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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