The folly of putting eggs in one basket

If you ask electricity users in Malawi when last they had uninterrupted supply of power from the national grid through Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom), a majority of them will likely tell you they do not recall.

In fact, some of them will tell you that in rare cases where Escom supply goes uninterrupted they have called the Faults Section to report about a fault in supply that has seen them having power all day.

Unreliable power supply derails economic growth. It is a disincentive when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).

Experts estimate that power outages reduce economic growth by between two percent and four percent with education being among the key sectors that are affected. Malawi is banded alongside Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger as examples of countries with more than 80 in every 100 primary schools having no access to electricity in classrooms for lighting or powering computers.

Recently, Malawian electricity consumers, already enduring at least 12 hours of load shedding daily, woke up to more gloomy news from Escom that they should brace for extended power outages as water levels in Lake Malawi and its sole outlet, Shire River, home to 90 percent of Escom’s power generators, are critically low.

It pains to see that 52 years after independence, Malawi is still heavily dependent on one source of energy: hydro-electricity. We seem to be a country that refuses to think outside the box and likes to put all our eggs in one basket as even in the agricultural sector we still bank on rain-fed agriculture despite boasting one of the continent’s biggest fresh water lakes and several perennial rivers. Instead, we go kneel on the shores of Lake Malawi, “praying for good rains” while letting our water and top soil freely flow out through the Shire to Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean.

Energy journals estimate that Africa is rich in solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power sources yet over 600 million or two thirds of people on the continent live in darkness. In Malawi, Escom struggles to consistently supply power to only 10 percent of the population connected to the national grid.

Poor or low financial investment in the energy sector by African governments, including Malawi contributes to the unreliable energy supply. Besides, corruption and under-pricing of electricity further worsen the situation.

In Malawi, we find ourselves in the present predicament because of lack of meaningful investment in the energy sector in the post-single party era from 1994. Most of the hydro-electric plants were developed between the 1960s and early 2000s.

The more talk and less action syndrome has not helped the country either. Escom executives keep mentioning power interconnection projects in the region as an alternative source. But then, how many times have Malawians heard that story? What is on the ground? If we were an action or result-oriented people, surely, by now the interconnection deals should have been up and running.

Given that Escom has the Shire River as its lifeline, how much has the utility provider invested in environmental management along the river?

Escom, has also been obsessed with hydro-electric power. It is high time there was diversification to alternative sources. Elsewhere, some economies on the African continent, including Kenya and Rwanda, are diversifying their sources of energy. They have invested in solar and other green sources. Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) has inherited the generation plants.

Rwanda, for instance, with 16 percent of its population connected to the national grid, set a target to increase access to electricity to 70 percent of the population by 2017. This, Rwanda hopes to achieve through increased generation from 100 megawatts (MW) to 1 160MW and policy reforms. Rwanda has adopted solar-driven, methane-based and peat-based power generation sources.

Kenya, on the other hand, produces over 70 percent of its electricity from green and other renewable energy sources. Earlier this year, Kenya commissioned the construction of Africa’s biggest wind power project at Lake Turkana northwest of the country. The project is expected to generate 310MW upon completion. Now compare that to Malawi’s total installed generation capacity of 361MW and the meagre demand Escom struggles to satisfy on its never ending quest Towards Power All Day, Everyday?

Access to electricity is one of the key drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s lowest access to electricity at average of 22 percent of the population compared to Latin America with 80 percent and South Asia at 60 percent access. For the record, with 9.8 percent access rate, Malawi is at the low end in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.

Reforms in the power market have been long overdue. Malawians have had enough of unreliable power supply in recent years, a development that has also negatively impacted on the business climate.

 

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