By Hervé Mukulu
North Kivu/ Butembo, Beni – Almost five years ago, hydroelectric power was just a word in textbooks for the more than one and a half million residents of the cities of Beni and Butembo (North Kivu), in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since 2017, a hydroelectric plant has been operational in Ivugha, a peripheral town of Butembo. It supplies the latter as well as its neighboring town (Beni) with electricity. This electric power has been a game-changer in several sectors, especially youth entrepreneurship. Now, existing small and medium-sized businesses are making good profit margins. They save expenses formerly allocated to energy. Above all others, new and innovative businesses were suddenly born. This brought several advantages: clean energy because it is renewable and non-polluting, a step in the preservation of the biodiversity of the Virunga park because this energy is supposed to replace charcoal. Nevertheless, the coverage of the electricity network is still low and the price is not yet within the reach of all budgets.
A report by Hervé Mukulu, produced in partnership with InfoNile thanks to the funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, edited by Claude Sengenya and Umbo Salama; produced with the contribution from Juvénal Bulemo, Georges Kisando, Emmanuel Kateri, Jackson Sivulyamwenge and Robert Mwenderwa.
At nightfall, street lamps suddenly light up in the streets of the city of Lubero. This is the magical scene that residents of this city, located 45 km from the city of Butembo, witnessed on December 14, 2021. This immense joy has been hailed as a sign of hope on social media, “Finally, the power is there, in Lubero, at the gate of Butembo” – a stunned young man from Lubero in a WhatsApp group shared the photo that has gone viral. This light in the street is a sign of concrete hope.
“We were waiting for this power as the return of Jesus. It is a grace to have it now; it will help us a lot because there is no development without electricity; there is no economic zone without electricity,” said Nzoli Roger, president of the Federation of Enterprises of Congo (FEC), Lubero section.
“Electricity is one of the sources of development,” added Katembo Katsetse Masudi, in her late thirties, a local entrepreneur and president of Kyaghanda Yira Lubero, a cultural structure of the Nande tribe.
Five years ago, in Butembo and Beni, to obtain sufficient electricity to supply a revenue-generating activity such as a bar, shop, or telephone charging booth, there were only two options. Either get or subscribe to a fuel-powered generator or even acquire solar equipment. This required an investment often out of reach of the young people eager to do business in these important commercial cities of North Kivu. To overcome this problem, a barrier to development in the region, some projects have emerged.
First, the Virunga Alliance organisation has set up several hydroelectric power station projects around the Virunga National Park (PNVi) to reduce human pressure on this world heritage site in danger.
“In the eastern part, we have programmed 6 hydroelectric power stations in Virunga which will generate 105 to 120 MW for us and which will create approximately 120,000 jobs. And around our protected areas, our aim is to try to perpetuate these practices, these good practices. Tomorrow, protected areas should no longer be like enclosed islands, but rather they should be considered as development pools. Therefore, the investments that are given to protected areas prepare for a better future,” explained Pasteur Cosma Wilungula, Director General of the ICCN (Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) reported by the Congo Profound media outlet.
Since the distribution of electricity supplied by the Matebe power station (in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu province), the use of charcoal, a large part of which is illegally exploited in the PNVi, has significantly decreased by 50% in households and businesses already served, according to ICCN. Indeed, wood energy, consumed in the form of charcoal or firewood, is the main source of domestic energy in the DRC. It is mainly used for cooking food in households and for certain artisanal factories (bread, shikchange, brickworks, etc.). Access to electricity at the national level was estimated at 19.1% in 2019 according to the World Bank.
Around parks and nature reserves, populations rarely have other choices than to draw what they need from them; even if they consciously know that it is forbidden. Thus the illegal occupations of protected areas, illegal fishing, deforestation for charcoal, poaching of mammals, the presence of armed groups, and the problem of oil exploitation are the evils that threaten the National Park Virunga, listed as World Heritage in Danger. The creation of hydroelectric dams is thus considered as a means of combating this anthropogenic pressure, given that the availability of electrical energy is likely to reduce the demand for wood energy and encourage the creation of companies that divert the population from the destruction of the biodiversity of the reserves.
