Since that first journey out to Sinda, I have been back twice myself to gather information about energy consumption, income, and the geographical layout. My first trip was for 2 nights and three days. To get out there, I catch a bus out of Lusaka to ride for seven-plus hours along Zambia’s Great East Road. As the only paved road out to Eastern Province, the shoulders are slim at best. But that doesn’t stop people from walking right next to the road as cars whiz by at 70mph.
It feels like a small miracle each time I make it out there without incident. Sinda Village is right along the Great East Road, and all it takes is a wave to the driver and I get dropped off right in front the house of my host. As one of the best English speakers in the village, Mr. Chola Banda has graciously put me up in his guesthouse for each of my visits. He and the headman have taken the time in the middle of their harvest season to show me around the village, introduce me to dozens of residents, and feed me delicious Zambian food. They even waited patiently for me as I try to hand-draw foot-paced maps of their houses.
Twice now, they have gathered a crowd of residents so that I can present our idea for a mini-grid to everyone and give them a chance to ask questions. This is all with a translator, of course. They speak Chichewa, one of Zambia’s main languages. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, but each time I learn a new phrase it seems to fly right out my other ear. Even though I’ve been quite nervous addressing such a large crowd, their overwhelmingly positive response to a mini-grid made it much easier. They are so eager for power, I feel bad that our first system won’t reach most of them.
Although there are many mini-grids all over world, mobile technology has made it possible to sell power on a prepaid basis only in recent years. This is a huge step, as it allows people to buy electricity as they need it, slowly paying back the cost it took the developer to install the mini-grid. It brings solar to people who do not have the means to buy the whole system upfront. With the Lumeter meters, each person in Sinda will have the ability to buy exactly as much electricity as they need to use right from their village.
To add credit, they will go to the agent we hire in Sinda with cash. That agent will then wire us the money electronically from their mobile money account. The Lumeter server will immediately send them back a numeric code in a text message, which the customer records. The customer will then go back their home and punch in the code on a remote. This will unlock their meter, allowing them to use exactly as much power as they purchased. It works just like the mobile phone pre-paid plans that are already immensely popular here in Zambia.
Because this is our first time doing anything of the sort, the mini-grid in Sinda will serve as an example for many mini-grids to come. We hope to learn how much energy people will actually consume for a given price to optimize the design on future grids. Furthermore, we hope to prove the economic viability of a pay-as-you-go mini-grid to secure funding for what will hopefully be hundreds of more mini-grids. In a country where less than 1 in 4 people have access to grid-power, we hope to leap-frog the grid here entirely, just like cell phones leap-frogged land-lines, and bring electricity to the millions. Our work for the next few years is certainly cut out.
Stay posted for more updates!
– Isaiah Lyons-Galante (Engineering Fellow)