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Lighting up the Great Lakes region

Will regional power grid finally chase darkness and spur EAC economies?

By Espoir Iradukunda in Bujumbura, Burundi and Ronald Musoke in Kampala, Uganda

Mbarara Sub Station view in Uganda Photo credit Espoir Iradukunda

It is 9am in downtown Bujumbura— Burundi’s commercial city. Typical of most sub-Saharan African cities, the alleys are already crowded with customers who are haggling noisily over prices of merchandise.

But it is the cacophony of noise from the portable generators sitting in the corners of some shops that seem to be competing with the traders to be heard.

Pierre Ndayizeye, a shopkeeper at Ideal Gallery, says they have not had power since 6am. “I can spend three days without power. REGIDESO tells us that the issue is being sorted out but they lie to us,” he says, his face barely hiding the frustration.

Ndayizeye says REGIDESO, Burundi’s public utility company in charge of production and distribution of water and electricity, cannot supply enough power nationwide. “Even the little power we have is weak. Our appliances and equipment have been burnt due to unstable electricity supply,” he adds.

Ironically, Ndayizeye says even with this irregular power supply, he and many more Burundians are paying exorbitant electricity bills.

Photo1 Workers adding fuel in the generator after power cut during the day in Bujumbura town hall. In black Pierre Ndayizeye while in Photo 2 Pierre is trying to start the generator PhotoCredit Espoir Iradukunda

The irregular electricity supply in Bujumbura has also forced simple operations like elevators in high-rise buildings to be halted. The managers of Premium House, a seven-storey building in Bujumbura city centre, grounded its lifts citing safety reasons in the event of a power outage.

In an attempt to solve the problem of sporadic power supply in Bujumbura, Ndayizeye and other traders and residents have bought portable diesel generators. But powering them is also hard because the fuel that runs them is quite expensive.

Some have tried to shore-up their businesses by buying solar panels. These devices which absorb sun rays and later convert them into electricity have been mounted atop their business premises while others have been installed on the roofs of residential houses.

Fabien Bakundukize, a resident of Kayosha, a suburb in the southern outskirts of Bujumbura, says the electricity situation in the city has worsened in recent years. He says the power generation company used to communicate the schedule for power outages for users. Not any more, he says.

“When you know when power is to go off, you organize your work accordingly. These days I witness power blackouts four to five times during day time and one long power cut from 10pm up to around 5am in the morning.”

To cope with the situation, Bakundukize has invested in portable rechargeable lamps and solar systems specifically for his school-going children. “Whenever there is a power outage, the children watch on desperately; especially when they are busy with examinations,” he added.

Jiji-mulembwe power plant under construction in South Central of Burundi. Photo credit Ntare House

Burundi looks to regional electricity

However, Burundi’s energy poverty narrative is expected to change soon, thanks to regional electricity sharing initiatives that have been spearheaded by the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP).

NELSAP is one of the two investment arms of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a regional body that brings together 11 countries that share the River Nile. These include Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea has “observer” status in this regional body.

NELSAP’s project is specifically targeted at improving access to electricity in the upper Nile Basin countries (Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) through increased cross-border sharing of electricity, which hopefully will result in cost-effective exchange of electricity. Many also hope this cross-border power trade will spur and integrate regional economies.

Besides resource mobilization, the NELSAP has over the last decade been playing a catalytic role in coordinating the technical expertise from the regional governments as well as their electricity utility companies to carry out studies and develop regional guidelines for interconnecting the national grids into a single pool.

Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project, which is set to interconnect Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania through a mutually-owned Rusumo Power Company. Phot File

In collaboration with international financial institutions such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), Germany’s KfW, Japan’s JICA, and America’s USAID, the Nile Basin Initiative (NELSAP’s parent agency) has been working on hydropower infrastructure projects like the Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project as well as an inter-grid electricity system within the Nile Equatorial Lakes states.

