Drew Corbyn


Drew Corbyn is working on the MEGA micro hydro project in Upper and Lower Bondo, Malawi

Recommended reading: http://practicalaction.org/mega-malawi

Posts by Drew

  • MEGA Malawi update

    August 27th, 2014

    MEGA micro hydro: Lower Bondo

    The Lower Bondo micro hydro has now been operational for one month. It has performed well with no instances of unscheduled power outages. The repaired generator and ancillary equipment are performing well.

    Improvements have been made to improve performance and safety including raising the wall along sections of the power canal, installing a v-notch weir and pressure gauge for measuring flow, raising the ballast tank off the ground and strengthening pipe work, replacing 25mm2 cable with 50mm2 cable from the powerhouse to transformer. The system was offline for a few days whilst these improvements were ongoing.

    The Lower Bondo power canal with raised sides for increased flow.

    The Lower Bondo power canal with raised sides for increased flow.

    A 25kVA transformer has proved faulty despite repair efforts.  One of the transformers assigned for Upper Bondo is in its place whilst we attempt to repair it or decide whether to purchase a new one.

    The meter system has been installed and is operating well. Many houses have already consumed the free 10 units loaded on the meter and have applied for and been issued tokens to top-up.

    Demand for household connections has increased markedly. We are reviewing applications using new criteria to ensure the efficient use of materials -to merit connection an individual house needs to be within close range of the existing grid, or in proximity to other connecting households. GPS data is enabling this way of working.

    MEGA micro hydro: Upper Bondo

    With Lower Bondo operational, attention has turned to Upper Bondo construction making September an extremely busy month. The work plan below sets out the construction timetable for completion by the end of September. It is a demanding schedule, but achievable.

    The 6m, 400mm diameter PVC pipes in storage before being carried to site.

    The 6m, 400mm diameter PVC pipes in storage before being carried to site.

    The turbine/generator /ELC manufacture is complete and ready for inspection.  The manufacturer is struggling to obtain a Certificate of Origin to enable export, but hopes to receive in coming days. A cargo company has been engaged to freight to Dar es Salaam (expected 1-2 weeks), and a freight forward company will import to Malawi. The manufacturer has not met the dispatch date agreed in the procurement contract, and communication has been a challenge.

    600m of conveyance PVC pipe has been delivered to the site. Teams of 10 people have been carrying each 6m length from the road head 2-3km to the conveyance channel. Connecting the pipes is scheduled for first two weeks of Sept.  The de-silting basin is under construction, and will be finished this week or next.

    The de-silting basin with foundation / flooring and form work for the sides.

    The de-silting basin with foundation / flooring and form work for the sides.

    A penstock supplier has been identified, a South Africa company that will provide 100m of steel pipe in 3m sections, 12mm thickness as soon as funds are available in Malawi.

    A rental jackhammer (pneumatic hand drill) has been sourced (after much searching!) for breaking rocks at the intake and in the conveyance channel. The company engineer is visiting the site on Tuesday to verify the suitability of equipment and accessibility of site. The plan is to have the equipment on site from 1st Sept for about 8 days. The weir construction will run concurrently and take 3 days. Heavy rains last Sunday swelled the river, although have now subsided. A good spell of dry weather is required to complete the weir.

    The medium voltage transmission line has been completed from the powerhouse to the village. The distribution network to customers remains. Remaining construction activities include: intake and weir construction, pipe conveyance connection, penstock laying, powerhouse construction with electro-mechanical placement, distribution grid.

    The conveyance pipeline with PVC pipes in place.

    The conveyance pipeline with PVC pipes in place.

    There are many groups of labourers from the community (and surrounding communities) that are working on the construction; doing building works, ferrying sand, cement, breaking rocks for gravel, and carrying components. Huge amounts of aggregate is required and proving difficult to supply with manual carrying alone. A trailer has been designed and purchased for the project but unfortunately cannot be used until completion of the access road.

    The MEGA Board will meet next Friday.  At this event Lower Bondo assets and operational responsibility will be formally handed over from Practical Action to MEGA.

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  • MEGA energy project update

    March 4th, 2014

    Drew Corbyn is working at the MEGA micro hydro project in Upper and Lower Bondo, Malawi.  He will be posting regular updates as the project progresses.

    Lower Bondo – technical problems and rolling out connections


    Lower Bondo has now connected upwards of 92 houses.  This has been managed by a concerted marketing push and doubling the connection team.  There was a survey sent round over Christmas which  shows there is further demand, and the team will continue to connect more households.

