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  • Meeting rural electricity needs in Malawi

    June 20th, 2017

    An expanding geographic area of work for Practical Action is in Malawi’s agriculture and energy sectors.

    Malawi has an agro-based economy, with the agriculture sector contributing 30% to the national GDP annually.  Increasing challenges from the changing climate and the demand to feed a fast growing population are driving an increasing focus on this sector. Practical Action has a valuable role to play, which I will talk about in a future blog.  Today I want to concentrate on our role in the provision of electricity.

    Malawi relies on a limited number of hydroelectric stations to generate its electricity. But grid generation is only able to provide power to 10% of the population and within that to only 1% of the rural population. Current generation plans fall far short of meeting the growing national demand. We know that electricity provision – for lighting, for cooking, for small businesses, for water pumping for irrigation is crucial for social as well as economic development.

    Malawi microhydro

    Microhydro site

    Currently there is a high reliance on fuel wood, cow dung, agricultural waste, candles, diesel and paraffin for energy provision in the rural communities but these solutions are not cost effective or environmentally sustainable compared to renewable energy technologies.

    Practical Action is working to address this shortfall in rural electrification through applying its strong international pedigree in pioneering off grid power generating solutions to producing results and learning in Malawi.

    Over the past five years we have established a functioning minigrid serving communities, small business, schools and health facilities in the Mulanje area in the south of Malawi. This facility will soon see three hydro schemes generating electricity from the rivers falling from Mount Mulanje.  This operation is managed and maintained by a local social enterprise and is the first independent power producer in Malawi to be approved by the Government. Practical Action also has other ongoing electricity generation schemes in Malawi, this time using solar power, providing electricity to pump water into irrigation schemes in Chikwawa and Nsanje in the lower Shiree. We are already seeing results in the form of household and community lighting stimulating improved education, improved healthcare and efficiency of small businesses.

    Malawi milling

    Diesel powered milling machine

    The greatest opportunity we have now is not to continue delivering these solutions ourselves but to produce solid evidence and learning from our past and current work and share this widely to allow others to take the delivery forward. By learning from these interventions and using this knowledge of what worked and what did not work we will define our role in Malawi by assisting and supporting others in the off grid sector. This approach will ultimately give more people access to electricity.

    A real example this new role comes from a scoping visit last week to a new hydro site North of Muzuzu. We have an exciting opportunity to facilitate a hydro based electricity generation minigrid through working with a group of commercial coffee producers, local communities and artisan entrepreneurs, funding agencies and the Ministry of Energy.  The potential is there to create a minigrid that provides power for local businesses to develop, to provide communities with lighting, to provide electricity to improve education and healthcare standards and also to power the coffee growers and processers thus stimulating economic output.

    malawi coffee

    Coffee co-operative

    Before we go further, we must be clear of the level of responsibility that lies with us – there are downsides as well as upsides to this initiative. Our role initially will involve learning and experience to feed into a thorough feasibility assessment taking into consideration the technical possibilities of harnessing the river flow and the economic sustainability using supply costs and demand forecasts. We must also emphasise the social and environmental impact. The project site is in a rural and forested part of northern Malawi and we must ensure that the generation scheme and the development that it catalyses minimise environmental degradation (the aim is to improve this aspect) as well as incorporate plans to  address the social changes resulting from increase concentrations of people around the electricity access areas.

    We believe that our learning and evidence from our current and past minigrid work places us in a very strong position to produce the best possible outcome.

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  • Building HOPE for women farmers in Chikwawa

    In September, I spent a few days in Chikwawa, in Malawi’s lower Shire region. My mission was to collect case studies on the current situation facing farmers before the implementation of the Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities (SE4RC) project.

    Esnath WillisonDuring this process, I got to hear and witness some of the difficult situations women in the area face. Indeed women can do anything to ensure that there is food on the table to sustain their families.