If executed well, experts say the cost of electricity could markedly go down and all the interconnected countries in the upper Nile Basin could benefit from reliable and affordable electricity delivered to consumers like Pierre Ndayizeye, the Burundian shopkeeper.

A 2015 government of Burundi report shows that the electricity situation should be much better as available estimates put the country’s hydropower potential at 1,700 megawatts although only 300 megawatts is deemed economically viable.

Statistics from the National Bank of Burundi (BRB) also shows that the country has only 39 MW of installed capacity, of which 95% is hydropower-based.

No wonder, the country’s access to electricity (11.7% as of 2020 World Bank’s data) is one of the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, even though the country’s cost of power generation (US$0.062) per kilowatt hour according to the African Development Bank is considered relatively lower compared to its neighbours.

Jean Albert Manigomba, the Director General of REGIDESO, says Burundi’s long standing problem of power blackouts will be solved ‘once and for all’ if all the government’s hydropower projects it is lining up for construction come online by 2027. He says if about 200 megawatts come on board, the whole country should be electrified by 2030.

But, in the meantime, he is looking forward to projects like the Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project, which is set to interconnect Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania through a mutually-owned Rusumo Power Company.

Rusumo Falls found on River Kagera is strategically located along the shared border of Rwanda and Tanzania and its power production facilities and substations are respectively located at the southern and northern banks of the river.  According to engineers from the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the 80MW hydropower station will not only light up the region but also solve regional power shortages through power interconnection in eastern Africa.

Alloyce Oduor, the power engineer in charge of interconnection and technical lead at NELSAP-Coordination Unit, says the Rusumo hydropower project shall particularly increase Burundians’ access to reliable and affordable electricity as a result of the cross-border power trade. Of the 80 megawatts to be generated at Rusumo, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania are each expected to get 26.6 megawatts.

Kaburantwa power station under construction in Cibitoke province, Western Burundi not far from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Enthusiasm in eastern DR Congo

The excitement over cheap reliable power is not only clear in Bujumbura but it is also noticeable in Uvira, a small city in the South Kivu Province in eastern DR Congo— the newest country in the East African Community.

Papy Kabemba Bisimwa, a local leader, says electricity has for a long time remained a prestige of the well-to-do. “It is not for everyone,” he says. He says most households use batteries and small solar panels to light their houses, but they are quite expensive due to heavy taxes at the DR Congo-Burundi border.

Bisimwa is, therefore, hopeful that the electricity situation in his neighborhood will change soon once they get connected to the regional power grid. “I hope I will pay little for electricity compared to what I pay today.”

Bisimwa makes reference to the ongoing upgrade of the 147-megawatt hydropower dam along River Ruzizi which has been marked down to supply electricity to three countries – DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Bisimwa’s cousin, Byarurema, a 31-year-old farmer, has also been grinding his teeth over the irrigation system in the area, but with a power plant soon coming on board, he hopes there will be better land management in the area since they intend to adopt irrigation to deal with drought.

“My legumes hardly get water in the dry season.  I have to pay people to fetch around 2,000 litres of water a day, but with this power project, I hope to invest in a water pump, irrigate my farmland and make profit,” Byarurema said, in reference to the Rusizi hydropower project.

According to a project brief, once completed in 2026, Burundi’s total electricity capacity will double as it will tap from this electricity pool. Rwanda and DR Congo will also benefit from this project. Construction of the power house has been finalized and the three countries have tested their capacity on their substations including the first one located in Gitega, Burundi.

“What is now being worked on now are substations to facilitate the extension of electricity to Ngozi and Bujumbura cities and farther away in eastern DR Congo,” says Oduor, “Eventually, all power stations will get interconnected into one pool and synchronized to come up with a regional grid network.”

The Uganda-Rwanda link

“Essentially, what the engineers are doing is to connect the Kenya-Uganda component (which has been in place since the 1950s) onto the Uganda-Rwanda component, the Rwanda-DR Congo connection as well as the Rwanda-Burundi component,” Oduor says.