    In the last week the system has tripped on a couple of occasions, indicating peak demand is already exceeding capacity (we’re still investigating…).  We need to move quickly with demand management – including promotion of efficient products and usage.  This will take some time, and there is a risk that the imperative to rapidly increase connections will come at the cost of reliability in the short term.

    MEGA’s new General Manager,  Peter Killick is organising ‘starter packs’ for MEGA to sell, with all parts needed for a household to connect.

    Upper Bondo – construction begins

    Building Bondo micro hydro

    Building Bondo micro hydro

    100 distribution poles have been bought but the pre-payment meters are still with customs.  We are continuing to negotiate for their duty-free release.  We have written to the relevant Government Department to request a duty, excise and VAT waiver for all MEGA equipment.  Whilst the existing renewable energy project equipment waiver should include this, it seems in practice customs only recognise solar panels).  Taxes are proving punitive!

    Work teams have been mobilised this week and site clearance and excavation of initial works (poles, de-silting basin, conveyance pipe, forebay) has begun.  100 distribution poles are being treated.

    MEGA social enterprise

    MEGA held the first board of directors and members meeting on 28th January – an introductory affair that covered the necessary legal formalities.

    We also convened a Bondo committee meeting to introduce Peter Killick and myself, present the MEGA strategy and pre-payment meter installation followed by a question and answer session.

    Construction plan

    The construction plan sets out the schedule of activities to complete work by June.  It is a very tight schedule, and includes a lot of activity starting in the next couple of weeks. Success will depend on a prompt end to the rainy season, strong contributions from the community and labourers and good progress on procurement.

    A Ministerial thumbs-up

    MEGA and Practical Action were invited to an energy symposium organised by the Scottish Government at the Polytechnic University of Malawi this Wednesday.  Mr Hamza Yousaf, the Scottish Government Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development was the guest of honour.  We were one of a number of organisation that were invited to present our work.  We had five minutes talking with him about MEGA as he passed our display.  He was interested to hear about the project and very supportive of micro-hydro as a technology and the enterprise model as an approach.

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  • A MEGA initiative in Malawi

    May 16th, 2013

    Practical Action are working with our partners in Malawi to establish MEGA – a sustainable and ambitious social enterprise delivering green mini-grids to poor rural communities.

    It is estimated that 587 million people in Africa alone are without electricity.  And as population growth outpaces the number of people getting access to electricity on the continent, this number continues to rise.  Furthermore, it’s estimated that 55% of people without electricity will be best served by decentralized technologies such as mini-grids and standalone systems.  A step-change is needed to meet this challenge; with greater focus on off-grid technologies, innovative business models and smarter investment.

    Malawi and Mozambique 022The MEGA initiative is in Malawi, where 85% of the 15 million population lives in rural areas, of which only around 1% has electricity – there are 12.6 million people, countless businesses and numerous health centres and schools without electricity.

    The government has an active rural electrification programme, although the focus on national grid extension and the all too limited resources leave many areas in Malawi with little hope of having electricity in the near future.

    Decentralized energy programmes and business models that can achieve scale and sustainability are few and far between in sub-Saharan Africa – and Malawi is no exception.

    Many installed mini-grid schemes in developing countries are plagued by failures and struggle to sustain operations.  Sound financial plans and real diligence are required to ensure that funds are available for the day that essential component breaks and needs replacing.  Skilled technical expertise to diagnose problems and obtain and install replacement parts is another critical element that is particularly challenging in remote rural areas.

    MEGA – Mulanje Electricity Generating Authority – is tasked with stepping into this gap.  MEGA will bring together professional, financial and technical expertise that can ensure project sustainability and attract public and private investment.

    MEGA’s business plan and financial model has been formulated with the support of DFID’s Business Innovation Facility.  Practical Action is leading on the micro-hydro mini-grid technology, and the local partner MuREA is facilitating community engagement.

    MEGA will operate micro-hydro mini-grids, initially with one existing 75 kW scheme and plans to develop many more.  The initiative has received support from OFID that will allow it to install schemes in two more communities by 2014.  Mount Mulanje is the highest mountain in Malawi and the wettest in Southern Africa – an ideal place for micro-hydro technology.

    The MEGA ambition is to bring electricity and development to poor communities in Mulanje.  We want to demonstrate that mini-grids are a viable option that offer a real opportunity to tackle energy poverty in Africa.

    MEGA social enterprise is on the cusp of being registered as the first independent power producer in Malawi – watch this space!

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  • What is energy access? And how do people get it?

