Congo nun overcomes blackouts with home-made hydroelectric plant

Congolese nun and electrical engineer Alphonsine Ciza turns the wheel of the mechanical regulator of the turbine at her micro-hydropower plant. Photo: Reuters
Congolese nun and electrical engineer Alphonsine Ciza turns the wheel of the mechanical regulator of the turbine at her micro-hydropower plant. Photo: Reuters


Sister Alphonsine Ciza spends most of her day in gumboots, her white veil tucked under a builder’s hat, manning the micro-hydroelectric plant she built to overcome daily electricity cuts in her town of Miti in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

She works around the clock with a team of nuns and engineers, greasing machinery and checking the dials of a generator that is fed from a nearby reservoir and lights up a convent, a church, two schools and a clinic free of charge.

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Without the plant, residents would only have electricity for a few hours two or three days a week.

“We sisters ... can’t function this way because we have to provide a lot of services,” said Ciza (55), a portable voltage meter slung around her neck, in the town of about 300 000 inhabitants near the border of Rwanda.

Blackouts are a daily disruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast central African country of about 90 million people, which sources most of its electricity from a run-down and mismanaged hydropower system.

Its government has worked with foreign partners in an effort to increase the capacity of the mineral-rich nation’s ailing grid. Critics say the new projects focus too much on powering mines and exporting electricity to neighbouring countries.

Despite millions of dollars in donor funding, only about 20% of the population has access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

Fed up with relying on candlelight and costly fuel-powered generators, Ciza started raising money in 2015 to build the plant.

She picked up skills as a young nun by repairing electrical faults around the convent, which persuaded her superiors to send her to study mechanical engineering.

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It took Ciza’s convent three years to accumulate the required $297 000 (R4.62 million) and build the plant, which generates between 0.05MW and 0.1MW.

Thanks to Ciza’s efforts, students at Miti’s Maendeleo secondary school can now learn computer skills from screens, rather than from books.

Principal Mweze Nsimire Gilberte said:

Previously, power often only came on at night, when children were no longer in school.

“Having our own turbine has been a great relief.” – Reuters


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