June 11 2024 0Comment

Harnessing the Zambezi: The Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant

Muntanga Munkowbwe and Nandi Mbazima write in our latest blog on the Zengamina mini-hydro project in Zambia and the impacts of energy access.

Located in Ikelenge District, of North-Western Zambia, lies a beacon of hope and development: the Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant. This project embodies the fusion of local vision, international collaboration, and cutting-edge technology, creating a narrative of empowerment that extends far beyond the banks of the Zambezi River.

A Vision for Change

The Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant’s story begins with a critical need and a dream. In the early 2000s, the Ikelenge District faced severe energy challenges. The absence of reliable electricity meant that locals relied on wood and kerosene for basic necessities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. However, the region harbored a powerful potential energy source – the Zambezi rapids on the Zambezi River. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, a group of local stakeholders embarked on a mission to provide a reliable, sustainable, and affordable alternative to diesel generators. The North West Zambia Development Trust (NWZDT) emerged as the driving force behind the Zengamina project. Early funding came from British charities, churches, and private individuals who shared the vision of transforming this energy-deprived region. The project was named after  a local Chief, honoring the community’s heritage and culture. Construction began in 2004, with a focus on employing local labor and utilizing locally-sourced materials. The result was a project deeply rooted in its community, both figuratively and literally.

The Birth of the Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant

In July 2007, the Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant officially came to life. The Power Plant harnesses the power of the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-largest river. The heart of the operation lies in its Ossberger crossflow turbine with an installed capacity of 750 kW and a design that allows for expansion to 1.4 MW; this run-of-river project showcases ingenious engineering. It has a 100-meter-wide weir leading to the entry of a 400-meter long canal, and a  70-meter long penstock, a powerhouse, and a tailrace. A step-up transformer allows for the generated power to be evacuated at 33 kV over a distance of 35 kilometers to various load centers in the district with an additional 10 kilometers of low-voltage lines ensuring electricity reaches its communities. Part of the support for this part of the project came from the Rural Electrification Authority of Zambia .

Source: https://www.virungapower.com/project

Economic Empowerment and Community Development

The impact of Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant was nothing short of transformative. Initially designed to supply power to the Kalene Mission Hospital, the project swiftly expanded its reach. Electricity flowed not only to the hospital, but also to local clinics, schools, an orphanage, and households throughout the region. The benefits extended beyond improved living conditions; the Zengamina project created hundreds of jobs, triggering significant investments in social institutions, and elevating living standards across the district. It has not only removed the burden of expensive and polluting diesel generators, but the local economy has also improved with the establishment of new businesses, including a pineapple processing plant and other factories, providing employment opportunities and higher energy usage. Beyond economics, the project has invigorated education, healthcare, and infrastructure, fundamentally  altering the trajectory of the District.

The BGFA Partnership

In recent years, Zengamina embarked on a new phase of expansion with the support of the Beyond the Grid Fund for Africa (BGFA). This partnership aims to enhance the plant’s capacity by integrating solar power and implementing a lithium-based battery storage system. This innovative approach ensures electricity availability even during periods of drought. Furthermore, the project plans to extend its geographical reach, delivering higher-tier energy services to rural customers and small businesses, with the potential for an additional 2,600 energy service subscriptions. At the core of the Zengamina Mini Hydro Power Plant’s journey is the dream to expand its horizons further. The partnership with BGFA envisions creating the first off-grid solar-hydro hybrid in Zambia. This bold step will diversify the plant’s energy sources, enhancing reliability and sustainability while empowering more communities within its vicinity.

In conclusion

The journey of Zengamina was not without its share of challenges. Termites, lightning, and low tariffs posed obstacles along the way. However, the project’s resilience and commitment to the community have helped overcome these hurdles. Lessons learned include the importance of setting optimal tariffs, promoting productive energy use, and involving dedicated local community members in the project. This Power Plant stands as a testament, symbol of hope, progress, and the boundless possibilities that arise when communities and development partners unite to bring light to the darkness.

Authors: Muntanga Munkowbwe and Nandi Mbazima.



GET.Invest Market Insights (2019) Zambia: Solar PV and Hydro Mini-Grids Case Study: Hydropower Mini-Grid at Lwakela Falls.

Kjorstad J. (?) Powering Rural Africa. 48-51. https://ppp.worldbank.org/public-private-partnership/sites/ppp.worldbank.org/files/2022-03/hs_innovation_powering-rural-africa.pdf

Leyland, B.. (2007). Small hydro and socio-economic development in Zambia: The case of Zengamina. 14. 98-99.


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