Zambia is attempting to convert the nation to energy-saving light emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs to help plug crippling power shortages that have hit mining and agriculture and imposed daily rationing on parts of the country.

If all homes and industries switch to the longer-lasting bulbs, the country could save up to 200 megawatts of electricity annually — about 30 percent of its power deficit — according to the state-owned Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO).

The company is planning to distribute 5 million free LED bulbs by June in exchange for conventional ones, at a cost of $20 million. The aim is to replace every incandescent bulb in the country.

“With such initiative, we are going to save a lot of energy. Just imagine moving from 40 watts energy consumption for an ordinary bulb to … only 5 watts for LEDs,” Thomas Sinkamba, manager of the LEDs rollout at ZESCO, told Reuters.

So far, 3 million of the low-energy bulbs have been bought for $5 million, ZESCO senior manager Bessie Banda said.

The government in January banned the manufacture, sale and import of energy-hungry incandescent lightbulbs and several other inefficient devices.

It has also lifted import taxes on LED bulbs, solar panels and other energy-saving equipment, while imposing taxes on inefficient electrical devices.

Rozaia Mapika, a 53-year old a meat seller living in Lusaka, who received six LED bulbs free in December under the government scheme, said the new lightbulbs have cut her monthly electricity bill.

“We used to spend 300 Zambian kwacha [$30] monthly on electricity [for] household use,” said Mapika, who uses electricity for cooking, heating and lighting.

“Now, we are not exceeding more than 240 ZMW [$25] per month,” she told Reuters.

Some people, however, are concerned about the safe disposal of long-lasting LED bulbs and their impact on people’s health.

“[LED lightbulbs] contain mercury, which is highly toxic even in small doses,” said Robert Chimambo a board member for the Zambia Climate Change Network.

The LED bulbs are more expensive to buy than conventional bulbs, costing $5 compared to $1.50. But they last six times longer, promoters said.

Providing the bulbs free of charge is key to driving the switchover in a country where about 65 percent of the population live on less than $1.90 a day.

Powering a nation

The country’s electricity demand in the last five years has risen to 1,800 megawatts, up from 1,600 megawatts, as more areas have been electrified, putting increased pressure on the national electricity grid, according ZESCO.

The rising demand, coupled with two years of drought that lowered water levels in the country’s hydroelectric dams, have led to the country’s power shortages.

Electricity from the national grid has been rationed for up to six hours a day in parts of the country as a way to cushion the shortfall.

“Increased economic activities and [not enough] rainfall have severely impacted the power deficit,” Sinkamba said.

Insufficient investment in electricity generation has also worsened the country’s power deficits, the ministry of finance said in November.

The demand for power is likely to grow, as the government attempts to roll out electricity supplies to more people.

More than two-thirds of Zambia’s 15.5 million people have no access to any power, according to USAID, the U.S. government’s aid agency, which is working with Zambia to help improve its power supplies.

Justine Mukosa, a manager at the government’s Rural Electrification Authority, said that as demand for power increases nationally, other energy sources will be needed to reduce pressure on the national grid.

“We need to intensify other energy sources like solar mini-grid, wind energy and others,” Mukosa said.

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