    Thats the story of Edith Willison, a smallholder farmer in Chikwawa. She is a single mother and she is responsible for fending for her family. Life has not been easy for her and her children. She wakes up very early every day and walks up to four kilometres to fetch water for her family’s domestic use before she goes to the fields. She grows maize, cassava and vegetables which she sells to get money to buy food and to pay for her children’s school fees and upkeep.

    For the crops to grow well she uses a treadle pump to irrigate the crops. This is no easy job especially on an empty stomach given there are times when there will be nothing to eat in her house. She spends about five to six hours pedalling the treadle pump in order to water her plot.

    Edith is now suffering from back pains because of all this hard work. When she gets tired from using the treadle pump, her 11 year old son Musani takes over this task.

    Chikwawa-2This system of pumping water which Edith and other farmers in the area are using is not reliable. As a result, Edith had low harvests and is struggling to provide food for her children. During these hard times, she resorts to borrowing from colleagues who also do not have enough so at the end of the day the family can retire to bed with empty stomachs.

    Practical Action will be introducing solar powered irrigation to farming areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi. The areas which the project will be implemented from are so poor and remote. They are not connected from the national electricity grid and unlikely to ever be connected because of their remoteness. Even if they were, the cost of the electricity would be exorbitant. However, using the abundant, free resource of the sun for solar voltaic panels to power pumps, water can be drawn from significantly deeper depths than a treadle pump. Instead of spending up to six to seven hours incessant pumping to irrigate their farms per day, Edith and other women can be using this valuable time to do other things like household chores, start small businesses, and attend to their children. Furthermore children can also attend school. With this technology the farmers can be sure of a viable and consistent supply of water for their crops.

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  • Bringing sustainable energy to rural communities in Malawi

    September 12th, 2014

    Five weeks into working at Practical Action and I’ve just returned from Malawi to see some of the areas that we will soon be starting a new project, which will introduce solar-power to remote and rural communities in the Chikwawa and Nsanje Districts. This energy will be used to power clinics and water pumps for irrigation systems and schools, enabling local people to access electricity for the first time.

    20140907_114735The communities we are reaching out to are living in extreme poverty. Blighted by frequent flooding which devastates crops, coupled with extreme lack of access to water and electricity means that they are not able to lift themselves out of poverty. I visited a school and clinic which had no access to water or electricity. Horace Chimwaza, Health Surveillance Assistant at Kampata Health Post said ‘the challenge we face at this health post is when we have patients suffering from cholera or diarrhoea, we fail to assist them because we do not have lighting. Since cholera patients need to be given Intravenous therapy (IV), this is difficult to do if we have no light, especially at night.’

    They currently rely on candles and kerosene lamps to light the clinic. The nearest water source is also 2km away which makes it difficult and time consuming to ensure they have enough water.

    Agriculture is also severely affected due to the limited access to water. Deep underground water is readily available but currently remains out of reach to communities in Chikwawa and Nsanje. Solar-powered water pumps will be able to turn this situation around, ensuring that farmers will be able to irrigate more of their land and produce enough crops to feed their families and even earn an income from the production of more crops.

    In contrast to this, I also had the opportunity to visit a project that is up and running in Mulanje. Mulanje is a beautiful place and is the home to Malawi’s tallest mountain. The micro-hydro project which was set up by volunteers in the local communities is having a huge impact on the lives of local people. Micro-hydro power is the small-scale harnessing of energy from falling water, such as steep mountain rivers. This project is generating electricity to nearby schools and clinics and more recently to power machinery such as maize mills, meaning that people can now run businesses and earn an income.

    Electricity is empowering, it moves families beyond day to day survival.  They are more prosperous, they are able to do more and earn a living and schools and clinics are able to run well. In Mulanje, people are even choosing to move to the area and build homes because they see a better future there.

    I’m really excited to see the impact that the solar-powered project will have on the communities in Chikwawa and Nsanje, and look forward to sharing the news with you.

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  • 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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