of the populations don’t find it easy to take up an electricity connection because of the connection costs as well as the cost of consumption.”

He said rural electrification was not just a question of providing infrastructure but an issue also of working around determining the overall affordability of electricity by common people in rural areas.

“So the challenge is complex and the challenge is expensive. But experts do agree that the economic opportunity cost of delaying access [to electricity] far outweighs the upfront investment required,” noted Saunders.

“Perhaps another thing to note, especially in a country like Zambia with low population density, rural electrification is one part of the much larger whole. So when we talk about rural electrification, we need to keep in mind what’s gonna be achieved with both on-grid and off-grid electrification technologies.”

Meanwhile, a four-paged paper titled ‘Cooperating partners group on energy: improving rural electricity access in Zambia’, from which Ruthenberg and Saunders intermittently referred to, indicates that Zambia’s access to electricity targets are far from being met, particularly in rural areas.

“The overall national electricity access rate, defined as connection to the grid, is low at 31.2 per cent – 67.7 per cent of the population in urban areas and only 4.4 per cent in rural areas have access to electricity, as defined in the national living conditions survey,” the paper stated.

It added that at the current level of funding, “which has inadequate and unpredictable,” medium and long-term trajectories for improving electricity access to rural and peri-urban were not going to be achieved.

“The strategy of electrification in Zambia requires re-thinking,” stated the report.

“Moreover, the consumer affordability of energy services in the rural areas indicate that at least 50 per cent of the rural population cannot afford Zesco connection fees or current cost of solar home systems. Also, the current model whereby Zesco takes over new distribution infrastructure in rural areas from REA (Rural Electrification Authority) adds to Zesco’s financial burden as the users revenue generated is not … such as to compensate for operation and maintenance costs.”

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