While the electrification of urban areas and informal settlements in South Africa has increased rapidly in the past 20 years, the provision of electricity to rural areas is still a challenge.  Many remote areas – especially small settlements, villages or farms – are unlikely to be connected to a national grid in the foreseeable future owing to their remoteness, sparse population and relatively low average energy demands.


Small-scale hydropower schemes can therefore play a critical role in providing energy access to isolated areas in South Africa as stand-alone mini grids.  Internationally, this is considered the best proven renewable energy technology, ideal for the electrification of remote communities.


The aims of this project are as follows:

·         To prove that it is feasible and technically possible to provide small-scale hydropower installations for rural electrification in the current South African legal and policy environment.

·         To develop manuals/training material to assist prospective small-scale hydropower developers or proponents of rural electrification to deal with the technical, site evaluation, financial and regulatory aspects of such developments.

·         To evaluate the various dimensions of sustainability (technical, economic, social, environmental and institutional) of small-scale hydropower plants used for rural electrification.

·         To demonstrate technology by means of full-scale pilot plant installations, using various technologies available.

·         To ensure that successfully operating and sustainable small-scale hydropower plants are constructed.


The project is intended to provide rural communities with a grid-quality, reliable electricity supply, improving their standard of living.  It also intended to make local stakeholders (private sector, financial sector, government entities, etc.) aware of the opportunities that this technology brings. There is extensive public participation and consultation with communities to introduce the technology to them and explain how it works.


In Kwa Madiba in the Eastern Cape, for example, the small-scale hydropower system is capable of providing 54 houses with electricity.  The electricity is generated at no cost because it uses water that is already flowing in the river.


There have been 76 people actively working on the project, 32 of them employees of the Mhlontlo Local Municipality.  Eighty per cent of all building materials used in relation to the construction of the Kwa Madiba hydropower system were sourced within the OR Tambo District Municipality.


Further projects that are initiated and implemented for non-grid electrification purposes will only need to follow a registration process to obtain the required water use authorisation, and not the full water use licence application process.  This will save significant time and expense, benefiting the municipality and the communities served.  Changes to legislation achieved through the project will also make it easier to develop run-of-river hydropower schemes in the future.


The project has had a significant effect on the quality of life of the Kwa Madiba community.  Various government departments have partnered successfully in the development of this scheme, and changes in legislation and registration requirements mean that implementation of similar projects in other rural communities will now be easier. 


One challenge noted was the differences between the mandates of district and local municipalities with regard to the provision of water and electricity.  However, once this problem had been solved, the project progressed positively.  This lesson has already been factored into the second round of projects to be implemented.


Ultimately, the design of the Kwa Madiba small-scale hydropower pilot project has proven the feasibility and technical possibility such installations for rural electrification.


Small-Scale Hydro-power video


For more information contact:


Water Research Commission

012 761 9300