The IoS Christmas Appeal: Ingenuity and a few resources can change a child's future

Raymond Whitaker on micro-hydro power which is transforming remote communities

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The Independent Online

"When I complete my education, I am going to be a lawyer," says 11-year-old Madeline Bofu. She speaks with passion and conviction, but the obstacles she faces are formidable.

Madeline lives in eastern Zimbabwe, a country where years of turmoil and economic collapse have crippled the education system. Her primary school in Chipendeke has seen its results plummet. The pass rate at grade seven, the national examination to go on to high school, fell from 12 per cent to 2 per cent between 2007 and 2009 – hardly surprising when barely 30 of the 429 pupils have textbooks, pens or exercise books.

Since only the highest fliers stand any chance of going to university, Madeline has to be consistently in the top three all the way through school, and has achieved that with ease so far. But she knows that to become a lawyer, "I need to study harder and read more". That, however, is easier said than done.

Madeline's parents are subsistence farmers, who need her to work after school. And when the sun goes down, her family, like nearly one-third of the world's population, are plunged into darkness, because they have no electricity. The problem is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where four out of every five families have no power supply. A candle would allow the pupil to study for three hours at night, but at $2 (£1.30) each, they are too expensive for a family as poor as the Bofus.

The situation might appear hopeless were it not for Practical Action, the charity being backed by The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal. It has designed "micro-hydro" systems that can generate electricity for communities as small as 3,000 people. Madeline is fortunate enough to live in Zimbabwe's eastern highlands, one part of the country that has constantly flowing rivers and streams, and Chipendeke's mountainous terrain made it suitable for one of Practical Action's small generating plants.

Water is channelled from a weir through a settling basin, which removes sediment that could harm the turbine. From there it flows along a gently sloping channel to a tank, which is directly above the power house. The water rushes downhill through a pipe called a penstock, driving a specially designed turbine to produce electricity.

Unlike traditional power stations that use fossil fuels, micro-hydro generators have practically no effect on the environment. In fact, micro-hydro has a beneficial effect on the local environment, because it reduces the need to cut down trees for firewood and increases farming efficiency.

The arrival of electricity will not merely help Madeline to study: it will transform lives in Chipendeke. "Our clinic will be able to treat people at night and store medicines," said Irene Saurohwe, a farmer's wife with two young daughters. "The biggest problem is with women who give birth or have miscarriages at night. If you go to the clinic at night you have to take your own candles or lamp, but a candle doesn't always last for the whole labour, and you can't see well."

Alternative means of lighting, such as kerosene lamps, are themselves a health hazard. "There is too much smoke," said Ivy Makowa, another local woman. "If you use [a kerosene lamp] one night, the next day you feel you have flu. It causes coughs, bad lungs and other problems. For lighting we even use dried grass, which is also full of smoke."

Freed of the need to search for firewood to cook, villagers will be able to use their time more productively. Some hope to grow more crops, and buy refrigerators to keep their produce in the best condition for market. In other communities where Practical Action has built micro-hydro plants, they have spawned new businesses, such as small workshops and maize-grinding enterprises. This would boost education as well, according to Misheck Mukahanana, deputy headmaster of Madeline's primary school, because "pupils lose the desire to study hard when they see their elder siblings without work after completing school".

Micro-hydro systems are designed to operate for at least 20 years. The charity trains local people to build and maintain their own system. And by making a small charge for use, communities can accumulate enough money to pay for the replacement of the unit at the end of its useful life.

Practical Action is in the midst of a project to build nine new micro-hydro systems in Zimbabwe, and to repair six existing ones. Can you help raise the money? Your generosity will help more than 45,000 poor people in one of the remotest areas of a country that has suffered greatly in recent years.

What your money can buy in Zimbabwe

You could help transform poor families' lives. So, please, give whatever you can to help lift more people out of poverty today.

£64 would buy four rechargeable batteries to power homes

£220 could connect 10 houses to the micro-hydro power supply

£480 covers one month's support from an electrical engineer

£1,000 pays for internal wiring for a school or health clinic