For many families around the world access to modern energy is a pipedream. People are forced to cook on open fires that fill their homes with toxic smoke and as the light fades each evening so too does the possibility of adults working into the evening, children studying, and families cooking safely in well-lit, clean homes.

This lack of access to energy traps people in a constant cycle of poverty that they unable to break free from.

Over 1.6B people, that’s almost one third of the world’s population, have no electricity. In Africa four out of five families live without electricity, according to international development charity, Practical Action.

Changing lives

Practical Action believes that the right idea, however small, can change lives. The charity works with some of the world’s poorest women, men and children helping to alleviate poverty in the developing world through the innovative use of technology and facilitating access to energy for poor communities through a variety of means, enabling them to lift themselves out of poverty and change their lives.

The charity was founded in 1966 by radical economist E.F. Schumacher who strongly believed in using small scale, low cost and appropriate ideas to change people’s lives and that ethos still rings true today. Specifically, Practical Action is working to implement small scale renewable energy schemes in rural communities that aren’t linked to the national grid. It is enabling them to be involved in the construction and management of renewable projects and provide a sustainable source of energy for the first time that will safeguard future generations.

Micro hydro systems

Practical Action has developed small scale micro hydro schemes with communities in Peru, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zimbabwe as well as in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia, Mozambique and Malawi as part of the charity’s extension work from its country offices. These systems, which are designed to operate for a minimum of 25 years, are usually run-of-river systems.

A system with a capacity of 6kW is big enough to drive a mill and provide electrical lighting for up to 20 families.

As well as driving a generator to provide electricity, micro hydro is also used in these areas to supply power to remote villages via rechargeable batteries that can be used for lighting and to play small radios and power TV sets. Lighting is one of the basic needs of poor people and they can have much better and safer lighting at a lower cost through the use of this technology by replacing candles and kerosene lamps.

Practical Action is different to other development charities in that it uses a participatory approach in all of the work that it carries out in the communities. Engineers from the charity will enter a community, assess its needs and resources and also determine the most appropriate technology for the particular conditions. When micro hydro is decided upon as the best option, decisions will be made following calculations to determine the most appropriate materials to use and how much the scheme is going to cost based on the number of families it needs to serve, the potential growth of the community and their possible economic development. It’s also necessary to assess the capacity of the country as to whether national industry can produce equipment and components that will fit the needs of the project or is already producing them. If it is the case that presently there is not such a capacity, Practical Action provides technology and technical assistance to enable local manufacturers to produce the equipment required.

Once a technology is decided upon and manufactured, the technology is implemented and then the training begins. Members of the local community will be selected in a participatory manner and trained to manage the operation and maintenance of a micro hydro system and the community must decide how they will pay for its upkeep – repairs, replacement components etc. A tariff scheme will be devised by the community with Practical Action’s help, ensuring that the scheme will be sustainable and last for many years to come.

Case Studys

Chipendeke, Zimbabwe

One such project has recently been implemented in Chipendeke, Zimbabwe, situated along the Wengezi river. This micro hydro scheme provides 25kW of electrical power which serves almost 130 families. This quantity of energy provides enough electricity for domestic needs such as lighting, as well as providing power to a health centre, school and numerous small businesses being run by community members.

The cost of this scheme ran to Euros 87,000 (US$108,000) and 85% of the cost was part funded by the EU. The other 15% was funded by the community contributing with labour and local materials. With the initial investment taken care of, the community is only left responsible for paying for management and maintenance of the system which consists of a small payment each month.

Chorro Blanco, Peru

Chorro Blanco is an isolated community in the Cajamarca region of the Peruvian highlands. The cost of rural electrification through the national grid would probably have meant that Chorro Blanco remained without modern energy for many generations. The supply of micro hydro power provided electricity for 60 rural families and 90 families from neighbouring villages for the first time in their lives. The scheme provided electricity for domestic and public lighting, small businesses and battery charging.

The scheme comprises the intake weir, conveyance ditch, settling basin and forebay tank, penstock and anchors, powerhouse and discharge channel. The local community is also making a sizeable contribution to the manpower requirements of the project, transporting materials to the site and assisting with labour.

This scheme generates 20kW of electrical power; it uses a locally made Pelton turbine, a penstock made of PVC and an electronic load controller. The electricity is transported from the powerhouse to the village using 1.6km mid-tension lines and set-up and step-down transformers.


Working with poor communities and sourcing materials within a developing country presents a number of social and cultural obstacles to Practical Action staff when implementing micro hydro schemes. The poverty of the families involved leads to issues with funding particularly when there is no outside investment from local governments or bodies, and many families can struggle with budgeting for maintenance payments for their systems.

In rural communities that use energy sources such as kerosene or biomass for their needs, fuel is typically purchased in small quantities. Families have never needed to budget and commit to a regular monthly payment which can be a difficult concept to adapt to but is essential to ensure the sustainability of the schemes. To resolve this, extensive training is undertaken within the communities to explain the costs and implications of sustaining a micro hydro system.

The future

Practical Action works continually with staff based in its country offices identifying opportunities and communities that can benefit from small scale renewable energy schemes. The charity works to engage with local governments and decision makers to source funding and continue its work. Practical Action adopts a ‘bottom-up’ approach where local governments are encouraged to learn from the technologies implemented, adopt them and replicate them across the country once they can see the difference they are making to people’s lives.

Get involved

Practical Action is currently campaigning for ‘energy for all’ by 2030. Modern energy transforms lives; improves health and education and lifts people out of poverty. The charity will be developing a group of energy ambassadors towards the end of the year, to find out more email .

Teodoro Sanchez is an Energy Technology and Policy Adviser at Practical Action. Email:

For more information about Practical Action’s work in renewable energy around the world please visit