— By James from Malawi
This project was completed as part of a special course on electricity in Africa in collaboration with the Enel Foundation.
Malawi has the lowest rate of access to electricity in Africa; only 10 percent of the 18 million people have electricity and the average household electrification rate in rural areas is less than 2%. Biomass is the main source of energy for households in the country. This has contributed to serious deforestation which, in turn, has resulted in heavy river siltation. Heavy river siltation has created further problems in the generation of hydroelectric power, which accounts for almost 100% of the grid supply.
The main sources of light for the 90% non-electrified households are battery torches, elephant grass, candles and paraffin. For cooking, about 95% of households are depending on firewood and charcoal; just a fraction of society uses improved cook stoves, mostly inefficient 3-stone fire.
Energy poverty impacts all levels of daily life of Malawians; it has negative impacts on the Sustainable Development Goals in the following ways;
GOOD HEALTH AND WELL BEING
Good life-saving operations, examinations and procedures cannot be performed after dark without good lighting. Pregnant women in rural areas where there is no reliable electricity have been sent back from the delivery ward because they did not bring a candle and blood pressure patients are told to come with batteries if they want to check their BP.
Women and children die due to complications that cannot be treated properly in the dark. Many lives have been lost due to failure of oxygen machines during blackouts. Vaccines, blood supplies and medications cannot be stored in proper conditions without electricity.
Small health facilities cannot easily communicate with specialists or get patient transportation to other facilities in case of an emergency as they need electricity to power on their communication gadgets.
Communities that have poor electricity do not enjoy health care facilities and equipment such as ultrasound and X-ray machines as well as incubators, thereby having deteriorating health.
These areas have the problem of retaining qualified medical personnel in clinics; they use electricity as an excuse.
Food that is prepared from biomass i.e. firewood is unhealthy as it is smoked and the kitchen utensils are difficult to clean. Many women and children have severe strain to their eyes and lungs, which has respiratory implications due to assimilated smoke during food preparation and reading.
Household chores like the collection of firewood, charging family phones at far away electricity outlets etc. reduce the amount of time that children spend in school or playing. Insufficient or smoking indoor lighting limits working hours for students to study and complete assignments.
Teachers are discouraged to work in rural areas due to poor electricity. Electricity greatly enhances access to modern teaching resources and classroom materials e.g. through free electronic media, videos etc., of which learners in areas that have poor electricity do not access.
DECENT WORK AND ECONOMIC GROWTH
Poor households spend up to 30% of their little income on inefficient energy fuels, e.g. buying candles, one-way batteries, paraffin, firewood and/or charcoal, which largely decreases their available income spent on other consumer goods.
Because of a few production companies, less qualified labour and work places are available in the industry thereby many Malawians have no decent work.
The Government needs to spend much money on importing non-renewable fuel on which the economy greatly depends, which depreciates our currency. A lack of reliable power supply leads to many companies not operating at their full potential. It also leads to investors shunning away from setting up production businesses which could expand the much needed export base and hence create surplus and partly reduce the needs of importation of goods. I.e. in 2012, Malawi experienced an energy crisis which forced local and international companies to close or reduce production, around 30% of workers in private sector lost their jobs.
CLIMATE ACTION AND ENVIRONMENT
Deforestation is increasing as 95% of households depend on biomass fuels for cooking or heating due to the lack of alternatives energy sources. Malawi’s deforestation is the highest in the world with an annual deforestation rate of 2.8% and only a few natural forests are left which are now also being encroached. There are no working mechanisms and clear strategies to protect remaining reserves. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to high levels of open combustion (burning).
Soil and groundwater are polluted through unclean sources of electricity, e.g. random throwing away of one-way battery cells (toxic, corrosive, acidic!!), hence environmental hazard.
Women are over-proportionally affected by energy poverty as they carry the main burden to organize and carry fuels and cook in an extremely unhealthy environment – without having a choice.
They are the most affected by indoor air pollution through badly ventilated open-fire kitchens and other unclean energy sources, mostly without being aware of the consequences to their bodies and well-being later in life.
Collecting firewood and other energy sources over long distances deprives people of time to do other productive activities which may help them improve their life standards and exposes them to risks they may be afraid of but have no choice to evade from. For example, we have many cases where women appear in forest areas when collecting firewood or involuntarily have sex in exchange for firewood with the forest workers, which exposes them to sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS.
ELECTRICITY SOLUTIONS IN MALAWI
The national grid is the network of power lines coming from the government’s controlled power generation plants that connect to the ESCOM-connected buildings, only 10 per 100 households have access to this. Expansion of the grid and addition of generation capacity are ongoing initiatives, however with the high cost of expanding and maintaining power lines and transformers and the high rate of population growth, it is not expected that the on-grid electrification rate will include a majority of the people in any foreseeable future. This put a call to other sustainable solutions:
- A mini-grid mix form whereby in areas without (sufficient) national grid access, individual households, communities and/or businesses come together to create their own independent power generation and distribution system with limited local outreach. In the Mulanje district, Lujeri Tea Estate and Eastern Produce have their hydroelectricity mini-grids from local river falls.
- Off-grid energy or centralized community energy systems has a common source of electricity generation: mini power plant or heat energy generation from which energy is distributed among households or several communities. Solar-wind hybrid or mini-hydro villages with central village power stations and 150 households connected through wires and meters; Mulanje MEGA is such an example.
- Non-wired / mobile electricity mini-grids, for example, Solar Energy Kiosks/Hubs in remote villages with basic energy services. These services include rentals of battery boxes and appliances or lamps, phone charging, battery charging, or even extended power-dependent services like barber shops, video show, cold drink sales, printing and computer services, such as in Mchinji by Renew and Able Malawi (RENAMA)
- Individual household energy systems is also very common in Malawi: household purchases, for example, their own pico-solar devices or install household solar PV systems at their houses which generate energy for own household needs only. These needs include lighting, communication, entertainment. These purchases include solar (thermal) water geysers or improved cook stoves. Government and organizations are also installing this Solar PV in clinics and schools i.e. Maera Health Center in Zomba has Solar PV that pumps water into reserve tanks and powers refrigerators.