Business unusual as mini-grids power Eswatini rural communities

March 8, 2024

Sithembile Khumalo at the Mvundla solar minigrid that supplies power to her community and helps reduce the amount of time women spend on unproductive work such as collecting firewood.

UNDP/Ayanda Nhlabatsi

Sithembile Khumalo lives with her family in a small remote rural community called Mvundla in Eswatini’s Manzini Region, some 75 kilometres from the capital city of Mbabane. Like most unemployed women in the area, the married mother of two boys preoccupies herself with household chores like weeding her maize and sweet potato fields and cooking for her family. 

Eswatini has a population of 1.2 million of which 59% live below the poverty line. About two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas and forms the majority of poor people. Although the country has a higher national electrification rate of 85% compared to 40% for Africa, it imports about 70% of its coal-generated power from neighbouring countries, making the cost higher for citizens. In addition, 90% of the rural population still uses traditional energy sources, such as firewood, contributing to deforestation. Women are largely responsible for fetching firewood for cooking, spending a significant amount of time on unproductive work. 

In its climate action document also called the revised Nationally Determined Contribution to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Eswatini committed to achieving 100% access to clean modern energy for cooking at household-level by 2030. The country also committed to replacing inefficient wood-based water heating with energy-efficient options to reduce its share by 13% by 2030. These ambitious plans align with Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy – Goal 5 – Gender Equality - and Goal 13 – Climate Action. 

To accelerate progress towards 2030, the government, working with development partners, is focusing on electrifying remote rural areas like Mvundla using mini-grids. Until two years ago, Mvundla, with a population of about 200 people and 21 homesteads, formed part of Eswatini’s rural population of over 60% with no access to electricity. In 2021 Eswatini Electricity Company, through a partnership with Eswatini Energy Regulatory Authority (ESERA), installed the Sigcineni 35KW Solar PV Plant which supplies power to Mvundla. Before then, Khumalo would cross a river using a makeshift bridge and travel for more than a kilometre to charge her cell phone or place her perishable food in the fridge at homesteads in the nearby community.

“Having access to electricity has significantly reduced the amount of time I spend on doing household chores,” said Khumalo, adding: “I use electricity for refrigeration, cooking, and ironing.” Most importantly, she is happy that her children aged 12 and 14 study better now under electric light. 

“Having access to electricity has significantly reduced the amount of time I spend on doing household chores.”

Now that Mvundla has access to power, women in the community are making the move to establish businesses with support from the Powering Equality Project.

UNDP/Ayanda Nhlabatsi

Despite the access to electricity, two years later, there are still no businesses such as shops or a hammer mill in the area resulting in KhumaIo and the rest of the community crossing the river and walking four kilometres to buy a loaf of bread or get to the hammer mill to process their maize, the country staple, to mealie meal. She spends SZL40 (USD2) to get to the hammer mill and back, an unaffordable amount for someone who comes from a household where no one has a stable job except for earning income from weeding other people’s fields or selling bananas from the family orchard.

Fortunately, the community is already taking advantage of the mini-grid. A male resident has constructed a small complex that will house a grocery store, and a salon among other outlets. Khumalo said the women were still brainstorming business ideas and pondering on how they could go about setting up a hammer mill when, in October 2023, an opportunity knocked on their door.  UNDP, in partnership with the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office (DPMO), and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE), organised a training for 50 women entrepreneurs including those with disabilities. Facilitated by the University of Eswatini’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Research, the week-long training equipped the women with skills in Business plan development, Sustainable living, Gender dimensions of clean energy transitions, Marketing, and Financial Management, among other topics. 

The training was conducted through the Powering Equality Project funded by the governments of the Republic of Korea and Luxembourg under the UNDP Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Funding Window. The two-year project, whose implementation started in 2023 and ends in 2024, is a partnership between DPMO, MNRE and UNDP. It is building on UNDP's partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy and the World Bank on the ''Networking Reinforcement and Access Project (NRAP) – Closing the Gender Gap in Eswatini Energy Sector'' project which has conducted a stock take on the barriers that hinder gender responsive governance in the energy sector. This project uncovered the poor participation of women in the energy sector either as entrepreneurs or professionals. In response, the Powering Equality Project is building the capacity of rural women to take advantage of renewable energy to not only power their homes but also run small businesses to enhance their livelihoods. 

“Apart from the hammer mill, which we consider to operate as an association, I’m interested in starting a broiler chicken business. Other women are inspired to establish a salon and sewing businesses,” said Khumalo. 

The Powering Equality project is also building on the Africa Minigrids Project (AMP) supported through a Global Environment Facility (GEF) grant of USD 863,242 (E15,5 Million). The AMP, a four-year programme which started in 2022, aims to support Mvundla and a neighbouring community, Bulimeni, to create small businesses using solar power.  The rolling out of AMP will create small businesses and will take up some of the learnings already identified through the Powering Equality Project.

Following the training, the women entrepreneurs will receive essential tools from the project to establish their businesses. The Department of Gender Affairs under the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office will showcase these initiatives at an event taking place on the margins of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) on 21 March in New York. In line with the International Women’s Day 2024 theme; Invest in women: Accelerate progress, this project demonstrates that a business unusual approach to energy access can translate into tangible results for women contributing to the financial growth of their families and communities.