A conversation with Linus K. Chanda
CEO, Zambia Rural Electrification Authority
In March 2023, a government delegation from Zambia arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to attend a gathering of 10,000 attendees at PowerXchange 2023 — the Annual Meeting for 900 members of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). The purpose of this trip was to learn from the seasoned and experienced electric co-op leaders and absorb as much as possible from their challenges and successes. Zambia’s Ministry of Energy’s Permanent Secretary, Dr. Francesca Chisangano-Zyambo, led the delegation, which also included a team from Zambia’s Rural Electrification Authority (REA).
This effort was part of the Zambia Electric Cooperative Development Program (ZECDP) which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by NRECA International. The study tour was organized in partnership with the International Cooperative Research Group, research arm of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council. The ZECDP is supporting the development of electric cooperatives in rural communities in Zambia to bring affordable and reliable electricity service to power homes, businesses, and public institutions. The ZECDP is collaborating with REA to satisfy all community electricity needs, including power to support businesses such as grain mills, refrigeration, metal fabrication shops, irrigation, and water supply.
During the delegation’s visit to Nashville, the group had meetings with U.S. electric co-op leaders, as well as co-op representatives from Costa Rica, Philippines, and Bolivia, where decades-old rural electrification programs have improved the economic landscape of these countries. All were willing and eager to share knowledge with the Zambian delegation, providing encouragement for them to embark on their own electric cooperative movement. The group also traveled to Plateau Electric Cooperative, an NRECA member cooperative located close to Nashville.
We had the opportunity to sit and have a meaningful conversation with Linus Chanda, the CEO of Zambia’s REA. He shared his observations from learning from co-op leaders, and his reflections and aspirations for what he anticipates will be a bright future for the electric cooperative movement in Zambia. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.
THE COOPERATIVE ADVANTAGE
Over the years there have been challenges in your country to expand electricity in the rural areas. Why do you think using the electric co-op model will work in Zambia?
The co-op model for me brings a very interesting dynamism. The cooperative is going to be community driven. The members of the community who need electricity will decide how much power they want, what level of service and cost, and they are going to have a say when they believe that the service is not meeting their expectations or if the service that they are receiving has become expensive.
Yesterday the NRECA had elections, and the co-ops decided exactly what they’re going to do. If they don’t think that the management or the Board is helping, they can set them aside. The focus on empowerment to the people. It’s breathtaking, really, when I think about it, and I imagine what we can do. Let’s imagine that we have to light up 92% of the rural population in Zambia. So we pick one particular community and we work with them. We make sure that they learn how co-ops operate, and we work to electrify the community and they start governing themselves. Then we can pick another one and say, “Let’s go, guys. You see what this community is doing.” The desire to equate themselves with what this other community has achieved. So we can have ten or 100 communities forming their own co-ops and developing their own power generating and distribution facilities.
Is there support from your government for the electric co-op model?
This government was elected in 2021 and we saw the doubling of the budget that’s been allocated to our authority. The existing regulatory framework is commensurate to the fact that we didn’t have co-ops in the industry. We had start-up companies like IPPs where we were thinking that we can have some private distribution companies. That is what our regulatory framework supports. So now as we push to implement and introduce co-ops, we’ve got to change that. We need to think and implement and borrow ideas from the U.S., borrow ideas from everybody else who’s done it around the world and go and implement it in our system.
EMPOWERING THE COMMUNITY
What role do you see communities play in helping with developing co-ops?
We need to get buy-in from the community. It helps us to synchronize the needs of the villages. What they do is immediately form village committees. And these committees, synchronize with our project implementation and sensitizing the communities. They know there will be electricity so you can buy yourself a TV, you can buy yourself a fridge. That for me, every time I’ve gone out in the rural areas to see how these committees are formed and what they’re able to do, is a starting point for us to form co-ops.
What challenges do you see for these future electric co-ops in Zambia?
Affordability is one of the huge issues that we have to deal with. But I think the main challenge I see is the sensitization component. In the rural areas, not everybody is assertive. Most members of the communities in the rural areas expect that decisions will be made on their behalf by government and chiefs and people like that. And we can have a village with 1000 people, and maybe 100 people are literate and can come out and express themselves, and the rest of them will be passengers. So that’s a barrier we need to break so that we can get these people to understand that this co-op is yours, and you have a say. This is your land. This will be your power. This will be your co-op. So that’s one of the major things I foresee would be a challenge.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS: COOPERATION AMONG COOPERATIVES
Did the study tour during NRECA’s PowerXchange meet your expectations?
Yes. I think first I needed to get number of questions answered, especially in terms of the operations a point of view of what members are able to do. Initially, I felt a co-op is just like a private business. You put up electricity infrastructure and you’re providing electricity and you’re making your own returns. So then the co-op can decide OK, next you’re going to make 10% profit. And it blew my mind to learn that co-ops are not-for-profit. That was one of the key issues.
Secondly, what I also didn’t expect which exceeded my understanding is the amount knowledge sharing. Exchanging ideas and challenges in all those different breakout sessions and things that were being discussed was something I never thought would happen. I tried to apply this to our part of the world and I imagined having similar meetings, with people sharing ideas. It’s mind-blowing.
During the round table discussion, the Bolivians said that despite all the naysayers who were saying this can’t be done, they went ahead and managed to put together their co-op. Even for us there will be people who will be pulling in the opposite direction. And we can only go past such challenges if we have support from you and other mature cooperative organizations.