This is, first of all, the Mutwanga I power plant, with a capacity of 1.4 MW, built-in 2013, near the city bearing the same name, north of the Virunga National Park. Then there is that of Matebe, in the territory of Rutshuru, southeast of the PNVi, with a capacity of 13.8 MW. Next comes the Mutwanga II hydroelectric power plant, erected in 2019, with a capacity of 2.35 MW. That of Luviro, in Lubero territory, is under construction. A public-private partnership grants three power plant projects to the company Energie du Nord-Kivu (ENK), of which only one is operational for the moment. The Ivugha dam, south of Butembo, with a capacity of 2.8 MW, supplies the towns of Butembo and Beni. The Talihia project for a capacity of 20 MW, including the first 12 MW plant, reassures the company, is in the process of being finished.
The stability of the electricity and the affordable price are the major assets that have changed the taste of life and the face of entrepreneurship in the region. Observe women traders who sell fresh produce in the evening after 7:00 p.m. under streetlights in the city center, work after 10:00 p.m. without worrying about the power, have electricity permanently at home, keep everything cool, a company to survive with 10 dollars’ electricity a month – all this was unimaginable, only 4 years ago in Butembo.
Farewell jhangfa, the polluting generator
Between 2000 and 2015, in Beni and Butembo, as in the surrounding cities, it was necessary to use generating sets (20 KW) mainly imported from China.
By installing one in a neighborhood, the generator could distribute electricity to nearly a hundred small traders, including households. Payment was invoiced according to the number of hours of daily service: $20 per month for a household supplied for 4 hours during the day, mainly from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; even $50 a month for a telephone charging box or a mini-power supply for 6 to 8 hours of current during the day. Capacity offered 1 or 2 two amps. The price remains uniform even when there is no power following breakdowns.
Around 2014-2015, they lost the household market, first with the advent of solar panels. Also, the generators have been banned in the downtown areas of Butembo and Beni. Getting rid of it is a double advantage for the authorities: “noise pollution and unpleasant carbon pollution,” On the other hand, “hydroelectric energy is clean because it is renewable”, noted Professor Sahani Walere, Director of the Engineering and Consulting Center for Regional Planning and Natural Risk Management (GcATGRN). Following the controlled connections, the electricity from the generators often caused short circuits which ranged from damage to equipment to people’s death.
Today, like Serge Kambale, owner of a shop in the city of Beni, in the famous Matonge district, many entrepreneurs are making good profit margins by saving colossal expenses formerly allocated to energy. “Before the generator energy, I used to spend 50 US dollars a month, but today with ENK (the Energy Company of North Kivu), I spend around 17 dollars,”, Serge Kambale said.
Young people invest in businesses and shun armed groups
Médiard Kakule, head of the Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises in the city of Butembo, FENAPEC / Butembo said many people, especially the youth, are turning to entrepreneurship.
“Telephone charging booths, power supplies, metallurgical fitting workshops, carpentry, hairdressing salons that even start operating at night. This trend is a real advantage for companies. I don’t know how many were born with it, but there are a lot of them,” says Médiard Kakule enthusiastically on the phone.
For its part, civil society is formal on this unique advantage: “Electricity has always been an opportunity for young people to be able to find jobs or to carry out their activities around those who have them. What keeps them busy so as not to rub shoulders with armed groups or give in to anti-values. This will certainly impact the improvement of the socio-security situation here,” adds Edgard Mateso, vice-president of the Civil Society of North Kivu.
Employment for young people is a real challenge for Congo-Kinshasa. While the World Bank, in 2019, said 7.75 percent of young Congolese aged 15 to 24 were unemployed, the Urban Youth Council in the city of Beni (North Kivu) reveals that around 80 percent of youth are unemployed in the province.
Although reflecting a certain reality, these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. A good part of the youth lives with “disguised unemployment” jobs.
