I recently interacted with some Buliisa district residents after President Museveni commissioned an electricity line from Masindi. 

Many were excited and proud that the district had finally been added to the national grid. But could they afford this electricity? Only a few of them – largely small enterprise owners – could. And therein lies one of the challenges with attempts to provide access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all, which is Sustainable Development Goal 7.

Usually, extension of electricity services to rural areas in Uganda is politically-motivated. In addition, there seems to be lack of political will to enable rural populations, or even the urban poor, access modern energy.

Let’s take a look at Buliisa. A Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) report, Buliisa District Local Government: Implementation of the Community Information System, 2011, put the district population at 49,907. Of this, 47.59 per cent were engaged in agriculture, 3.04 per cent in trade, and 0.42 per cent in manufacturing. The rest were engaged in “other” economic activities.

The national housing and population census report of 2014 put Buliisa’s population at 113,569. This could mean that the percentage of people engaged in the aforementioned activities could have increased. Still, subsistence agriculture is the predominant economic activity here.

Can subsistence agriculturalists such as those of Buliisa afford Uganda’s expensive electricity? The latest tariffs put a unit of electricity for domestic consumers at nearly Shs 700.

The answer is that they cannot. Statistics show that about six per cent households in rural areas have access to electricity, despite the number of years the Rural Electrification Agency of Uganda has operated. Affordability, among other factors, is hindering access.

Why then are Ugandans given electricity that they cannot afford? The answer: it is politics at play. It is a matter of pride for some rural populations to say that their districts are connected to the national grid and they will vote politicians who have made that possible. It is little wonder that you hear politicians running for public offices promising to “bring electricity” to their electorate!

Is Uganda willing to give its citizens, especially the 19 per cent living below the poverty line, real access to electricity? The answer is no. Most Ugandans have not been educated about the opportunity modern energy offers to uplift citizens from poverty.

Yet Uganda’s minister for energy, Irene Muloni, has been quoted by local media saying that rural electrification is meant to uplift the have-nots from their status by encouraging growth of enterprises.

Granted, some benefits have been realized from rural electrification of districts such as Kanungu, where it has been reported that two tea factories sprung up in 2008. But challenges such as inadequate energy production and high power prices remain.

Privatization?

Economic Policy Research Centre’s Joseph Mawejje, in Uganda’s Electricity Sector Reforms: Lessons and Challenges, says that Uganda privatized her electricity sector hoping for “increased supply of reasonably-priced and reliable electricity.”

Did Uganda achieve her goals following privatization? One would say that it did not. Power outages still exist, with light rainfall offsetting power blackouts. Energy losses also stand at 18.6 per cent according to 2015 figures. Additionally, Mawejje says that electricity prices increased following privatization. We see that the prices keep increasing today.

Interestingly, when Uganda privatized her energy sector, one of the investors who bought into it was South Africa’s public utility, Eskom. As a result, one wonders: was privatization the way to go to ensure access to modern energy by all? It was not.

Solutions: Uganda’s energy resources, including water and wind power, solar and geothermal energy and biomass resources, are abundant. The 2002 renewable energy policy for Uganda says the country’s “total estimated electrical power potential [from renewable resources] is about 5,300 megawatts”. Uganda’s energy resources also consist of an estimated 6.5 billion barrels of oil and gas.

The renewable energy resources are largely unexploited, save for biomass fuels such as wood and charcoal. Exploitation of these resources would enable Ugandans access the type of energy that is most suitable for them. 

In rural settings such as Buliisa, and even for urban domestic users, energy needs can be met by renewable energy sources such as solar energy. Industries and small and medium enterprises can be served by hydro-electricity, which is not being fully exploited in Africa, even here in Uganda.

Ugandans should be empowered and uplifted to afford energy services and to hold governments accountable, demanding that the right energy initiatives are undertaken.

dkamugisha@afiego.org

The author is the chief executive officer of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).

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