Oduor says the circuit will be completed when Tanzania and Kenya link up their national grids and Tanzania links up with that of Burundi and Rwanda. As of March 2022, one of the major missing links to activate the system has been the Uganda-Rwanda section.  This explains why both the Rwandan and Ugandan governments have been working for the better part of a decade to connect the two national grids.

Overhead Transmission Line part from Bujagali Uganda-Kenya power interconnection Photo Credit Ronald Musoke

“If we connect Mbarara (Uganda) to Shango (Rwanda), it means that all the five countries will have been connected and synchronized,” says Oduor.  He adds: “When the interconnection to Shango power substation is ready, the grid network will be very stable (systems stability).”

This is where the gap for interconnecting the region has existed for many years. The Mbarara substation is the main terminal station and it connects to Shango through Mirama sub-station in southern Uganda.

“We are at the moment aligning or fine-tuning all these components and we envisage that we will be able to fully complete it and close the line,” Oduor explains.

But Oduor also shows why it is important to have the regional power grids interconnected.  He says a power system is like any moving machine. It has got load, it has got its speed and has got its breakdown level.

“A weak network when it is subjected to a fault collapses easily but when you interconnect it, it becomes strong, meaning it is a big machine. If you interconnect again, it becomes much stronger.”

“This will enhance regional power trading and more importantly, it will avail emergency electricity support as a solution to blackout. If one station fails, another will generate the time to fix it, therefore, grant regional power system sustainability.”

To put his point into perspective, Oduor recalls the 2020 incident at the generation plant in Jinja when the country suffered power outage due to the “moving islands” phenomenon.

The two-acre moving island populated with water hyacinth and papyrus blocked the intake of the Nalubaale Power Station (former Owen Falls Dam) in Jinja, plunging the whole country into darkness.  Oduor explains that restoration was very easy because of Uganda’s interconnection with the Kenyan system.

Oduor says Kenya also registers a lot of disturbance on its grid but because of its interconnection onto the Ugandan grid, the regional economic powerhouse benefits from being connected to its neighbour’s grid.

Uganda’s growing power supply

The regional power interconnection programme comes at a time when Uganda has been ramping up its hydropower portfolio over the last two-and–half decades.  Until 1997, Uganda had one major hydropower station—Nalubaale Power Station which was built in 1954.

But, at the turn of the millennium, the government embarked on an ambitious plan to exploit its hydropower potential on River Nile to ramp up supply. Four hydropower dams have been constructed and today, the country boasts about 1,270 MW of electricity supply.

The government is hoping to push this to about 1,300 megawatts by the end of 2023, according to the 2021 UEGCL annual report.

From the 68-year-old Nalubaale power station, just 800 metres towards the eastern banks of the river, is the 200 megawatts Kiira Hydropower station, which was switched on at the beginning of the millennium in 2000.

Seven years later, work began on the 250 megawatts Bujagali hydropower station; the third power station located downstream the Nile, still in Jinja. Despite protests from environmentalists and local cultural leaders, the dam was built and commissioned in 2012.

About 40km farther downstream from Bujagali power station is Isimba Hydro Power Station, which now generates 183 megawatts and was commissioned in March 2019.  Farther downstream in the central northern district of Kiryandongo is Uganda’s biggest hydropower station at Karuma Falls.

The country’s flagship electricity project, whose construction started in 2013, is expected to be commissioned later this year. When completed, it is expected to generate 600 megawatts. The commissioning of Karuma will see Uganda’s hydropower generation capacity reach about 2,000 megawatts.

This power will then be evacuated from six step-up transformers to the national grid through three major transmission lines; the 400 kilo-volt Karuma-Kawanda line which is about 250km south of the power station, the 400 kilo-volt Karuma Olwiyo (55km north of the dam) and the 132 kilo-volt Karuma-Lira (75km north of the dam).  These are all undergoing an upgrade at the moment.