They arrange with tax collectors to pay small sums of money that do not necessarily end up in the state coffers. This allows them to avoid paying taxes and legal documents. The latter being especially high in relation to their activities. These young people do not register as unemployed either. As an example, it only takes about $100 to $500 to start reselling the credits of telecom companies or fuel. If we make profits of 3,000 to 5,000 Fc (Congolese francs) per day, the family survives. And this young person will never register as unemployed at the National Employment Office.
Worse, young university graduates, even if they do not have jobs, do not register as unemployed either out of pride. This means that this service, which is supposed to provide statistics on youth employment, could have misleading figures. But these young people, aged 15 to 40, are active and live in entire towns.
Insecurity is a real challenge facing even these energy companies. Several times, the facilities of the Ivugha hydroelectric power station have been attacked by May-May militiamen for unknown reasons. “During turbulences in cities, such as ghost town days, we lose days of service,” complained James Vanhoutte, Commercial Director of ENK. “Recently, in April, we spent 2 to 3 full weeks without working. It’s huge,” he recalled.
Solar, kerosene as well as batteries
What further proves that hydroelectric energy is a boost to youth entrepreneurship is that it even supplants solar energy. In fact, faced with energy shortages, all you need is a few dollars (from $20), to buy a solar panel and a battery, to provide light to your household or business through LED bulbs. This caused the disappearance of kerosene lamps or torches with non-rechargeable batteries. A few more dollars, between 100 and 500, to operate electronic devices such as the television set or resell this energy by charging telephones, by making fruit juice fresh. For some services (popcorn, freezer, incubators), solar power is not even considered for young people, because it requires an investment of more than a thousand dollars.
A few years ago, several community radio stations in Butembo and Beni were equipped with a solar kit by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO), as part of a quick impact project, aimed at ensuring media houses have electricity.
One of them received a solar kit worth about $5,000. This kit was only used for 6 months by operating the 1,000-watt transmitter for only one hour during the day, in case a power cut happens. This same station used $10 of fuel for 10 hours of operation out of 24. Today, with ENK energy, the $10 credit is enough to operate for 24 hours. “We no longer have to shut down the radio during certain hours,” the director of this community radio station told us.
An old experience that kindles hope
The city of Lubero, capital of the eponymous territory south of the city of Butembo, has a special history with hydroelectric energy. Nearly three decades ago, a micro-hydroelectric power station was installed in this city. Its greatest asset has been its contribution to the fight against Kwashiorkor disease in several villages in the highlands of Lubero.
Thanks to this power, a local non-profit organization has installed a mill in this city to grind corn, wheat, soybeans, cassava chips, etc. The mixture of these flours in foufou makes it possible to fight against malnutrition in the region.
“There were too many children suffering from Kwashiorkor. Since we didn’t know anything, Madame Pilote (nickname given to a white lady) took us small boxes of concentrates that we bought to help the children. We have started sensitizing people not to eat only cassava flour which is not nutritious enough. It was necessary to add corn, millet, soybeans, which were now available thanks to the mill. Also, everyone has now understood the value of these products that we produced, but that we were only going to sell in town,” explained Jeanne Kati, who was the manager of the mill supplied by the plant. “By mixing corn, soybean, and cassava flour in the foufou, the result was the same as the products that were imported to fight against malnutrition,” Kati recalled proudly.
Also, with electricity, the work of the wives and daughters of the household has been lightened. “We threw away the sieves, the mortars, and the pestles,” recalled a lady in her fifties who did not experience the ordeal of young girls of her time.
In the culture of the people of the region, all household work is done by the wife and her daughters. Young girls, from the age of 8-9, begin to carry out less heavy housework almost independently. Pounding the dry cassava in the mortar, then sifting to extract flour which will prepare the foufou for the evening meal is a daily task for young girls. It is easy to pound cassava, for sorghum or millet, harder; the work of grinding it was done on a stone designed for this service. For corn, daring was a lost effort, very hard once dry and produced in large quantities seasonally, the hands that suffered.
