By Joyce Nkuyahaga
The general elections in Uganda are scheduled for January 2021. This will be a very unusual election due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, with the Electoral Commission calling on candidates to conduct “scientific” campaigns to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 associated with large crowds.
A scientific election calls for political candidates to resort to digital and electronic means of campaigns to reach out to the masses. But as a matter of fact, a vast majority of the population still do not have access to electricity, and this curtails the proliferation of the electronic media channels in the rural areas of the country. According to a 2018 database from the World Bank and Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL), just 42 percent of the country has access to electricity. And yet alternative renewable energy sources remain largely inaccessible to a huge part of the population lacking the means to afford them.
According to data from the Uganda solar energy association (USEA), solar is the highest contributor to energy in East Africa but poor distribution channels, over taxation and high interest rates have curtailed mass access to the products. Despite this, the 2019 Uganda Bureau of Statistics Baseline Survey indicates that access to electricity has improved from 20 percent (on grid) in 2015/16 to 51 percent in 2019/20.
This comprises of 24 percent access to the national grid and 27 percent access through off-grid. This is a step in the right direction, however, there is still a huge chunk of the population without electricity access.
For inclusive development in the country, where the rural population are able to affordably access electronic media, expanded internet coverage, reliable phone access etc., the political actors need deliberate policies and actions to incentivize renewable energy businesses, thus making electricity more accessible. The political parties now have the chance to amplify this in their manifestos. We need demonstrable action towards further access to off-grid energy through microgrids, mini-grids and solar home systems, etc.
According to the NRM manifesto for 2021-2026, the party intends to promote the use of biogas for domestic lighting, cooking, manure, and fertilizer use. It also boasts of its record in promoting other sources of energy including solar, geothermal, nuclear, thermal and bagasse energy. But this should be reflected through mass access to the alternative energy sources arising from favourable and deliberate policies to enhance access.
A 2020 study on solar taxation in the East African region, conducted by the solar associations in the region, shows that Uganda levies higher taxes on solar energy products in comparison to its more developed neighbor Kenya. While Kenya levies a 14 percent VAT on solar products, the Uganda government levies up to 18 percent.
The corporation tax rate is 30 percent in Uganda, while Kenya has a lower 25 percent. The high taxes can only mean that investors and dealers in the renewable energy sector will transfer the costs to the consumers, thus impeding plans to promote mass access to solar products and services because they will not be affordable to the poor.
The political parties should also prioritize access to affordable funds and skills facilities for solar companies that require a boost. With access to affordable loans or grants secured by the Government of Uganda, financiers in the renewable energy sector will be able to invest in better technologies and serve the rural parts of the country that are badly in need of increased access to renewable energy products. Furthermore, if more youth are skilled in the renewable energy business across the country, the products and services will become more accessible and general know-how will be improved.
The author is the Chief Executive Officer for the Uganda Solar Energy Association (USEA)