But it is the western axis (Kawanda-Masaka-Mbarara line) that is probably the most important at the moment since it is expected to complete the regional electricity grid linkage by interconnecting Uganda and Rwanda.

There are already noticeable overhead electricity lines running along huge steel pylons cutting through wetlands and skirting hills and valleys through Kampala, Mpigi, Mityana, Lwengo, Masaka and Mbarara.

At Mbarara city, the substation has two 220 kilo-volt line bays to interconnect with the Rwanda network at Shango via Mirama Hills in the southern border district of Ntungamo. The Shango substation was completed and inaugurated in December 2019, and so was the Mirama Hills substation which has been there since 2018.

Pamela Byoruganda, the Principal Public Relations Officer at Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Ltd (UETCL) says both Uganda and Rwanda are at the moment working on the communication hardware which will be crucial in configuring the electricity lines to ensure that they communicate.

The Uganda government says the power being generated is supposed to ensure stable, reliable and affordable electricity in Uganda, Rwanda, northern Tanzania, Kenya and eastern DR Congo and is intended to stimulate the regional economies.

Challenges persist

But sections of the Ugandan public are not as enthusiastic about Uganda looking outside before it satisfies the local demand. Stephen Ababo, an investor in the northwestern city of Arua, says he is disappointed at the intermittent power supply in the West Nile region.

Uganda still has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world. Despite significant efforts over the last 20 years to electrify the country, just 24% of the population is connected onto the national grid.

Even when power is now available in the country, many communities, homes and businesses still struggle to have access to electricity due to expensive grid connection fees including high house wiring costs which were as high as US$165 in 2018.

Ababo says the current power received in the region via the national grid is very small and very unreliable yet the government is extending electricity to the neighbouring countries like the DR Congo leaving out the West Nile region where electricity access currently stands at just 7%.

He says the government should first consider extending power to all the parts of the country before extending power to other neighboring countries. Ababo says in Arua city, the power generated by a local concessionaire known as WENRECO is not enough. He says of the 3.5MW generated to supply the city, 1.7MW is taken by one tobacco factory alone.

“The West Nile sub-region actually deserves better in terms of power supply, the electricity generated from Nyagak which WENRECO is supplying is not able to meet our power needs,” Ababo says.

“We need power for development, power is the centre for development; once we have power, the status of the West Nile region will change due to its advantage it enjoys being close to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic,” he says.

Ababo’s sentiments are shared by William Obulejo Butti, the Managing Director of the Desert Date Company, which manufactures date oil from the Balanites Eagyptica trees. When we spoke to Butti, he said he has lost close to US$11,000 due to unreliable electricity in West Nile.

He says he has an agreement to supply 42 litres of the oil that is needed in the USA and Italian markets to manufacture some premium cosmetics, but he has reneged on the contract because of unnecessary load shedding.

Butti says the electricity supplied in West Nile is too low to run his small agro-processing industries, where he has oil pressing machines for the desert date nuts business. This has forced him to relocate the oil pressing machine to Kampala and this affected the people he employed.

“The electricity is very low. It is very hard for a serious company in manufacturing to come to West Nile. The power you see here is good for saloon business, groundnut pest making machines only.”

“Besides the low voltage, we have unpredictable power outages. “Right now, there is power but some 30 minutes ago we had no power for nearly three hours, and this is a daily occurrence, and the most annoying thing is that we receive power at 7 am,” Butti said in April this year.

Butti conquers with Ababo. He says it would be prudent for the government to first focus on electricity efficiency for all areas in Uganda before they embark on exporting power outside the country.

Nkenda Sub Station in Uganda and Uganda DRC overhead Photo Credit Ronald Musoke

Lucrative venture

Despite some reservations from Ugandan manufacturers, electricity trading is not entirely a new phenomenon, and as things stand, it looks like it will even be more lucrative in future.

According to a 2019 report by the Energy Charter Secretariat, energy access remains an overarching challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, where electricity access is on average 35% in urban areas and only 19% in rural areas.

