Religious Sisters Become Pioneers of Hydroelectric Power in Africa

Some of the first to recognize the benefits of small-scale hydropower were religious communities in Africa.

Bukavu, Congo, is the capital of South Kivu province, where religious sisters built and operate a small hydroelectric power plant.
Bukavu, Congo, is the capital of South Kivu province, where religious sisters built and operate a small hydroelectric power plant. (photo: Shutterstock)

A recent Reuters story on how a religious sister in the Democratic Republic of Congo built a hydroelectric power-plant in her town is testimony to the impressive ingenuity of some religious in Africa who have worked with generous donors and engineers to similarly harness this cheap and efficient power source to improve the lives of the communities they serve. 

Tired of costly fuel-powered generators that were susceptible to frequent power cuts, Sister Alphonsine Ciza and her convent in the eastern Congolese city of Miti raised $297,000 to build the plant. The new facility powers not only the convent, but also the church, two schools and a clinic — all free of charge.

Sister Alphonsine, 55, used skills she had learned from studying mechanical engineering to help accomplish the project, which among its benefits provides students at Miti’s Maendeleo secondary school to now learn computer skills from screens rather than books.

Electricity continues to be a luxury in many parts of Africa, hampering development, preventing adequate health care and making it harder for millions to escape poverty. Only 42% of the continent’s population has electricity access, and that falls to around 8% in rural areas, according to the World Bank. 

But African countries are also leading the way in hydropower, which accounts for 17% of the electricity generation on average, says the International Energy Agency, and that share is expected to grow in the coming years. The Congo is one of six African nations using hydropower for more than 80% of their electricity generation. 

Some of the first to recognize the benefits of small-scale hydropower were religious communities. At a rural school in Tanzania run by German Benedictines where I taught in the mid-1990s, the Sankt Ottilien missionary monks of Ndanda Abbey had Swiss engineers install a mini hydroelectric power plant almost 30 years ago. 

To this day, the ingenious installation channels excess drinking water from a small reservoir down a nearby hill to the abbey compound. The force of gravity on the water is harnessed to power a turbine (a so-called “run-of-the-river power plant”) that provides electricity to the abbey, a secondary school, an engineering college, a large hospital, a local restaurant and even the abbey’s German sausage factory. The water is then rechanneled and used for irrigation. Backing up the hydropower, the abbey uses solar panels to provide hot water. 

It is hard to imagine how these facilities would have run satisfactorily without such a reliable and cost-free power supply, and Ndanda Abbey isn’t the only one to have done so. Several Catholic missions in Tanzania have done the same, and especially impressive is what the Benedict Sisters of St. Agnes in the town of Chipole have achieved. 

Located about 325 miles west of Ndanda, in the mid-2000s the sisters had built a similar Swiss-funded and engineered mini hydroelectric power plant, enabling the 370 sisters to continue their extensive works of charity that include healthcare, schooling and the running of orphanages.

The plant continues to this day, but the sisters did not have the possibility to use more than half the plant’s potential and so looked to expand it. 

Enter Albert Koch, a Swiss hydropower plant operator and private investor who, working with the sisters, led a project to raise funds and construct a larger hydroelectric plant. 

Building such plants in rural Africa presents many challenges, including language obstacles and difficulty accessing building materials and transporting machinery. 

But by 2014, the project had been successfully completed. 

The Benedictine sisters organized the complex logistics from Tanzania’s main port of Dar es Salaam to the construction site and the new plant, once in operation, replaced all the expensive and unreliable diesel generators the town had been relying upon. 

The “Tulila” hydroelectric plant, built by companies in Austria and Switzerland, now produces an impressive 36 gigawatts a year with the capacity to increase that by almost 25%. 

And as the new plant belongs to the convent, the Sisters are also able to sell the power to nearby communities and so guarantee an income to continue and grow their charitable works. 

“The Benedictine Sisters from Chipole are to a great extent responsible for the success of the project,” wrote Roland Gruber in a 2016 article in industry magazine ZEK. “They were in charge of import and customs formalities, as well as logistical coordination. They even conducted blasting operations as one of the sisters is a trained explosives engineer.”

A further testament to the ingenuity and industriousness of the Church’s religious and their largely unseen but invaluable apostolates to those most in need.

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