By Ibrahim Kasita
Lodged between the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the west of River Nile, about 2.3 million people in West Nile region live in relative isolation from the rest of Uganda.
Nowhere in Uganda is diesel and petrol more expensive than in West Nile. The national power grid does not reach the northwest of Uganda, and power from generators is available only for a lucky few and only a few hours a day.
Some entrepreneurs have started mills and small workshops, outfitting them with old diesel generators that are inefficient and expensive to operate.
Institutions such as hospitals, schools and water firms and some of the richer households have their own diesel generators that help them escape the scarce public power service.
Statistics indicate that National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) has been spending between sh15m and sh18m per month generating its own electricity using diesel generators for Arual and Nebbi districts only.
Arua Hospital spends between sh5m and sh7m monthly on self-generation.
One of the owners of a metal fabrication entity, Saidi Sebi, said he has lost income in the past due to fuel supply shortages.
Lack of adequate and reliable electricity supply has constrained West Nile’s development, particularly in the agro-processing fi elds like coffee, cotton, tea and grain milling.
At one point, Sebo Kamilo, the Arua district vice-chairman, questioned why the Government could not extend power from Corner Kamdini in Oyam district to West Nile with the money “dumped in Nyagak (hydropower plant).”
Little did he know that transmitting electricity from Lira to Arua was likely to be a dilemma because the demand in West Nil is low and using high voltage power was not viable.
That explains why the 3.5 Megawatt(MW) Nyagak hydropower project was embarked on. And the good news is the plant has finally started delivering clean electricity to the national grid for consumption.
The plant operators said it is fully complete and reliability tests confi rming effectiveness and effi ciency have been done. It is generating 1.2MW, enough to meet the demand in the region.
This has reduced the cost of doing business, as water energy is three times cheaper compared to diesel generated power. The increased reliable supply is stimulating increased economic activity in the region.
“I am now thinking of setting up a business school,” said Eunice Anguparu, a businesswoman in Arua town.
“I have been sitting at home because I could not start a computer school minus power.”
However, there are concerns on how to fully utilise excessive power the dam is generating since the demand is low.
“Something needs to be done to stimulate demand for consuming this power supply,” Pascal Odoch, the former MP for Padyere county in Nebbi district said.
“The region is full of potential in tourism, especially the Ajai Game Reserve and the historical sites of the Alur and the Luo people, the agri-business sector, fisheries, mineral deposits and good pasture for commercial ranching.”
Odoch said the pressure is on the people of West Nile, who demanded development of Nyagak hydro plant, to urgently devise ways and means of absorbing “this early Christmas present” for the region.
“Short of this, Nyagak will remain a symbol of abundance amidst scarcity in the West Nile region,” Odoch added.
But Rasul Aluma, the Zombo resident district commissioner, said demand has already increased.
“We are now seeing more schools and hospitals being connected to the national grid. This will improve education standards, as well as health service provision,” he noted.
“People are willing to connect their premises with electricity. However, they are concerned with high costs of connectivity, which we ask the energy ministry to reduce.”
Ronald Ssegawa, the undersecretary in the ministry of energy and mineral development, explained that the Government is focusing on increased generation supply.
“We want to make sure that there is enough supply and then later focus on distribution and connectivity,” he said. “What we have in West Nile region is suppressed demand, and sooner than later, you will see the demand for power skyrocketing.”
Indeed, the Government plans to connect Packwach, Zombo, Koboko, Maracha, Yumbe, Moyo and Adumani districts, and this will raise demand.
There are 95 health centres of level III and above and 170 secondary schools in West Nile region. However, only 10 health centres and 10 schools are connected to electricity.
“We shall provide free connection in form of subsidies to all schools, hospitals and district headquarters,” Kabagambe-Kaliisa, the Rural Electrification Agency board chairman said.
He added that power distribution lines of 33kv and 11kv are planned to be constructed from Nebbi to Packwach,Parombo to Panyum, Paidha to Vura and Arua to Koboko, to intensify power supply to the region.
The World Bank through the Global Partnership on Output Based Aid Programme provided $5.5m in June to finance the village electrification.
The support will address low access to electricity in rural areas by making connection accessible and affordable.
By extending power supply to poor households, the project will reduce dependence on short-term diesel generators with high fuel costs.
Households will be encouraged to use energy-efficient and saving bulbs, further reducing the addition to peak demand and keeping their bills down.
The West Nile Rural Electrification Project targets 6,000 households, 250 businesses, 60 schools and 30 health centres in the next two years.
Following a competitive selection process in 2003, a concession for generation, distribution and sale of electricity in West Nile region was awarded to the West Nile Rural Electrification Company (WENRECo) for 20 years.
The firm set up a 1.5MW heavy-fuel thermal plant to provide electricity to West Nile. It is also the operator of the 3.5MW hydropower plant on River Nyagak.
The West Nile investment programme is jointly financed by the Government, (euro 7.5m), WENRECo (euro 5.5m), Germany Development Bank KfW (euro 24.6m) and the Energy Facility Pooling Mechanism (euro 3.5m). The total project budget estimate is euro 41.1m.
Uganda has been chosen to benefit from the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All that enables businesses to grow, generate jobs and create new markets. Children can study after dark and Uganda can grow more resilient and become competitive.
With the project, Uganda can leapfrog over the limits of the energy systems of the past and build a clean energy economy of the future.
The initiative has three goals: universal energy access, double the share of renewable energy in the global mix (from the current 15% to 30%) and double the improvement in energy efficiency, all of which are to be achieved by 2030.