The region also faces challenges in terms of poorly planned cities and scattered settlements that hinder the permeation of energy infrastructure, thus making it difficult for the region to become a destination for efficient energy markets.

In fact, within the Nile Basin, electricity consumption is still among the lowest in the world. Yet the River Nile presents a lot of hydropower generation potential. According to various reports, some 19% of the Nile Basin’s hydropower potential has been developed.

The same reports say if countries within the Nile Basin are going to meet SDG 7.1 which relates to universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy by 2030, production of electricity at a relatively low cost will be important. So will be their ability to wean themselves off the River Nile waters and consider other alternative energy sources.

Climate change carries considerable risks to energy supply in countries with a high dependency on hydropower since the direction and magnitude of the change of the flow of the Nile and its tributaries—because of a changing climate—has not yet been established but could be significant.

The Energy Charter Secretariat report notes that through economies of scale, these countries involved in the project would be able to reduce the costs associated with power generation and transmission to improve power supply and attract investments in the region.

Besides, a regional interconnected power grid would allow for competitive consumer rates. In the longer run, it is hoped that the project will foster social and economic development while minimizing adverse environmental effects.

According to Uganda’s development blueprint, Vision 2040, besides looking at other energy sources like geothermal with the potential to produce about 1,500 megawatts, nuclear (2,400 megawatts) and solar (5,000 megawatts), biomass (1,700 megawatts), thermal (4,300 megawatts), the government intends to exploit the country’s hydropower potential, which it says is estimated at 4,500 megawatts along several rivers including River Nile.

During the reading of the 2019/20 FY budget, Matia Kasaija, Uganda’s Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, said the government will press on with the development of more hydropower stations on Uganda’s rivers, especially River Nile.

He said the government was looking at partnering with the private sector in the medium to long term to develop Ayago (840 megawatts), Oriang (392 megawatts), Kiba (330 megawatts) and Uhuru Falls (600 megawatts). These hydropower sites are all found on the River Nile.

“With the rate at which we are industrializing including the increase in the demand for power by the population for various uses, we plan to have more power production to avoid falling into a shortage,” the Finance Minister said.

Mbarara Sub Station view in Uganda PhotoCredit Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)

Biodiversity loss concerns

But, the idea of building more dams on River Nile often pits the government with conservationists who are usually worried about biodiversity losses along this river and many others.

Although the Ugandan law requires hydropower project developers to do thorough environmental impact assessments, environmental groups have never been satisfied by the safeguards often suggested by hydroelectricity dam developers.

The government has also in the past ignored environmental offset agreements such as the Kalagala Falls Site which the International Development Agency/World Bank demanded in 2007 during negotiations for financing the construction of the Bujagali Hydropower dam.

According to the Environmental and Social Impact addendum of the Isimba Hydropower project published in 2017, the government of Uganda and the International Development Association (IDA) signed the Bujagali Indemnity Agreement which was integral to the financing of the Bujagali Hydropower project.

The indemnity agreement required the government to set aside Kalagala Falls Site exclusively to protect its natural habitat and environmental and spiritual values in conformity with sound social and environmental standards to the IDA.

The government was also asked to conserve through a sustainable management programme and budget the present ecosystem of Mabira Central Forest Reserve and the Nile Bank Forest Reserve on the banks of Kalagala Falls.

But, the government went ahead to develop the Isimba Hydropower Project just 12km downstream of the Kalagala Falls Site. Environmentalists feared the inundation of the reservoir of Isimba hydropower plant would extend laterally and upstream to the Kalagala Falls Site, a development which would impact on some fish species, especially those which depend on oxygenated habitats.

Local fishermen were more worried about the impact of hydropower dams on the fisheries of the upper Victoria Nile, but these concerns were ignored, and in 2017, the government went ahead with its plans to develop Isimba Hydropower Station.

But if the environmental and local fishermen’s concerns at Isimba were somewhat ignored, those at the bigger Karuma hydropower station were handled perhaps more seriously. Karuma Hydropower Dam is partly located within Murchison Falls Protected Area, the largest protected area in the country. That includes Karuma Wildlife Reserve.