Corrosive glands were growing on the palms of the hands from rubbing the hand with the pestle to pound. This is where the mill comes into play. It does all this work in minutes.
North Kivu/ Butembo-Beni: How hydroelectric power has boosted youth entrepreneurship, Part II
Popcorn, broiler breeding, fish farming, freezers, fitting workshops, sewing, carpentry, hairdressing salons, telephone charging booths, film downloads, so many investments of young people transformed by the advent of hydroelectricity power, but…
Does “Popcorn” speak to you? Certainly to many of you, yes. Three years ago, in the towns of Butembo and Beni, but also in the surrounding cities, the taste of these fried corns was not as delicious as today. Because the popcorn was prepared in a pot on the charcoal brazier. The oil should cook first before adding these special varieties of corn as well as salt. And their bursting in the pot is a sign of cooking. But since 2019, there has been a big change in how this much-requested appetizer is cooked. With the advent of hydroelectric power, residents now use a specialized machine to pop kernels and produce popcorn: an electric cooking pot in a glass cage, powered by a good amount of energy.
Ghislain Mahese, 23, standing behind his popcorn machine, is delighted with this development because he no longer works at a loss as was the case in the days of charcoal energy. “With the heating resistance that is in the machine (in popcorn), you need at least 1,800 watts for the machine to start. The generators we were using weren’t producing enough. Today, with our electric machines, thanks to the stable power and a special touch from the cook, the cooking is perfect for a superior flavor to the corn that is sometimes charred due to the lack of control of the energy quantity of the charcoal,” he rejoiced.
Kakule Mahamba Cryso, 34, has invested in a freezer to store fresh fish that he imports from southern Africa or Asia to resell in Butembo. A freezer, it was risky to make it work, not long ago, in Butembo. Because it is a huge investment which consists of the pooling of several freezers which require a large amount of electrical energy that we could not have. Before, fresh fish suppliers could not afford to import huge stocks at the risk of seeing the fish rotting in freezers to the disruption of the current of the generator or even the depletion of energy in the batteries of solar panels due to bad weather. Because in this region straddling the equator, we are less exposed to the sun, we rarely have 5 to 6 hours of blazing sunshine during the day following the clouds which are permanently visible. Which may not be enough to recharge the batteries of the solar panels.
With the advent of hydroelectric energy, everything has changed, and freezers are booming in the city.
“The current is the best. A generator can support a freezer, but the fuel cost is exorbitant. With power, you can even connect 10 freezers without any problem,” said Kakule Mahamba Cryso.
Today, fish imported from Asia and South Africa are consumed in Butembo at a lower price than those from fish ponds in the region and from Lake Edward, located nearly 80 km southeast of the city. Also, broiler chicken has become an ordinary dish in households, whereas not long ago, fresh fish and chicken were reserved for wealthy families.
Alongside fish importers, there are also poultry farmers who are delighted. Nearly 10 years ago, the breeding of broiler chickens made a serious loss in the city of Butembo. Like today, some entrepreneurs went to buy the chicks in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After two months of investing in feeding and caring for these chickens, everything had to be sold. And when customers were not found directly, some continued to feed them for a week or two, but the cost became unbearable to hope to make a profit margin. Due to the lack of means of conservation, they were obliged to resell them on credit, at cost price, or even to customers who, in the end, did not pay.
Thanks to the availability of electricity, Kambale K., who rears broiler chickens in Kimemi, one of the communes of Butembo, is no longer worried for the market of his poultry.
“The hens that have not been ordered in time, we sell them to butchers who keep them cold. However, a few years ago, buying fresh, ready-to-cook chicken in a deli was pure luxury,” he recalled with a smile, seeing how everything can change in the blink of an eye.
For breeders, electrical energy does not only facilitate the preservation of meat intended for sale. It facilitates the entire livestock chain. Not long ago, some farmers from Butembo and Beni went to get their chicks in Kampala. Once back in the country, they struggled to ensure growth due to lack of power, because these chicks require energy for their heating – which is easily done today.
