Lights on rural darkside

Every day, thousands of vehicles in Malawi hit the road “burning fuel”.

Every litre you buy pumps about K42 into a State-run fund for electrification of rural areas, where over four in five Malawians live. The 4.5 percent levy on fuel price has become handy in the race towards sustainable energy for all.

But people travelling in the countryside at night clearly see few lights from the rural electrification funds collected by Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera).

A rural home electrified by solar as the rural electrification remains low

Innocent Hauya, the global coordinator of Women and Sustainable Energy at Christian Aid, says it is pathetic only four percent of the rural households have access to electricity though Malawi Rural Electrification Programme (Marep) started in 1980. Nearly 96 in every 100 rural people are still unreached 40 years after Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) rolled out Marep, ceded to the Department of Energy Affairs in 1995.

He says:  “Access to energy in rural areas remains low, but electrifying one percent per decade is too slow. It doesn’t make sense because the rural population mostly needs electricity for lighting and small businesses.

 “By now, we would have connected many without stressing the grid. Even small mini-grids can help meet their energy needs.”

Accountability issues

Hauya wants a swift end to the rural-urban inequalities, with over 30 percent of towns and cities connected to Escom grid. According to the census, the utility supplies just over a tenth of the nation.

“Since we pay the levy on petroleum and energy bills, we need to know how much is collected for Marep, how it’s used and who is benefitting if not chiefs, politicians and their connections.”

He urges Mera to start publishing periodic updates for easy tracking of Marep revenue and progress.

According to Mera executive director Collins Magalasi, the regulator collects and remits about K20 billion to Marep every year,.

“Obviously, we would love to see the majority of rural areas electrified, but we appreciate the latest efforts to have targets and an assured source of finance for rural electrification,” he says.

Magalasi says Mera transfers every tambala from the fuel levy within seven days and is working with Marep to increase its reach using off-grid solutions, including renewable energy.

He explained that the rural electrification funds are recorded in the national budget debated by Parliament “just like any other source of government funds”.

He referred accountability questions to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining.

Saidi Banda, Department of Energy spokesperson, acknowledged the need to increase Marep pace and footprint.

He said there is a shift from just extending the country’s predominantly hydro-powered grid to trading centres towards villages as well. “The revised energy policy also recommends mini-grids to produce solar, wind and geothermal power where it is needed,” said Banda.

To increase distribution of power, Escom has introduced Ndawala initiative where it connects homes and businesses on loan and gradually recoups connections fees from electricity units.

But Banda called for increased funding for accelerated power supply in remote communities.

$3bn question

A study by the department and the United Nations High Office for Least Developed Countries shows the country needs about $3 billion to achieve affordable, reliable and clean sustainable energy by 2030.

Chimwemwe Banda, chief director for Energy Affairs Department, calls for increased financial inflows from private companies, civil society and donors.

“The best way is to work together with all stakeholders, government cannot do it alone,” she says, adding: “To achieve universal access by 2030, we have to do things differently and mini-grids will be vital.”

As skewed electricity supply keeps the rural population groping in the dark for a way out of poverty, the youth flee to towns in search of jobs and business opportunities.

During a social accountability meeting convened by Democracy Works Foundation in Lilongwe, activists laughed off official claims that Marep phase eight connected almost 800 rural trading centres since 2018. They queried how the touted success story said to have occurred in the run-up to May 2019 elections reached almost five times the 136 trading centres connected by  its predecessor.

 “Are there verifiable reports on the number of beneficiaries?” asked Community Energy Malawi executive director Edgar Bayani. “Every time we have asked the department for such figures to track Marep’s impact on the ground, we didn’t get any.”

Deal or  no deal?

Bayani decried “a raw deal”, wondering how government uses rural electrification levies on fuel and urban electricity bills as well as grants and budget allocations.

He explains: “Government collects our money to fund rural electrification, why shouldn’t we know how it is being utilised?

“At the current fuel price, Mera collects K41.58 for every litre of petrol and K41.85 from diesel.

“Data shows the country had about 290 935 vehicles in 2016. If each uses three litres, the fuel levy comes to over K12 million a day and K4.4 billion a year.”

Policy analyst, Dr Henry Chingaipe, warns against politicisation of the programme meant to close the rural-urban energy gap.

“Political intrusion could be partly to blame for secrecy in Marep and its slow pace to expand access to electricity,” he says.

But Hauya says rural communities need the power to beat poverty.

“Without electricity, children cannot study beyond dusk, women and forests suffer as people cook using firewood and charcoal and the youth escape to town since there are no jobs.

“In rural health facilities, vaccines perish and pregnant women suffer deadly complications as they give birth in poorly lit maternity rooms.”

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