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    March 7th, 2012

    The development community is gearing up for the target of Universal Energy Access by 2030. A large movement is gaining pace to challenge global poverty through access to energy, with the UN Secretary General at the fore.

    But what is “energy access”? And how can every person in the world get it?

    Agreeing on a definition for energy access – a seemingly basic task – is actually riddled with difficulties and the subject of much debate. When does a person move from not having energy access to having energy access? Is it when grid electricity arrives at their home? Or does a solar panel suffice? Is cooking on gas or electricity a must, or can we count an efficient wood stove as access? And do we only consider energy access for households, or do we need to broaden the definition to businesses and public services that also rely on energy?

    How we define energy access is hugely important in determining how we tackle energy poverty. This is an increasingly important question as the big donors, banks and governments begin to channel vast sums of money and efforts into the Universal Energy Access initiative.

    Furthermore, determining a plan of action for how billions of people can gain energy access – whatever that is – in the next 18 years is also a hot topic for debate. What can countries do to make the transition to modern energy systems for a whole population? And how can we ensure poor people are empowered to improve their lives through the process?

    Practical Action recently launched the Poor people’s energy outlook 2012 report that helps to answer these questions.

    You may have seen the PPEO 2010 that reported on energy use in the home, and how important energy is in improving people’s lives. This year the PPEO looks at the linkages between energy access and earning a living. It shows all the ways that energy is used for people’s livelihoods and businesses, and maps out how people can move from gaining an energy supply to increased incomes.

    We hear from business owners in Kenya, Nepal and Peru describe how modern energy helps them increase their incomes. Mrs Sanchez owns a restaurant in Yanacancha village in Peru that gets electricity from the community micro-hydro system: “we’ve got electricity in the store, so I can run a fridge and the lights as well as the television which the customers like to watch while they eat”.

    Change in energy access can start with one person, but it must eventually be at the level of the whole system. The PPEO outlines the policies, finance arrangements and necessary skills required to foster the change that could lead to universal energy access.

    Practical Action is taking a lead role in contributing new knowledge on the linkages between energy and development, and presenting a poor people’s perspective at international debates. We are working at the highest levels to influence the approach and direction of the Universal Energy Access movement; promoting our understanding of people-centred development and the voices of people we work with.

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  • Hasta la vista, energy poverty!

    June 29th, 2011

    Now I’m not a regular blogger, but I bet Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t made it into many development blogs.  That may be about to change.  After Mr Universe, Terminator, and Governor, Arnie takes on his most exciting and demanding role to date…  Champion of Sustainable Energy.

    Arnie welcomed Heads of state, Director-generals and CEOs representing countries and organisations from all over the world at the Vienna Energy Forum last week.  The VEF adopted the strapline ‘Energy for all – time for action’, and set about talks on how the world can increase the energy use for people in developing countries, and improve and reduce use for the industrialised world.

    Energy is fundamental – the lives and livelihoods of people in developing countries are held back by poor energy use.  In the Poor People’s Energy Outlook you can read how development cannot happen whilst cooking on smoky fires and burning kerosene for light.  And at the same time, it is the poorest people, who contribute least to greenhouse emissions, that are most vulnerable to the changes we see in our climate.

    The numbers of people without access to modern energy is staggering – but momentum for the energy access movement is building.   The UN are making 2012 the Year of Sustainable Energy, and VEF delegates discussed three new targets for the World to set its sights on.

    1. Universal Energy Access by 2030.
    2. Global electricity production from 30% renewable sources by 2030. 
    3. Global energy intensity reduced by 40% by 2030.

    An agreed target of Universal Energy Access – all the people in the world using modern energy – would see a step change in efforts to reduce energy poverty.  But there is still no agreed definition about what ‘energy access’ actually means.  For some it is simply being connected to a grid and using a “modern” fuel.  But this definition is flawed – it ignores a wide range of energy uses people need to get out of the cycle of poverty.

    Practical Action’s CEO Simon Trace and Policy Director Andrew Scott were panellists – championing a definition of energy access based on people’s energy needs in the home, for earning a living and using public services.  As the energy access movement continues to build steam, it’s more important than ever organisations like Practical Action continue to bring the poor people’s perspective to film-star events like the Vienna Energy Forum.

    Whilst Arnie pleased the crowds saying “hasta la vista, baby to the oil companies”, the speech of the conference went to the driving force for energy access in the UN – Kandeh Yumkella.  Kandeh referred to his village in Sierra Leone when he said that access to energy is more than just meeting people’s basic needs for cooking, lighting or earning a living.  Access to energy is about gaining individual freedom.

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