Kakule Murusi, in his thirties, combines chicken farming with fish farming on his plot already transformed into a real business in the Matanda district of Butembo. Clarias farming also needs power. “Since the fish are in above-ground ponds, to maintain a uniform water temperature, I heat or cool the water. To keep the temperature uniform, the availability of power is an advantage over solar panels which may not have sufficient power at night,” he explained to us, showing us around this farm, new to the city.
Georges Kitsa runs a repair shop for electronic devices in Mutwanga, a city located more than 80 km northeast of Butembo, in the territory of Beni, at the foot of Mount Rwenzori. This city is supplied by the Mutwanga I and II power stations. To run his workshop, Georges Kitsa, 27, used generators. This caused him enormous damage in terms of regular damage to his equipment or customer devices (televisions, radios, telephones, etc.), due to a lack of stable power.
“We had a lot of problems because, with generators, there are cuts, drops or sudden rises in voltage, which screwed up a lot of the equipment,” recalled the technician who came close to bankruptcy, because he had to use his funds to buy the materials of his customers damaged by its unstable current.
Among them, some were demobilized from armed groups, “The availability of this electric current has allowed the establishment of companies whose employees include demobilized, young people who were in militias groups and who surrendered to the loyalist forces by choosing civilian life,” testified Alfred Ntumba, an environmental journalist who devoted a series of reports on the initiatives around the Virunga National Park. Yes, they are there, confirms Philémon Musavuli, ENK communicator, but “given the security situation, these former militiamen do not like to be identified as such. It reinforces the stereotypes, the social segregation as long as militias continue to sow insecurity in the region,” he specified.
Return to Butembo. After five years of university studies and the lack of a job opportunity in law, Issa left Goma to settle in the main commercial city of the province. Here, he runs a download shop for films and television series.
There are many households that do not have subscriptions to TV packages in the city. Easy access to new films and television series is to go to a shop and have it transferred to your mobile phone or USB key for less than 1,000 FC (USD $0.5) the season of a series. Thus, we can watch them quietly in the evening at home on the phone without worrying about the power in the solar energy battery.
Issa, like many owners of these booths, is sometimes forced to spend nights in his shops to take advantage of the good Internet connection at night, in order to download new films.
“A few years ago, I sent a hard drive, by car, to my friends in Goma; they put on new things to send them back to me. The operation cost me about $100. And customers had to wait. Now, once released, I download the film the same evening and my customers have it in the early morning. No one can tell you that the ENK power has brought nothing,” Issa said proudly.
Further south, another hydroelectric power station has been built in Matebe in Rutshuru since 2015 by the Virunga Development Foundation. Like those of Mutwanga (Beni), the Matebe power plant (13.9 MW) of Kiwanja in Rutsuru is also an initiative aimed at providing electricity to the residents of the Virunga National Park in order to limit population pressure on this precious World Heritage site. As in all of Kivu, agribusiness is a popular investment sector. A flour mill was installed: the Amaya Food artisanal flour mill.
“It all started with my vision, which I have had for a very long time. I wanted to feed the population of Rutshuru. I found that people had a big problem. They do not have access to good-quality maize flour. Everything we consume in Rutshuru is imported from Uganda. Another thing, our farmers who produce corn could not find a processing unit on site. That’s how I seized this opportunity when I saw that the power was available here at home. I found that it is time to create this small production unit to try to solve the small problem which arose here at home. “Said Trésor Ruviri, during an interview with the online media 7su7.cd, at the headquarters of his company in the center of Rutshuru. Amaya Foods Company is a small flour mill that produces 1.5 tons of maize flour per day or 60 bags of 25 kilos.
This entrepreneurial booster that is hydroelectric energy is what young people in the Lubero territory want, with the advent of the Special Economic Zone (ZES), a Congolese government program aimed at creating industries in three centers (Kinshasa, Kivu, and Katanga) to boost the development of the country. For Kivu, Musienene, a locality in Lubero, was chosen to host the SEZ.