A baseline study on biodiversity in the project area done in 2010 found close to 285 plant species, 21 fish species, and 84 bird species including the Brown Snake Eagle, the Papyrus Gonolek, the Spot-flanked Barbet, White-headed Saw-wing, Grey-Capped Warbler, Golden-backed Weaver and Cardinal Quelea.

There were also 16 reptile species including the Nile crocodile and 13 amphibian species and 26 species of both small and large mammals recorded. The study found the elephant and hippos the only species considered vulnerable in the IUCN’s 2010 criteria.

In response, the power plant was built underground to limit the footprint on the surface and the structures have also been designed and constructed in a way to conserve the environment. The dam includes channels for fish which allows them to migrate.

The project is also fenced to avoid hurting animals during construction while preserving the passage for hippos as they go out of the water in search of food. The dam’s tail race system, the access adits and surge chambers are actually located within the Karuma Wildlife Reserve but outside the Murchison Falls National Park.

However, most of the project components such as the underground power house, the weir and the headrace are located outside the Murchison Falls National Park as well as the Wildlife Reserve Area.

Patrick Angupale, the manager, health and safety at UEGCL says the national parastatal in charge of power generation continues to monitor all its power plants and it will continue doing so for the entire hydropower stations’ lifecycles.

Angupale says: “At Isimba which has a reservoir, we continue monitoring the banks of the river and also look out for changes in the plant and animal life that are endemic to the area while at Karuma, UEGCL is aware about the fish spawning areas and management has deployed staff on the river to do regular boat rides as they monitor any changes in water life.”

Rusumo hydropower plant Photo File

But Dr Gaspard Bikwemu, the NELSAP Environment Management Officer, is more philosophical about the interplay between aesthetics of rivers, biodiversity conservation and hydropower projects.

“You cannot bake an omelet without breaking an egg,” he said, when asked about the fact that the construction of the Rusumo Hydropower power station has negative implications for the Rusumo waterfalls (their disappearance) and the migration of some aquatic and terrestrial animal life endemic to the area.

But Mark Olokotum, a researcher and programme lead for the capture fisheries and biodiversity conservation programme at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) in Uganda does not entirely agree with Bikwemu.

He says much as hydroelectricity dams are critical to economic development of countries like Uganda and Burundi, there is need for strategic planning when it comes to the location of some of these dams.

Olokotum says there are deliberate measures that could also be adopted when developing power projects.  For instance, developers could incorporate fish-friendly turbines into their projects while in other instances, developers could establish flowing sections within the dam system to help marine life continue living normal lives.

Why regional power grid is still far from success

Meanwhile, Dickens Kamugisha, the executive director of the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), a Kampala-based non-profit, argues that the cross-border electricity trade which is being pushed by the NELSAP-CU may never succeed when national power sectors are still weak.

Kamugisha says the fact that the NELSAP projects are currently funded only by donor agencies does not bode well for the region.   He says there is evidence that suggests that even if the target countries started generating 10,000 megawatts, at the prevailing tariffs versus poverty in countries like Uganda, the power access and consumption situation would not improve without fundamental reforms.

Kamugisha says the issue for many of these countries is not a problem of quantity but a problem of unaffordability caused by high tariff and poverty.  For instance, he says, despite the recent increase in Uganda’s hydropower generation capacity,  less than 25% of Ugandans are connected to the grid and the rest of the population still relies on crude and fossil energy such as firewood, charcoal, oil, etc to meet 90% of their energy needs.

Kamugisha mentions the need to make electricity trade across the borders within the region more attractive especially to countries like Burundi with less electricity generation capacity by supporting the power sectors.

Kamugisha adds that cross-border projects also require harmony among countries. There is therefore a need to reduce suspicion and mistrust within the East African Community to stop countries like Uganda and Rwanda from their unending blame games.

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation



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