For the past seven months, Malawi has been experiencing some persistent and periodic blackouts. On some days, the blackouts last more than 11 hours, which means people spend most of their daytime hours without electricity.
The blackouts have severely affected productivity in some small and medium businesses, particularly in sectors that are energy-intensive. As usual, the backouts have hit the most vulnerable the most. The big companies can switch to generators and other power sources, albeit at the risk of raising the production costs in their enterprises.
The micro-enterprises, the welder in Mchesi or the barber in Zingwangwa market, however, do not have such luxury. A blackout means the business will be closed for the day. No work means no money to support themselves or their families for that day.
The political leadership in Malawi has for the better part of five decades, failed to invest in revamping and modernising the energy sector to keep abreast with the growing population or the country’s dream of economic transformation through industrialisation and value addition.
The blackouts that rocked Malawi since the turn of the decade are a testament to that lack of investment. More and more areas are urbanising, raising the demand for electricity. Unfortunately, Egenco and Escom have failed to meet the demand, resulting in the blackouts we see today.
To address the blackouts, the Malawi government in the past invested in diesel generators. There was also a plan to develop a coal-fired energy plant. Those investments had limited success, with some sections of the public blaming the diesel-powered generators for being too expensive.
Malawi’s long search for a viable and affordable source of electricity continues. Local energy experts have argued that the country can benefit if it transitions to clean and renewable energy sources.
For a long time, we have been programmed to view the energy crisis inherent in the country as a problem, but in actual sense, it can be an opportunity for the country to create jobs. It just needs some careful consideration and strategic thinking.
As alluded to in the preceding paragraphs, the perennial blackouts show one fundamental truth. There is a higher demand for electricity than the market can supply. All the government has to do is create a conducive environment for electricity producers to come in and increase the supply.
If properly harnessed, the electricity producers that come into the market can reduce the demand for power while simultaneously creating new jobs. Egenco has been engaging independent power producers to help develop off-grid solutions, including renewable sources such as solar and wind.
Opening up investment in these renewable sources can create employment opportunities, considering the diverse supply chains and increased net profit margins inherent in the renewable energy sector.
In its assessment of Namibia’s energy industry, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) noted that jobs in the renewable energy sector can be “created directly and indirectly along the entire value chain, including in the manufacturing and distribution of equipment; the production of inputs such as chemicals; or even in services like project management, installation, operation, and maintenance”.
Of course, the development of these renewable energy sources could lead to a decline in the demand for existing power sources. The ILO, however, is confident that jobs created in the renewable energy sector can offset the losses caused by a decline in demand for renewable energy sources.
The improved energy supply that would follow the development of the renewable energy sector can also contribute to the expansion of existing economic activities in other sectors.
Achieving SDG Goal 7, promoting universal access to electricity, has been flaunted as one of the hallmarks of achieving sustainable economic development, considering its overarching implications on the industrial growth of contemporary economies.
Creating a robust energy sector is the key to industrialising primary economies, which in turn, promotes economic growth through the creation of vibrant manufacturing sectors in the said primary economies.
It is imperative that Escom, Egenco and the government, through the Ministry of Energy, find a way of integrating renewable energy sources into the country’s off-grid solutions. The benefits can be immense.