“It is a great opportunity for everyone to be able, not only to create jobs but also to be able to become competitive in the sub-region and why not on the international market. Our region produces a lot of coffee, cocoa, tomato, potato, not to mention the minerals for which we are able to bring added value and offer them internationally in the best conditions at the best prices,” explains Isse Maliona, head of SOCITEC, the company in charge of developing the ZES of Musienene.
Researcher in development economics, Professor Mafikiri Tsongo, Rector of the Catholic University of Graben (UCG/Butembo) is a witness to the role played by the ZES in other places: “I was in Seoul (Capital of South Korea) several times, where I visited these different areas. There are areas, for example, of production of computers, telephones, electronic devices only. And in these areas, producers pay nothing to the government for 10 years. That encourages a lot of companies, for example, American, to come and settle there.”
Everyone knows that the basis of all these industries is the current, added Nzoli Bahati Roger, president of the Federation of Congo Enterprises (FEC), Lubero section, the local representation of Congolese employers.
The hazards of hydroelectric power
However, this energy is not always synonymous with freedom from risk. A cold storage entrepreneur paid a high price during a power outage in Butembo. “A van is about 450 boxes of fish. A box of Thomson fish is about 38 thousand Congolese francs. Which is about 17 thousand dollars. I unloaded the night before last; the next morning there was a cut. The fish had not yet caught cold. It’s a huge loss and no one compensated me,” he complained to La Voix de l’UGC / InfoNile during a three-day outage that hit the power plant of the Société Energie du Nord-Kivu (ENK).
The ENK company, a pioneer of electricity in the city of Butembo, is aware of its contribution to boosting local Small and Medium Enterprises.
“The power is already permanent. The first real impact is lower energy cost; then people can work at night. Small businesses have a clear financial advantage, but also in terms of time and place of work,” said James Vanhoutte, Commercial Director of ENK who does not forget the environmental advantage of this energy.
In Butembo and Beni, however, households who use hydroelectric power to cook meals are rare. Apart from firewood and charcoal, there is also gas for cooking.
Virunga Alliance states on its Facebook page that “using Virunga Energy power with the appropriate equipment is more economical than charcoal, in time and money.”
Nevertheless, for people who live below the subsistence minimum per household, the cost of the subscription and the equipment must be taken into account, pointed out Mr. Nginga, employed in a company in Butembo.
“Just to pay $300 for a connection took me months of savings. When will I add kitchen equipment?” complained this young man, who only earns $100 dollars a month in his business.
From a socio-economic point of view, the greatest advantage remains the fairness of the price, underlined the Head of Works, Alain Tavulyandanda. “With Cash Power, you consume according to your means, whereas before, there were fixed prices. This new method of payment is a serious advantage for young entrepreneurs,” said the teacher at the Faculty of Economics at UCG.
Equally much remains to be done because ENK counted in December 2021 only around 10,000 subscribers for two cities that exceed 1.5 million inhabitants. Given its production, this current is only distributed to households and small medium-sized businesses. The distribution remains only in and around the commercial districts of the cities of Butembo and Beni, whereas usually, these small-production units are often located outside residential areas. What some already suffer from, like Kembo Sage, a metalworker from the Tamende Kati district in Beni; it may even force him out of business. “The metal door that I could easily sell for $90 dollars, the workshops that have electricity in town resell it for less than $80,” he complained, seeing that he will soon close his business if the power grid does not reach his neighborhood quickly. He still uses a gasoline generator to operate.
“It can’t be electrified in a day. There is work for the next 10 years, that’s for sure,” admitted James Vanhoutte, confident of the work progress.
A report by Hervé Mukulu, produced in partnership with InfoNile thanks to the funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, edited by Claude Sengenya and Umbo salama; produced with the contribution of Juvénal Bulemo, Georges Kisando, Emmanuel Kateri, Jackson Sivulyamwenge and Robert Mwenderwa.Published on Les Voix de l’UCG, part 1 and part 2.