Powering up

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Edith Namukose sits on a stool behind her electric popcorn-making machine, selling the snack to fellow villagers. She said that every day on average, 100 people buy popcorn from her, providing her with enough income to take care of her children as a single mother. 

A resident of Bulati about 150 km away from Uganda's capital Kampala, Namukose operates at the local trading center. She said that if it were not for the recent connection of her village to the national electricity grid, she would not have been able to run such a business.

"Our village is about 20 km away from Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station, which was recently constructed by a Chinese company. We are now connected to the national electricity grid because the Isimba power plant increased the amount of electricity produced in our country," said Namukose.

Similarly, Hassan Mujasi recently established the first ever maize grinding mill at Mawoto Village, because electricity from Isimba was extended to his area.

"I employ over 20 workers. I buy maize from my village and all the neighboring villages. That shows how important electricity from the Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station is to our country," said Mujasi.

Chinese investment

According to Uganda's Minister of Energy and Mineral Development Ruth Nankabirwa, with the recent addition of electricity from the Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station to the national grid, Uganda now has power supplies to distribute to many more towns and villages in the country which were not previously connected.

She said in an interview that another power plant at Karuma Falls on the Nile is under construction by a Chinese company and will be launched around April 2022. By the end of 2021, 90 percent of the work at the Karuma power plant had been completed.

"Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni officially launched the Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station in 2019, and in April 2022, the Karuma Power Plant is to be launched. Both were constructed by Chinese companies with funds from a Chinese bank," said Nankabirwa. Due to a shortage of electricity about 15 years ago, Uganda has been wooing private-sector energy investors and using loans from China and other sources to help boost power production to meet fast-growing demand.

Uganda is one of six countries that signed a 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement outlining principles, rights and obligations for cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin water resources.

In his speech at the Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station launch ceremony in 2021, President Museveni said, "I thank the Chinese Government for friendship, support and the loan that was extended to Uganda for the construction of the dam and new bridge."

According to Uganda's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, the project, which cost $570 million, received debt financing from the Export-Import Bank (EXIM Bank) of China. The China International Water and Electric Corp. (CWE) was given the nod for the engineering, procurement and construction contract for the project. Signed between CWE and the ministry on September 6, 2013, the contract included the construction of the Isimba power plant and the Isimba-Bujagali 132 kv interconnection line.

The annual generation of Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station is projected to be 1,039 gwh with an installed capacity of 183.2 mw.

CWE engaged another Chinese company, Geotech Solutions, to carry out site supplementary geological investigation, drilling and rock grouting work.

Jiang Jiqing, Economic and Commercial Counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Kampala, told Uganda's The Independent newspaper that while investments in the dams were to generate electricity to the population,"we are also extremely excited that the lives of the local people living close to those dams have been elevated and their social-economic wellbeing improved." She added that the emerging developments mean that the China-Uganda collaboration is having a positive impact on the people in both countries.

New power plant in 2022

The Isimba plant, now the largest power project in the country, though, will be surpassed by the Karuma Hydroelectric Power Station in Kiryandongo District in 2022.

"The Karuma power station is being constructed by a Chinese company called Synohydro Corp. When it starts operating fully, it will be Uganda's largest power project," said James Okello, an engineer in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.

Okello said that in addition to the construction of the Karuma power station and a double circuit transmission line, the project also includes the construction of a 33 kw power line to several districts in the country.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, the funds to construct the dam were provided by the EXIM Bank of China. Located at Karuma Falls, its installed capacity is 600 mw. The construction cost is $1.7 billion.

"It employed more than 2,000 workers, mostly local people and about 200 Chinese, which we appreciate as leaders," said Muzamiru Odyek, a local council chairman in one of the villages surrounding the Karuma Falls.

Nelly Auma, wife of one of the local workers at the Karuma Hydroelectric Power Station plant, said she was happy with employment provided by the Chinese construction company. "They employed many local people including my husband. They pay them salaries on time," she said.

Auma said many locals living near the power plant have started up small businesses, especially selling food and other items needed by those who work there.

In addition to those two big dams, Uganda has received application for licensing from another Chinese company to build a hydroelectric power plant on the Nile.

According to Julius Wandera, Spokesperson of the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), the $1.4-billion plant, if constructed, will expand the country's power generation by 40 percent. "The Chinese company called PowerChina International Group Ltd. applied to develop the Ayago Hydroelectric Power Station, located on a section of the Nile between lakes Kyoga and Albert. It got a license on application," said Wandera.

According to the ERA, if Ayago is successfully constructed and launched, it will have a capacity of 840 mw, which means that it would be the country's largest power plant, surpassing the expected output of Karuma.

The project could potentially ramp up Uganda's generation capacity by 40 percent to about 2,800 mw, according to calculations from data available from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.

Electricity self-reliant

"The Chinese companies have helped us gain self-reliance on electricity. But as the population grows and more factories are being built, there is a possibility that we'll need more electricity. I believe that more Chinese companies will come to Uganda and construct more power plants," said Leonard Kavuma, manager of an electricity wiring company in Kampala.

He noted that the demand for power is growing at about 10 percent a year, demanding the development of renewable energy sources, including hydropower.

ERA Chief Executive Officer Zaria Tibalwa Waako said they have issued more than 44 operational generation licenses especially for small power plants in rural areas.

"The majority of the licenses are in remote areas, with companies operating small hydro plants on islands, mine sites, hospitals, and sugarcane factories," said Waako.

Minister Nankabirwa said Uganda has plans to boost the country's electricity supply over the next 20 years. "In order for Uganda to achieve the desired socio-economic transformation, we want to increase access to the national grid from 26 percent to 80 percent," she said.

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