Hydropower and higher powers
Two out of three Tanzanians lack access to electricity through the national power grid. With a growing middle class and rising demands for cheap, clean and reliable electricity, civil society and the private sector have become key contributors to economic growth in their role as independent power producers. In the Ruvuma region, the Benedictine sisters of St. Agnes is a force for social change with their hydroelectric power plant.
Lack of access to clean energy impedes social and economic development. In Tanzania, the electricity supply is far from offering nationwide coverage. In 2014, only 36 percent of the 41 million inhabitants had access to the national power grid, according to the World Bank. While Tanzanian cities continue to have more access to electricity, remote rural areas are highly dependent on individual, privately owned power plants for their supply.
An overwhelming majority of households use charcoal and biomass as cooking fuel. Diesel generators are another common source of electricity. The dependency on individual energy sources increases the economic pressure on an already economically exposed group – marginalized households spend a considerably larger share of their income to meet their domestic energy needs than citizens who are better off. It also has negative implications for the environment, as the combustion of biomass contributes to climate change by releasing bound carbon into the atmosphere, and accelerates deforestation.
The Benedictine sisters – a force for social development
As public services are not widely available in Tanzania, the private sector and civil society are important contributors to social development for local communities. In the Ruvuma region, remotely located in the very Southwest part of Tanzania, the Benedictine sisters of St. Agnes has supported the local population through charitable social work for over 70 years. About 370 sisters provide healthcare, take care of orphans, run schools and do farming for daily basic needs in the region.
In this sparsely populated part of Tanzania – home to 300,000 – 400,000 people in an area the size of Latvia – only five percent have access to electricity through the national grid. In 2009, the Benedictine sisters wanted to expand the access to electric power in the areas near the convent. They already operated a small-scale hydropower plant that provided electricity to the convent, however, neighboring communities relied on a small power grid in the region’s main town Songea. Not connected to the national grid and running on diesel fuels – which had to be transported 1,000 kilometers from the coast – energy was expensive for the local population. It was also unreliable and power outages were common, especially during peak hours.
The Benedictine sisters are an important force for social and economic development in Ruvuma, but their activities are limited as they depend on financial donations. The power plant would not only secure the supply of reliable, clean and cheap energy for the locals but also create sustainable income opportunities for the sisters, who would be able to sell electricity to Tanzania’s national power company Tanesco.
Financial support from Switzerland
With the help of Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Albert Koch, the Tulila hydroelectric power plant project was initiated as a philanthropic venture in 2010. Mr. Koch contracted ÅF in Switzerland to manage the engineering work and obtain a license for the project. The later proved to be a significant challenge.
“It was difficult to obtain a license, but the fact that the sisters were involved was an advantage in the contact with local authorities. They operate a lot of social institutions in Ruvuma and are replacing parts of the state in this regard, so they have a good reputation”, says Gian-Andri Tannò, consultant at ÅF in Switzerland and coordinator of the planning works at Tulila.
After financing and licensing was secured, and a suitable location for the plant had been identified along the Tulila river, construction began in late 2013.The sisters were highly involved in the project, taking part in everything from administrational tasks to onsite digging work.
“One of the sisters had a license to handle dynamite and managed the rock blasting that was necessary in the construction. It was quite impressive to see a sister in her blue dress and veil being very hands-on at the site”, says Raphael Steiner, responsible for the financing of the project on behalf of Mr. Albert Koch and his foundation.
In 2016, the Tulila hydropower plant was completed. The damming structure consists of an earth-fill dam, with a concrete part in the middle comprising intake, overflow section, a bottom outlet and wing walls. With two turbines, and producing around 30 GWh per year, the plant generates sufficient power to serve local communities with cheap and clean electricity. Diesel usage has been considerably reduced since the plant came into operation.
The Tulila plant is connected to Ruvuma’s regional power grid, owned by national electricity company Tanesco. The company has played an essential role in making the project sustainable also in financial terms.
Collaboration a success factor
The Tulila hydropower plant is proof that social and environmental sustainability can be a force that drives growth and economic profit.
After the repayment of the loans to bank creditors, the profits generated by the Tulila Hydro-Electric Plant Co. Ltd will go entirely to the sisters’ charitable work. Besides improving living conditions for locals and generating income for the sisters, the project fosters long term economic development. Operators, accountants, technical and non-technical personnel – an array of new employment opportunities was created throughout the construction process. The Tulila power plant project also illustrates the power of united action and what can be accomplished when civil society, the public and private sector collaborate to drive social change. Today, independent power projects contributes to about 40 percent of the national grid’s generation capacity.
The Tulila plant has been constructed with the possibility to produce more electricity in the future as demand rises, Raphael Steiner explains.
“Today, the plant is connected to the regional and not the national grid, which means it can only produce as much electricity as there is demand. But once the local grid gets connected to Tanzania’s national grid, a third turbine might be installed to increase production. The sisters would then be able to export their electricity to other parts of the country and get funds to make an even bigger contribution to social development in the region.”