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Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria on shaky start?

On January 2014, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan inaugurated operation “Light-Up Rural Nigeria” with a pledge to ensure constant power supply to Nigerians in rural areas, but investigations reveal that the project, which has a target of 111 villages by 2015, is yet to complete its pilot in just three villages of Abuja, six months after.

Solar platforms at Waru

Solar platforms at Waru

The project is aimed at using renewable energy to get electricity across to rural communities in all the 36 states of the federation, especially communities that are not connected to the national grid.

Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo, was reported to have said at the inauguration, “The first stage, which is the pilot stage, intends to utilise 100 per cent solar energy to power hundreds of communities. The second stage will incorporate wind energy as an integrated solution, as soon as our researches on the meteorological and technical specifications vis-a-vis demographics are completed. The final stage will include biomass as energy source.”

This pilot project, fully funded by the Federal Ministry of Power, is executed by an indigenous firm, Lordezetech Engineering, in conjunction with two foreign companies, Schneider and Philips.

Ifeanyi Ezeh, lead consultant to the Presidential Energy Reform Agenda on Power and Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria of the Federal Ministry of Power, had earlier said that the project was going fast and smooth with all the inhabitants of the pilot villages enjoying 24 hour lighting.

According to him, “The Ministry of Power has gone far. Not just that we have gone far, but we are happy with the outcome. Based on the fact that within the three villages that have been commissioned, I can assure you that none of these villages have ever for once witnessed a blink or fluctuation in their power supply (from solar).”

The three villages chosen for the pilot are Durumi Community in Bwari Area Council; and Waru and Shape communities both in Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC).

Shape is to get 200 kilowatts of solar power, Waru 150kilowatts, while Durumi gets 150 kilowatts too.

But on-sight investigations reveal that the project might not be able to meet its objectives as the government has not successfully completed the pilot stage.

The Waru community, one of the beneficiaries, is yet to enjoy the solar power like Shape and Durumi, as the engineers carrying out the project have not completed their work.

It was also discovered that Waru  is currently being connected to the national grid of PHCN even as the solar project is ongoing, thereby defeating the government’s aim of powering off-grid rural communities.

At the inauguration of the project, President Jonathan had said, “We are starting the year by giving light to our people especially in the rural communities. ‘Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria’ has been initiated under the second phase of our power sector reform programme planned for the post privatisation period.”

The President had mandated that, before the end of the year, at least 111 villages nationwide would be lighted up, comprising three rural communities in every senatorial district in Nigeria.

But it seems Waru Community which is just a few miles away from the other beneficiary community, Shape, is a blot in President Jonathan’s vision and optimism; and an epitome of failed projects in Nigeria.

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Victoria, a petty trader in Waru, said in a sinking tone, “It has been a long time now since we saw the workmen coming here to mount the electricity poles for the solar project, but since then we have not seen any light. What we are hearing is that NEPA (i.e. PHCN) will give us light soon, because the village has bought a transformer.”

Another Waru resident named Osita said that, initially when the solar project started at the beginning of the year, there used to be lighting for the village from the streetlights mounted on the solar power poles of the solar workers, but the light had ceased for the past three months.

“That is why we have lost hope in the solar lights. There is no solar anywhere, we have been using generators; although we heard that it is working in other communities like Durumi. In fact, their pipes (the metal platforms constructed for the solar panels) are now used by women as clothe dryers!” he added.

When our correspondent visited the chief of Waru, Ibrahim A. Sarki, he disclosed that the village has obtained transformers through self-help efforts, which they hoped to be connected to the PHCN power lines soon.

In the major road that ran through Waru, the PHCN power lines could be seen standing parallel to the newly mounted solar power lines.

An Abuja-based solar technology expert who did not want his name mentioned on print was of the opinion that the situation has rubbished “the so-called Light Up Rural Nigeria” because, according to him, Waru community is not rural community by any standard.

“Waru is just a town in Abuja and it is not a rural community. Can you see the number of exotic cars entering the village daily? Those are the residents. They are not villagers. Neither is the community off-grid. You can see NEPA (PHCN) poles running through the streets,” the technician said.

“If the government is sincere and efficient, there are many off-grid communities that need these lights. They are in Gwagwalada, in Kuje, in Kwali. They are in many places in the FCT; not to mention in Nigeria. It is not enough to look for convenient communities very close to town, give them solar power, and go about saying you are lighting up the rural areas.”

On his part, the Waru Chief, Sarki, said that the village is happy with the government but from all indications the company handling the Light Up Rural Nigeria project in Waru were nonchalant in their attitude towards the ongoing solar electrification work in the village.

“For the past three months we have not seen any sign that the project is ongoing. But when they started, there was so much activities going on. In fact, right in front of my palace they mounted street lamps and everywhere is illuminated in the night.

“But today, it is very obvious that they have abandoned us. Look at the whole place, nothing significant is going on, although the Engineer told me the other day that they will soon conclude the work,” Sarki said.

