Democratic Republic of Congo

Keeping the Lights on in DRC

Years of blackouts have enraged residents and hampered livelihoods. An innovative electrical solution presents a new way forward.

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Keeping the Lights on in DRC

Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

Fabrice Kasongo, a carpenter, uses a Njaffa generator in his workshop.

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KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Like many residents of Kisangani, Fabrice Kasongo had been frustrated for years by the frequent power outages that have plagued this commercial hub, the capital of Tshopo province.

A carpenter, he says the blackouts constantly delayed his work, and he was never able to finish projects on schedule, which caused him to lose customers. “I was desperate each time there was a power shortage,” he says. “I was unable to work, which made life really difficult, given that this is my only source of income.”

Over the past year, however, Kasongo and other residents have found a solution to the city’s longstanding electricity problems: a homemade generator dubbed a “Njaffa,” which produces electricity using a fuel oil-powered engine and alternator connected to a water tank, which prevents the generator from overheating.

Residents across the city now rely on such generators to power their daily activities. Humming and rumbling resonates through Kisangani’s streets.

“Today, thanks to Njaffa, I can work properly,” Kasongo says.

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Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

A generator has allowed Fabrice Kasongo to work consistently, without worrying about power outages.

For this city of more than 1 million people, power outages have been a daily challenge for years. Officials estimate that the Société Nationale d’Électricité (SNEL), DRC’s government-operated power company, produces less than 10 megawatts of electricity for the Tshopo province region — far less than the 40 megawatts required to meet the area’s electrical needs. The frustration of local residents is compounded by the fact that one of the country’s 11 hydroelectric dams is located near Kisangani.

Government officials and Kisangani residents have explored various solutions to the problem — a solar power plant, perhaps, or maybe a second hydroelectric dam. Those projects have become mired in bureaucratic red tape and construction delays related to the coronavirus pandemic. But the Njaffa generators seem to have provided something of a breakthrough.

According to Modeste Bokombi, the head of Tshopo’s energy department, three of Kisangani’s six communes no longer rely completely on electricity from SNEL and instead have begun using the Njaffa generators.

“The liberalization of the electricity sector means that Congolese citizens have the right to choose their electricity supplier,” Bokombi says. “We are in a competitive market.”

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Businesses such as rice mills, sawmills and publishing houses are all taking advantage of the generators. Some businesses own the generators themselves. Others pay the owners of the generators a fee of 2,000 Congolese francs (about $1) for each day of use.

Residents are able to use the generators to secure reliable electricity as well. “I’m happy to have the lights on at home every day,” says Wivine Gabo, a local resident. “I can enjoy watching TV and listening to the news whenever I want.”

Some residents remain skeptical that the Njaffa generators can compete with SNEL.

“I’m not interested in Njaffa,” says Albert Zoka, a carpenter who works in a sawmill. “I’m waiting for the power supply from SNEL, which we pay for at the end of the month. I can’t afford to pay for electricity every day.”

But as Kisangani’s electricity problems continue unabated, the popularity of the Njaffa generators has meant that SNEL is losing an ever-growing number of customers.

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Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

Fasiri Sabiti sets up a Njaffa generator in his rice mill.

Félicien Aguzu, director of finance for SNEL’s Kisangani office, says the power company is continuing to sign up local customers. “Although it is innovative, Njaffa will not be able to take the place that SNEL occupies in the city,” he says.

Thomas Mesemo Wa Mesemo, energy minister for the Tshopo provincial government, says that residents are justified in using the generators, however, since SNEL hasn’t been able to provide reliable electricity.

“This solution is an efficient alternative,” he says, “to make up for the power supply shortage that the Société Nationale d’Électricité is unable to cover.”

Zita Amwanga is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. She specializes in environmental reporting.


Translation Note

Emeline Berg, GPJ, translated this article from French.