In Maji, a rural town in Southwestern Ethiopia, an electric cooperative is being established to make electricity accessible to local communities. Located about 640 kilometers by road from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Maji is home to about 700 families. About 22 kebeles (villages) with an additional 4800 families surround the area. Electricity is scarce, available only to the very few in town who can afford generators.

The electric cooperative business model was introduced to the community by NRECA International, the international arm of NRECA – the service association of America’s electric cooperatives. This initiative began a few years ago when NRECA International was approached by the Maji Development Coalition (MDC), a US-based NGO.  to help improve the quality of life for the community.

Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, only 10% of Ethiopia’s rural areas have access to electricity. Without reliable and affordable power in these regions, it becomes virtually impossible for communities in these areas to step out of subsistence living and abject poverty.

To get the ball rolling, MDC launched a lease-to-own scheme in 2019 through which Maji communities can get solar home systems. So far, almost 300 have been installed making it possible for families to use light bulbs, charge their mobile phones, and plug in a radio or television. When it became clear that the interest was rapidly growing, MDC reached out to the rural electrification experts to help.

“We are establishing an electric cooperative model here in Maji because we feel it’s one of the more sustainable ways of creating an electric utility that serves the needs of its community,” said Nick Allen, NRECA International’s Ethiopia country director.

“The families here depend almost exclusively on farming for their income,” Mr. Allen, told ICA. “There is no irrigation system, and farmers depend on enough rain to grow and harvest their crops. Private investments in this area are rare because this area is remote and basic infrastructure like roads and electricity does not exist.”

Maji is situated 80 kilometres from the national electric grid. “We can help MDC and the community by establishing an electric cooperative to provide maintenance and operational support of the solar home systems and provide future cooperative members with an opportunity to buy solar home systems of their own,” added Mr Allen.

Putting principle six in action (cooperation among cooperatives), NRECA International is sharing the knowledge and experience of US electric cooperatives. A team led by Allen have led community meetings and public awareness campaigns about what an electric cooperative is, how it works, and the potential challenges they may face. NRECA International has been helping to power rural communities in developing countries since 1962. Its projects have so far provided more than 160 million people with access to safe and reliable electricity.

“Whether we embark on this project in Maji or others, we are always looking to commit the time required to form a cooperative the right way,” said Mr Allen. “Electricity has a way of changing people’s lives in very unexpected ways. There are always surprising developments I think, when electricity is first brought to a community. And I expect no different from Maji,” he added.