Solar is bringing a new world to women in Zimbabwe

A solar power project in a remote community in Zimbabwe is encouraging women to give birth in hospitals, and reducing their workload

For a woman in parts of rural Zimbabwe the cost of two candles can be the difference between health and hunger, even life and death.

Because many health clinics are far from the grid and lack electricity and therefore light, expectant mothers are told to bring their own candles when they feel that labour is approaching. But as primary care needs worker Merjury Shoko explains: “Two candles cost a dollar, which is the same as paying to go to the grinding mill to grind maize for your child’s dinner. That is a real dilemma for some women. Do I go to the clinic now, or do I feed my children? It’s obvious they prefer to go to the mill.” As a result many women leave it until the last minute to walk to the clinic, and many do not make it in time and give birth by the roadside, often at night.

A solar power programme – the Rural Sustainable Energy Development Project (RuSED) – in isolated parts of Gutu district in southern Zimbabwe set out to change that. Five clinics were equipped with solar panels for lighting the wards, solar water pumping to provide clean water and solar refrigeration for vaccines. Now that women do not have to pay for candles they are happy to travel to the clinics in good time and the clinics report increases of up to 50% in the numbers of women giving birth there instead of at home, or by the roadside. What is more, if anything goes wrong the medical staff can see properly to carry out life-saving procedures. Every staff member shudders when they recall what they went through before they had solar lighting – trying to find a vein or sewing up wounds by candlelight or even holding a mobile phone torch in their teeth.

It is not only women’s maternal health that is being improved through the deployment of solar power, their productivity and efficiency as farmers is also affected. In semi-arid Gutu district, increasingly prone to serious droughts, women grow crops and sell them at Mazuru market garden, covering the ground for hundreds of yards in neat rows of vegetables. The women proudly show off the fruits of their labours and one of the hardest and most time-consuming labours of all is fetching water.

Each woman has 11 rows of crops that need daily watering. To do that she has to walk 400 metres to a reservoir and then back with a bucket on her head, it takes two to three trips to water one row, so she may take 20 to 30 journeys each day. This can take a gruelling six hours; from 7am until 1pm. That leaves little time for all the other essential work of hoeing, weeding and tending to the plants – and of course she must also make time for the household cooking and cleaning. The community did have a diesel pump to provide water to the garden but they couldn’t afford the rising cost of fuel, and eventually it broke.

A farmer from the  Mazuru market garden with her crops.
A farmer from the Mazuru market garden with her crops. Photograph: John McGrath/Oxfam GB

Now the women have enough money in their community energy fund to buy a solar water pump. With that they can come to the site at midday when the tank has filled up and water their gardens within an hour or two. And they will not have to pay for diesel. Solar irrigation is already working well at other sites.

An innovative part of the RuSED programme is how to make it sustainable. Oxfam arranged solar equipment exhibitions so that suppliers could see there was a demand in rural areas and local people could test what was on offer and choose what suited them best. Solar lanterns, which are relatively cheap, as well as being portable and robust were very popular.

To prime the market Oxfam supplied the first batches of lanterns, and made sure they conform to international Lighting Africa standards of reliability. As part of the scheme each community has set up an energy fund and the proceeds from the sales of the lanterns are put into this to finance operation and maintenance costs and future expansion of solar power. More money for maintenance and expansion comes in from a variety of sources. For example, schools and clinics with solar water pumps charge people to collect clean water. Furthermore, each community has a centre fitted with a solar panel and this powers an energy kiosk where people can recharge their lanterns and mobile phones, as well as using the power for solar refrigeration.

Women have been enthusiastic about the benefits of an energy fund. Certainly, the 46 women involved in the Agro-Business Centre at Gomba village know the drawbacks and perils of using expensive and dangerous substitutes for green energy. Abigail Mawona describes how she sent one of her sons to fetch mealie meal by candlelight and he dropped the candle and burned their house down. Now the women have raised nearly $17,000 and invested it in buying a “solar suitcase” (a portable solar medical kit) for their nearest clinic, building toilet blocks and purchasing a fridge for their fish-farming enterprise.

It is hoped that the “solar system” will show other villages in Zimbabwe the benefits of being energised through solar power, with a virtuous circle of increased production, better health and increased finances.

John Magrath is a programme researcher at Oxfam GB. Follow @JFMagrath on Twitter.

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow @GuardianGDP on Twitter. Join the conversation with the hashtag #EnergyAccess.

John Magrath

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