Modern energy benefits school children in sub-Saharan Africa

When families have a source of modern energy in their homes, children can spend more time at school rather than collecting firewood. The extra lighting at night allows them to do homework or use digital technology to help with their studies. It might also protect them against the respiratory illnesses that come with burning paraffin indoors for cooking or lighting, which might keep them out of school.

These benefits are fairly widely known. The Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at the University of Cape Town has looked at different models for boosting modern energy access in homes in sub-Saharan Africa. One study looks at community hydro-schemes in Kenya, how communities manage these local power networks, and why these schemes might succeed or fail. Another study, this time in Tanzania, looks at the benefits of households moving away from biofuels and dirty fuels such as paraffin, to alternatives such as LPG gas and improved cooking stove technology.

EPRU professor Edwin Muchapondwa would like to extend this research into his home country Zimbabwe, to see what the benefits might be of supporting families by installing small solar powered systems in their homes, and track how this might improve educational performance for school children.

Muchapondwa has his eye on rolling out this project in high schools in his home town of Bindura, north-eastern Zimbabwe, where he already has a good relationship with schools.

‘We would like to see what the benefits could be of installing modern energy solutions, like solar kits, in the homes of children who are in secondary schools here,’ says Muchapondwa. ‘These sorts of gadgets could give a few hours of extra lighting at night, which might allow children to study more. Or it could allow them to charge their mobile phones or run their computers.’

In one study on the impact of this sort of solution in Kenya, EPRU researchers found that the number of homework hours dropped in many households after they got better electricity access in their homes. Although Muchapondwa says this isn’t necessarily an indication of a decrease in learning time, because children could be shifting their study time from books and onto digital devices or television.

‘In the Zimbabwe study, we’d like to see if installing modern energy-supply gadgets will increase the time spent studying, as well as improve students’ performance.’

The schools he has earmarked for study are already performing poorly, he says, possibly because the teenagers enrolled here are living in challenging conditions and are the spill-over from other over-crowded schools.

‘There’s a combination of poverty issues that may undermine these teenagers’ educational performance. Many come from poor families, so they don’t have access to resources or mentorship at home. They might have to spend a lot of time doing other things to support their families’ livelihoods, so school becomes secondary,’ Muchapondwa explains. ‘Some of these students are orphans, and being cared for by grandmothers. Many families might not be able to afford school fees.’

The study still needs to find funding, but Muchapondwa hopes to pursue this in the upcoming year, so that EPRU’s work can expand on the other studies its researchers have done through the centre to explore what the educational benefits are of boosting modern energy access in homes in these kinds of communities.

There is also scope to use mini-grid systems to boost modern energy access in homes in sub-Saharan Africa, says Muchapondwa. In communities where the cost of connecting households to a national grid is too high, small, locally-managed grids such as the community hydro-schemes in Kenya can be an affordable and quick way to bring electricity into homes. The power generated by these schemes can keep households well lit, and power digital devices and low-energy appliances such as televisions or computers.

A study by EPRU researcher Mary Karumba in 2016, which looks into the management challenges of hydro-powered mini-grids in her home country, showed the importance of this basic energy source for stimulating development in more remote areas.

The simple act of being able to keep a mobile phone charged, she found, allowed small business operators in rural Kenya to run their enterprises better, which boosted their own livelihoods and fed positively into the local economy.

‘Having a functional mobile phone at all times is important for people living in remote parts of the country,’ Karumba explains. ‘Previously, people would have to walk or drive great distances, to shopping centres for instance, if they wanted to charge their phones. But in communities where people were able to opt into a local community-funded and run hydro scheme, they are able to charge their phones at home.’

Muchapondwa urges policymakers to prioritise policy shifts and support development projects which will speed up the transition to modern energy sources in homes in sub-Saharan Africa.

News | 20 May 2019