Rural mini-grid powering development

Electricity access is essential for people’s lives and livelihoods: from using fridges to storing food and medicine; charging mobile phones to stay connected; lighting up households and schools at night; to powering local businesses. Mini-grids in rural Malawi are bringing cheap, green electricity to rural communities thereby reducing energy poverty. Our staff writer JAMES CHAVULA writes:

Extending electricity transmission lines from towns has failed to connect 96 in every 100 rural households in Malawi.

Now, both government and non-governmental organisations are investing in generating power in far-flung communities where it is needed.

To them, the standalone power generation and distribution sites could accelerate rural electrification and economic growth. In their minds, they see mini-grids transforming energy access just as mobile phones took down telephone poles and wires.

In Bondo Village, a localised powerhouse on Lichenya River from Mulanje Mountain is expanding access to electricity  of a community excluded by Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom).

In the hilly community, Francis Chisuse, 48, runs a shop in a fast-growing trading centre electrified by the turbines on the rocky river.

“For over four decades, we waited for Escom to extend power transmission to this area. It didn’t happen. Thanks to the micro-hydropower station, both my shop and home have electricity,” he says.

Previously, the former security guard used to earn K7 000 a month. Since his packed shop was electrified three years ago, he says, he has been taking home more than 10 times the sum a day.

“We are benefiting a lot from the power generated in our midst,” he says, grabbing a cold drink from a freezer near a television tucked in a corner of his shop. “Many people come to buy cold beverages, snacks and groceries as they watch new happenings across the globe.”

Chisuse, who once struggled to raise his seven children when he was a guard, no longer grapples to meet his family’s needs. He sends the children to school and has acquired vital assets—replacing his grass-thatched hut with a decent home roofed with corrugated iron sheets.

“Without electricity, business was slow and confined to daylight. We used to open at 6am and close shop after sunset around 6pm. Now, we close around 10pm. More hours of light mean more money,” he brags.

Chisuse’s shop is located along a muddy road in Nikisi Village near Bondo Health Centre, electrified by the 220-kilowatt (kW) mini-grid.

Women from the hilly village no longer walk long distances to the maize mills. There are now four mills in their community, where grocery shops, barbershops, roadside sales of beverages and hair salons are mushrooming fast.

In April 2019, James Chimkango, 30, pumped his proceeds of tea production into a maize mill that has liberated women from long walks to electrified roadside trading centres of Limbuli and Minimini, where they used to queue for over five hours.

“Women were wasting a lot of hours they now use to make money. Electricity has made their lives better and created a second source of income for myself, my wife, four children and elderly parents,” he says.

Chimkango says he earns up to K40 000 a day, K5 000 above the minimum monthly wage.

He says: “I use electricity for lighting, cooking and powering businesses. My family no longer cooks on firewood or charcoal. My wife stopped fetching firewood in the mountain and inhaling smoke and deadly fumes from open fires.”

The emerging businesses and electric cookers have reduced the number of people raiding waning forests in the country’s tallest mountain for firewood and charcoal. Women no longer wake up around 3am to get fuelwood.

“Children have many hours to study; they no longer go to bed soon after darkness falls. The youth who were jobless are running barber shops, salons, grocery shops and other businesses to uplift themselves. Everywhere you go, you see people selling goods,” Chimkango states.

Five schools have been electrified.

Head teacher Timothy Milimbo is happy that the majority of 1 500 learners and 20 teachers at Kabichi Primary School in Bondo now study beyond sunset.

“From 6pm to 8pm, our learners and those from a neighbouring community day secondary school come to study. In the past five years, the pass rate has improved from 66 percent to 97 percent since both teachers and learners have enough time to prepare for lessons and examinations,” he says.

Interestingly, teachers no longer shun the hilly remote school which once had just three teachers against eight classes.

“Had electricity reached all areas, teachers would stop shunning remote schools in preference for urban areas. However, many children are left further behind because very few schools have electricity. How can a pupil who uses candlelight or paraffin compete with urban peers who have electricity?” asks Milimbo.

The 2018 census shows that about 12 percent of the countries households use electricity for lighting while six percent use solar power.  Over half of the population use torches powered by dry cells, banishing candles and paraffin fumes from the energy mix.

“Dry cells are too expensive for many pupils and paraffin is scarce. With electricity units worth K1 000, children can study under smokeless light bulbs for two weeks. It’s that affordable. Had we waited for Escom to extend the grid from Thala or Minimini, some of these pupils would have died without experiencing the wonders of energy,” Milimbo states.

Bondo micro-hydropower sites illustrate the transformative power of mini-grids in a global movement to ensure everyone uses affordable, reliable, clean and sustainable energy by 2030.

Despite that 40 years have elapsed since the start of Malawi Rural Electrification Programme (Marep), the Department of Energy Affairs reports that only four percent of rural households have electricity.

The initiative Escom founded in 1980 largely involved extending the grid to trading centres to stimulate economic growth and stop the exodus of youths starved of jobs and business prospects.

But grid expansion has declined in unreached rural areas. Unless the speed increases, Marep—which has brought power to rural growth centres such as Nthalire in Chitipa, Jenda and Madede in Mzimba, Nsalu in Lilongwe, Chitekesa in Phalombe and Chididi in Nsanje—will require 960 years to reach the entire rural majority.

The revised National Energy Policy backs increased investment in mini-grids to speed up rural electrification and enhance the quality of life in areas that are either costly or hard-to-reach using the undersupplied grid hit hard by blackouts. Massive siltation, low investment in increasing power production, rapid population growth and prolonged drought have drastically reduced power supply  and worsened outages that span up to 12 hours.

Blackouts are sporadic in Bondo and surrounding areas.

“When an outage occurs, it takes just 30 minutes to tackle the blockage or breakdown,” says Deni Nesi, a member of a community committee that runs the mini-grid.

The committee connects applicants within a week when accessories are in stock.

So far, nearly 1 200 households and about 100 businesses are powered by the mini-grid switched on in 2015.

“By March, we want to reach 1 500 connections so that many people can benefit. We are happy to see more people connected and put the power to productive use. When we were contributing land, sand and labour to the construction of the power house on Lichenya, we didn’t know people would benefit this much,” says Nesi.

Widespread sales of cold drinks on roadsides, expanding business hotspots, electronic appliances in homes lit by bulbs and smiles of people earning more because of decentralised electricity supply show how off-grids are liberating remote populations in southern Africa, the world’s least electrified region.

“The quality of life is improving and we sympathise with villages without electricity,” says Julita Kholiyo.

She earns K10 000 a week from a popcorn maker and drinks off her refrigerator. She raises four children who survive on the small-scale business.

“My child was born safely in a well-lit room at Bondo Health Centre. Now, he and three other dependents can do homework and prepare for lessons using bright light,” she says.

Kholiyo spends K4 000 on electricity a month, half the budget for charcoal for a family of six like hers.

For Chisuse and electrified households in his neighbourhood , the future looks bright.

He states: “As my business is growing, the number of businesses in my community is growing. This means more than just competition for us. It shows many people are benefiting from the electricity and they are no longer ransacking the mountain for charcoal and firewood.

“So, we are winning and the environment is winning. Conserving the mountains and trees is good for the rivers which give us the power to do business with ease.” n

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