Along the single water logged road in Waru, there were skeletons of solar panel platforms mounted ostensibly for the solar project, but now abandoned by the project executors.

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There was one platform in front of the Chief’s palace, another nearby at a village centre, and another one, near the primary school by the local football field. However, the solar panel platform inside the Health Centre has been fully mounted with solar panels.

When our correspondent visited the completed solar panel platform, there were some workmen inside the Waru Health Centre who said they were still working on the project and that, soon, other skeletons would have solar panels and the project would be completed.

But Waru residents were not happy with the speed of construction which has been going on for over six months now. In fact, they said the “solar project’s failure” is why they are intensifying efforts to embrace PHCN power grid.

Yusuf Suleiman, an Abuja based solar technology expert, told EnviroNews Nigeria in a separate interview that the Federal Government is doing a great job in the Light Up Rural  Nigeria project, but needed to put more  experienced renewable energy specialists on its team in order to deploy more sustainable strategies.

He said the project must not be politicised, so that relevant communities, which are off-grid would be selected.

“There are many deep rural communities in the country, who need renewable energy for micro-enterprise and better livelihood. They are not near the cities, they are far-flung and variant. It needs expertise and selfless consideration to identify them, and effectively implement the project,” he said.

In the other two pilot villages of Shape and Durumi, it was all success stories.

The day our correspondent visited Shape, it was a rainy night and because there was neither moon nor stars in the gloomy sky, the entire surrounding en-route was pitch-dark.

The car veered off the tarred road by the left, about 7kilometres off the Apo Mechanic Village; and began a bumpy journey into a mud path to Shape village, as the road was barely lighted by the two circular white glows from the car head lamps.

The twists and turns through a mixture of stones and mud, and crisscrossing rain-formed springs across the un-tarred hilly route almost shoved the crew into a decision to make a u-turn rather than climb up towards the obscure community.

Just then, there appeared, as if from nowhere, what could only be described as a “city on a hill” right in the middle of the bushes on a high land drenched in the night rain; for all the brightness that oozed off the street lights which adorned the lucky FCT  village.

The first building on the undulating settlement housed an all-purpose shop, owned by a lady who rented the building for her business. But the irony is that for a solar powered village, the shop had an ‘I pass my neighbour’ generator humming in the background.

The lady, Miss Nwanyibuife, told our correspondent that her generator was an exception, because the whole village was solar-powered. She showed that the external lights in the building were solar powered by single solar panels snugly clipped to the zinc roof and wired to a battery box mounted on the wall exterior.

“I was not in my shop the day the village was wired that is why I only have exterior solar lighting. In the house where I live down the road, I can use my household gadgets because sockets were mounted for me by the engineers just like they did for other villagers.

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“I have already called the engineers to fix sockets for my shop, so very soon they will fix them for me. In this village, everybody is enjoying solar. We use our TV, our fans, and we charge our phones with it.”

The Chief of Shape, Yakubu Kuruzhi, who later welcomed EnviroNews Nigeria into his palace, echoed the words of Nwanyibuife.

“As you can see, we are all enjoying 24 hours power supply free from the Federal Government’s solar project. Although we cannot use heavy household equipment like refrigerators, fridges, electrical iron, cookers, etc.

“The President himself came here to this village to launch this project. We are benefitting from it today. In fact, two of the villagers have been engaged by the engineers to work with them.”

The village chief sat in his long couch in his palace which looked every inch a house in the city just because there was electricity lighting everywhere: there was music, there was fan, and there was television, in a village which ordinarily would not have experienced such because it was rural community and totally off-grid.

The village paths were criss-crossed by metallic poles meshed with electric wires for the solar lighting and on some poles were mounted energy efficient street lamps which are switched on every evening to illuminate the village till morning.

Right in the centre of the village square near the chief’s palace is a statue of President Jonathan erected beside the solar panels and power back up central station for the village.

The whole atmosphere is not only evocative of the aura of just another Abuja town simply because of its status as a freshly transformed solar village, but there still lingers that presidential air, because actually The Number One Citizen of Nigeria did actually visit Shape to inaugurate the solar project sometime earlier in the year.

With the whole residents in the beneficiary villages enjoying full power without paying for them, the issue of maintenance and sustainability of the project was a concern to our investigators.

Eze addressed it thus: “Actually maintenance is a major problem for the solar industry in Nigeria regarding deployment of solar technology. The fact is that many unprofessional technicians went into solar energy, just to come in and make money. But some of us are looking at sustainability.

“In my own system, we have what is called solar fault detecting gadget; which enables you to detect any fault in the solar equipment without even loosing the circuit. All you need to do is to plug it and through a digital collative display you see where the fault is. If it is from the system, if it is accumulation, LED, switches, etc. you will know.

“Regarding payment, currently I am working on a metering system, a digital system that will enable the individuals to pay as they consume. It will be ready in the nearest future. For now it is free. But the President has made it known that soon a policy will be ready with regard to the management of these systems so that people will be paying for the energy they consume.”

 

By Greg Odogwu

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