By: Wim Jonker Klunne

Africa is home to one of the world’s largest off-grid populations: approximately 590 million people live with no connection to their national electric grid, according to the International Energy Agency. Grid expansion in Africa has been notoriously slow, and thus new solutions are needed to bridge this energy divide.

Small hydropower can play a pivotal role in providing energy access to large parts of Africa, either in stand-alone isolated mini-grids or as distributed generation in national grids. The potential role of small hydropower in eradicating energy poverty has been recognized by a number of national governments and donors, and is a key element of the UN Energy Access for All program.

Yet for all the potential, most African nations have done little to tap this resource. The lack of small hydropower development in Africa is the result of a host of persistent barriers.

Long history in Africa
Internationally, small hydropower has a long track record of providing energy at the community level, long before centralized electricity generation became the common standard. Early gold mines in South Africa, for example, were powered by micro-hydro turbines as early as 1892. Church missions built small hydropower installations in many nations – for example, in Tanzania more than 16 small hydropower systems installed by churches during the 1960s and ‘70s are still operating. Large scale commercial farmers in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe installed hydro stations as early as the 1930s.

Many countries in Africa have a rich history of small-scale hydropower, but over time large numbers of these stations have fallen into disrepair. In some cases this was because the national grid reached that location, but in many others the problem was a lack of maintenance or even pure neglect.

Recent initiatives reveal that a number of countries in Africa are poised to revive the small hydro sector, either through international development agencies or through private sector initiatives. New initiatives are being launched in Central Africa (Rwanda), East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and Southern Africa (Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe). In South Africa, the first new small hydro station in 20 years was opened in 2009, with more under development.


Most of the challenges facing small hydropower are generic for all types of renewable energy and rural electrification projects. General barriers include the absence of clear policies on renewable energy, limited budget to create an enabling environment for mobilizing resources and encouraging private sector investment, and the absence of long-term implementation models that result in the delivery of renewable energy to customers at affordable prices while also ensuring that the industry remains sustainable. Although there is widespread desire for modern energy services in Africa, cost of electricity continues to be an issue for many rural communities, which needs to addressed with appropriate implementation models.

Looking specifically at small hydropower development, the following barriers can be identified:

  • Policy and regulatory framework: Many nations have unclear or non-existent policies and regulations to govern the development of small hydropower. In some countries hydropower developments under a certain threshold are not regulated at all, while in other countries it might be part of a broader regulatory framework for rural electrification in general. Generic frameworks often lack clarity on a number of hydropower-specific issues such as access to water, ownership of water infrastructure, and the related issue associated payments to use this infrastructure.
  • Financing: More than other sources of renewable energy, hydropower developments (even small ones) face high up-front costs and low operations and maintenance costs, something most available financing models do not favor. Nearly all of the new developments on the continent are relying in one form or the other on donor financing. Development of alternative financing models, including tapping into alternative funding sources, is needed to facilitate small hydro developments.
  • Capacity to plan, build and operate hydropower plants: National and regional knowledge and awareness on the potential of small hydro for rural electrification is missing or very minimal. This includes knowledge at political, government and regulatory entities, as well as knowledge on local production of parts and components.
  • Data on hydro resources: Linked to the limited knowledge about the technology is the lack of proper resource data on water availability and flow on which hydro developments can be based.

Communities and hydropower
Hydropower installations up to 300 kW of installed capacity are able to provide essential energy services to many rural areas in Africa, including mechanical power for services like maize grinding and electricity connections for individual households and small businesses. For most rural African communities, it could be many years until the grid comes near enough to their towns to be practical. But most rural Africans also live closer to a river than to the grid. What is needed is greater support for helping communities tap into their local power, especially technical help, financial assistance and guidance in how to operate and maintain the system. A microhydro plant, while relatively low cost and low tech, may still strain local resources. Although the costs of microhydro are very site specific, communities can help bring down the capital required by in-kind contributions specifically for the civil works required (diversion weir, intake, canal, etc.).

Rural electrification with microhydro has been implemented in a number of different ways, each with its own pros and cons. Delivery models include national utilities providing hydropower-based localised mini grids, private entrepreneurs setting up energy supply companies, community owned and managed systems, and systems initiated by churches, charities and NGOs.

In Mozambique, the German development organization GIZ is using the so-called “operator model” in which electricity production is taken care of by entrepreneurs who invest in electricity generation using their own funds or assisted with a commercial loan, while the local distribution grid is donor-funded and community-owned. In contrast, the national electrification agency FUNAE is following a model in which government owns the infrastructure, but “leases” that out to an operator who is then responsible for generation and distribution of electricity.

In Tanzania, church missions have been at the forefront with regard to installing microhydro systems. An example is the Matembwe village hydro scheme, which powers a vocational center run by a mission. The system has an installed capacity of 150 kW and supplies electricity for commercial uses and individual households in two villages located 5 km apart, with the bulk of the electricity being used at the vocational center. For the first few years, two village committees were responsible for managing the project. As the capacity of these committees was found to be insufficient, management was handed over to the Matembwe Village Co. Ltd., who manages the vocational training center. The ownership of the scheme is shared by the Diocese, an NGO, the village authority and the District Authority. Since the inception of the hydro project, the national grid has reached the villages concerned and the villagers now have the choice between electricity from hydropower or from the grid, with most of them staying with the cheaper local hydropower option.

Another hydroplant initiated by the same church was built in a village where the nearest power line is 180 kms away. The main motivation behind the project was the high cost of running a generator to power the local health centre. The diocese, in collaboration with German donors, introduced the idea of building a small hydroplant to the local government and community. Plant construction was completed in 2002. The plant electrifies the whole Mavanga ward, comprising of the villages Mavanga and Mbugani. The Mavanga electricity project is owned by the Diocese, the communities and the donor. The scheme is managed by a local committee known as MEPC. While the donor and the church are there to advise and help when the need arises, the committee is responsible for day-to-day activities including bill collection, conflict resolution, if any, and solving technical problems. Technical sustainability is ensured through a contract with the installing engineer to provide technical backup for the first eight years of plant operation, with a gradual skills transfer to MEPC.

Also in the southern Africa region, British NGO Practical Action is implementing an EU-funded project to bring microhydro to remote villages. At this stage, three different financial models are being implemented for nine microhydro stations in total; these will be evaluated on their merits. In the “ShareD” financial model, as is implemented in Chipendeke in Zimbabwe, community members provide “sweat equity” to the project, which will be converted in shares in the commercial enterprise that will run the plant. The “generator model,” which will be implemented by Practical Action with their Mozambican counterpart Kwaedza Sumukai Manica (KSM), is based on a private entrepreneur generating electricity for the community. In this model the local transmission and distribution infrastructure will be owned by the community. Finally, Practical Action is applying an adapted version of Build, Operate and Transfer model which they implement in Malawi, which is expected to result in a smooth transition towards community ownership of the plant.

Way forward
Small hydro is a very mature and robust technology, but the jury is still out on the best way to implement this technology to ensure a long lasting sustainable operation of the system. But given the widespread potential across Africa, it is clear that small-scale hydropower can play a pivotal role in providing electricity – and development opportunities – to rural communities.
Interest in the technology in many parts of Africa is finally beginning to flow. Hopes are high that governments and communities alike will get on board and adopt policies and programs to encourage growth in small-scale hydro. The potential to help bridge the energy divide and bring light and hope to communities across the continent is huge, and the time to move forward is now.

Featured image: Opening the sluice gate on a small hydro project. | Photo by: Wim Klunne