Energy experts are talking about decentralised solutions for unreached populations, but nearly all 28 districts have no energy officers to simplify the supply of ‘power to the people’.
The vacancy filled by Estrida Nyirenda in Dedza two years ago remains a major pitfall in devolution of State powers to districts.
To her shock, Dedza District Council officials often lamented persistent blackouts in their homes with little or no concern for unmet needs of the district’s rural majority, which lives without electricity.
She explains: “Being the first ever district energy officer, I found the council officials mostly unaware of the power of renewable energy to improve service delivery and transform livelihoods. So, senstisation had to start from within.
“I first met council officials to unpack my role before we started senstising community members to benefits of putting sustainable energy at the centre of development initiatives.”
New policy at work
Nyirenda is one of the two district energy officers Community Energy Malawi (CEM) deployed in line with the revised National Energy Policy. Her colleague, Louis Yona works in Balaka.
The duo trains community workers from the departments of agriculture, forestry, health and environment for the good of populations struggling to beat poverty.
“We involve them in everything we do and we are working together to help communities understand energy solutions they need and why they should insist on genuine accessories, not fakes often seen in many markets,” Nyirenda states.
The district energy officers also hold open-air campaigns in partnership with Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) and Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) officials to make hearers aware of energy standards.
“When we go to a marketplace, we show the audience genuine products and link them with certified dealers they can hold to account if they don’t get value for their money. This is important because the rush for fakes, including solar panels and batteries, leaves customers feeling renewable energy is a raw deal,” explains Yona.
The policy Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Bintony Kutsaira unveiled last year requires all 28 districts to have energy officers as guides in national efforts towards ensuring sustainable energy for all.
With the Department of Energy Affairs confined to Lilongwe, people outside the capital have no expert voice to turn to for energy-related information and solutions.
“We have been talking about devolution of power and vital functions from central government since the adoption of the National Decentralisation Policy in 1998, but very few agencies are decentralised—agriculture, education, health and social welfare. In Dedza and Balaka, energy is new in the mix and most decisions are still made at Capital Hill,” says Obed Mwalughali, director of planning and development at Balaka District Council.
He hopes the deployment of district energy officers will speed up implementation of the new policy in rural communities. The policy promotes diversification of energy sources from the hydropower national grid to wind, solar and geothermal energy for decentralised mini-grids.
“Central government makes the policies and the local councils make their development plans to integrate and implement policies of decentralised agencies. Government needs to recruit district energy officers,” he says.
CEM executive director Edgar Bayani says the energy officers are foot soldiers in accelerating advances towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number seven—ensuring access to reliable, affordable, clean and sustainable energy for all by 2030.
“SDGs emphasise leaving no one behind, so we need not forget rural Malawians when we talk about sustainable energy for all. The energy officers will be handy to both duty-bearers and citizens who need reliable advice on energy matters,” he explains.
The 2018 census shows rural dwellers constitute 84 percent of the country’s population but only four percent has been connected to the national grid since 1980.
Principal energy officer Saidi Banda says the lessons from Balaka will inform government plans to deploy energy officers nationwide.
He explains: “This will be a gradual process. However, presently, the Department of Energy Affairs works with relevant and knowledgeable officers in councils to reduce the unmet need.
“When we met council officials from all districts, we noted that district development plans didn’t have energy indicators. We worked with district environmental officers to formulate the indicators,” he explains.
But Arnold Juma, who participated in the policy review, says the country needs district energy officers with adequate knowledge of how energy transforms people, learning, healthcare, business and productivity.
“The new policy must be implemented accordingly. We need energy officers to make it work and entrench policy statements into district development plans. We need people who can articulate energy issues at lower level and give people correct information to meet their energy needs,” he says.
The deployment of energy officers in Dedza and Balaka is part of an initiative to increase rural access to energy through social enterprise and decentralisation. The project is funded by the Scottish Government in partnership with CEM, United Purpose and University of Strathclyde.
“When people put energy to productive use, the change is discernible,” says Damien Frame, from the university in Glasgow. “The energy officers will contribute to increased access to energy for rural communities, thereby improving livelihoods and economic development through the capacity building and sustainable businesses.”