In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle

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Zengamina  - A (simple) model for Sustainable Development? 

In September, the UN launched its new Sustainable Development Goals, amidst great fanfare in New York. If you find remembering Moses’ 10 commandments hard enough, good luck with the 17 SDGs and its associated 169 targets. Sustainable Development shouldn’t be that complicated and in the remote North Western Province of Zambia, the local tribe Lunda  have a single word for it - Zengamina. We travelled up to the region, wedged between Angola and the Congo, to find out more with social entrepreneur Dan Rea, a 21st Century version of the early pioneers who sought to develop Africa… 


The 2015 SDGs and Zengamina's location


Dan may be white but his family have been in Zambia since 1911 when his great grandfather walked from the Angolan coast, c.1500kms into the African hinterland and to make a life's work at Kalene and other mission stations close to the source of the Zambezi in an uncharted area that is now split between Zambia, Angola and the DRC. Cycling that distance in the African heat is difficult enough; hacking through virgin bush leading an expedition 300 strong takes endurance to a different level. Over the last century, the Rea family have supported the development of many key services for the local community. Dan, alongside his Uncle Charlie, has continued this process with energy and vision to make those early pioneers proud. A key difference though is the focus on empowering the local community to develop and raise living standards themselves and in their own way, a key feature of sustainable development. 

’I’ve never formally studied economic development but I’ve probably learnt a lot more from living and working in the community’ Dan, an engineering graduate, tells me over the Cessna’s intercom as we approach the area in the single prop 1968 plane, saving us a 16 hours in a 4x4 or 16 days on the bikes.  We had flown over the nearest national grid power line nearly 300km before.  ‘Being so far from the grid but so close to the Zambezi, it was clear to us that creating affordable and sustainable power was the first step to allowing this region to have its place in the 21st Century - energy really is a cornerstone of development’, he continues. ‘Building the 750kw mini-hydro electric power plant was a lot of hard teamwork, from raising the c. $3m of finance to managing 400 workers over 2.5 years construction, but 7 years on since we first supplied power, anyone can show you how the area has been transformed’ he beams as we circle the grassy airstrip from which we were to launch our 48 hours visit to the region and welcome break from the cycling.

The Zambezi is the lifeblood of Zambia (and several other African countries) and although the source of this great river is  just a trickle through the rocks about 20km north of the Hydro it has great significance and it almost religiously venerated. Zambia took its name from the river after independence in 1964 although the local Lunda word for the river is Yayambezhi which means ‘heart of everything’.

SB flying  Dan showing us plant

Flying is quicker than Cycling: Dan shows us the Hydro


The hydro plant, is named Zengamina Power after a late local chief in whose land it sits. Zengamina is also the name of a beautiful and useful grass that grows only for a short time each year. Zengamina effectively stands for realising that everyone and everything is short-lived and so we should benefit from and be a benefit whilst we are here.  Both in name and in practice, the project ticks off several of the UN’s SDGs as we discovered after a bumpy 20km journey to the plant from the airstrip. Dan and his manager Mr Silver were keen to highlight the sustainable nature of the construction, as well as the power generation. ‘We used the very rocks we blasted in areas to build the scheme with old fashioned masonry construction, hugely reducing the carbon footprint by minimizing transport of materials to this remote location. And the beauty of a run-of-river hydro scheme is we haven’t had to alter the flow of the river -just extract the energy from the water and put it all back for other use downstream’. Dan explains.

‘Over 400 local people helped with the construction and local materials were used as much as possible’ Silver continues. ‘Many skills were learnt and up to 40% of the workforce was women’, he adds proudly. In a region with 90% unemployment, creating jobs is crucial to development.  

People photo Diesel

 Some of the people involved in the construction including 3 generations of Reas & buying Diesel (now only needed for local transport)


Whilst in the remote North-West province we met many people affected by the new source of power. Originally built to provide sustainable power to the hospital and other key public services, previously reliant on imported diesel from South Africa for energy, over 1000 local households and businesses are now served. 

 Meeting Chief

Meeting the local (female) chief. Westmister has got lots to learn! 


As well as meeting the local chief, HER royal highness Ikelenge, the impact of the power was clear in the local town. Marvin, an 17 year high school student, serving in the family store, tells me that ’I can now do my homework after dark as I have to work here after school’. The cold coke that he serves me is an added bonus. Next door, Patrick serves me bread but adds that they can now refrigerate meat and fish and add that his neighbour has started a thriving welding business. ‘Did you bake the bread using electricity?’ I ask hopefully. ‘No, using a charcoal oven, we still cannot afford to buy the electric oven…. but we hope to one day!’

Marvin   coke Buying Bread

Marvin & Patrick


Providing power is one thing and the immediate benefits, especially to schools and the hospital with new equipment and a modern theatre are clear, 7 years after completion. ‘We quickly realised the next goals’, says Rea, ‘are to encourage more SMEs to start up in the area, providing much needed jobs, growing a local economy that takes advantage of excess accessible, renewable energy (rare in urban never mind rural Africa), and in turn a reliable customer base for the hydro scheme (making it self-sufficient)’. Sustainable rural businesses are hard to create, but a rock crushing/block making plant that he set up, and a nascent pineapple drying business are two such enterprises that will employ dozens of men and women and provide a reliable market for hundreds of farmers. ‘Employing and paying women is particularly important as they usually spend the money better’ he adds, echoing the 5th SDP on gender equality. Indeed, our experience of villages with drunk men on weekends throughout our journey suggest wages often end up in the pub rather than on the weekly food shop. 

As we flew back to the relative ‘civilisation’ but power shortages of Lusaka, we reflected on the amazing work that this family and others have achieved over 4 generations in the last 100 years. ‘Building relationships and trust with the local community is crucial and takes time. I’m fortunate to be carrying on work started generations ago by my family’. A  simple point but one that should be heeded by foreign governments and NGOs trying to promote sustainable development in short term programmes. 

Anyone interested in finding out more about the project should visit the North West Zambia Development Trust website.   or can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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