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As Escom fails, off-grid stations offer hope

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In the mountainous area of Kabunduli west of Kavuzi Trading Centre in Nkhata Bay, residents live in what might be termed the original Eden garden as told by the holy book of Genesis.

Their surrounding is covered with abundant natural species of indigenous trees. The enormous vegetation gives them an edge over other locations devoid of trees in terms of benefits they get for still conserving the environment.

On the day of this reporter’s visit to the area in August, it had rained heavily for two good days.

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To Nkhokoma residents more vegetative cover means added fringe ecosystem-based benefits in this hilly area which commands a lot of green lush.

The presence of trees means the soils are well-mulched and that water conservation through seepage is at its best.

Catherine Mkandawire, a young ambitious girl, works hand in hand with the Network for Youth Development implementing initiatives such as aquaculture, agri-business and farming in the area.

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All this is possible because they have a very important natural resource present in abundance. This is water.

But as the people of Nkhokoma bask lavishly in abundance of water due to the vegetative green cover that shelter and mulch their soil, the Shire River an outlet of Lake Malawi is unable to drain more water from Lake Malawi.

The fact that Shire cannot draw enough water from the lake is enough cause of worry for the energy sector and Malawians connected to the national power grid. There are three power stations along the Shire River namely: Tedzani, Nkula and Kapichira power stations.

Insufficient water flow therefore is a huge burden on power utility provider Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) and its consumers.

Lowest water level in Lake Malawi

On Monday, Escom Director of Generation Evance Msiska said water levels in Lake Malawi have hit their lowest in history. The low levels are attributed to reduced rains during the last two rainfall seasons.

Additionally evaporation, man-made erosion and siltation have compromised water depth in the lake.

“With the current operating flow of 139 cubic meters per second, there will be enormous operating difficulties in the months of September to December, 2016. Hence, Escom determined that it will be prudent to reduce the operating flow from 139 to 115 per cubic meters per second,” Msiska is quoted as saying in Tuesday edition of The Daily Times.

The water shortage has resulted in power generation to drop by 67 percent.

The knock off effects can be felt by both domestic and industrial users. The long term effects mean production will be greatly affected and this has a bearing on the social, economic development of the country.

“We have not been able to grind maize at the mill, no wonder we stayed at the mill waiting for power to be restored since morning. I had to actually miss my classes in order to ensure that I am on the queue at the mill. This means the insufficient production will affect other sectors such as education as well,” says Nancy Chifuchambewa, a resident of Lilongwe in an interview.

Small turbine energy production

Hastings Mkandawire, a Mzuzu-based expert in mini-turbines, has built more than 100 pieces of small scale hydropower turbines (often called Pico power plants).

“I started on my own with the knowledge obtained from secondary school. With my project at home in early 2000, I inspired many young people from my community. We later formed a youth organisation called Media and Technology Society through which we built several power projects. We also trained young people in renewable energy,” says Hastings in an interview after our visit to Nkhokoma.

Currently, Hastings runs Turbines Energy to produce turbines as well as run off grid power plants for rural communities. Turbines Energy is installing a 100kW power plant in Nkhata Bay so that rural farmers can use for irrigation, agro processing and cooking to substitute firewood.

“To date, I have installed more plants with generation capacity of more than 300kW benefiting more than 1,000 people. My vision is to grow Turbines Energy to help Escom. I expect to own a 20MegaWatt power plant by 2020,” says Hastings.

 

Because the turbines are effective Catherine Mkandawire said, “Here power outage is just what we hear about from people connected to the Escom power grid. Here in Nkhokoma because we have conserved the trees water is in abundance.

“One more added benefit is that we have learnt to develop mini- turbines that generate power uninterrupted. So power outage is what we just hear about,” says Mkandawire while showing this reporter her family mini-turbine constructed along the Nkhokoma River.

Bondo mini hydro scheme

Away from Nkhata Bay, the Mulanje Energy Generation Agency(Mega) is Malawi’s first licensed Independent power producer and currently generates 60kW hydro generation and connects 280 customers.

This off grid plant is jointly supported by the Global Environment Facility, The Scottish Government, Practical Solutions and Fair Trade Foundation –an example of how various partners can build synergy in the energy sector.

Other social services connected to the plant include schools namely Kabichi Primary School with an enrolment of 1 505 pupils and Kasichi Community Day Secondary School with 220 day and 194 night scholars under the open distance learning initiative.

Construction works started in 2008 and one can note that it took over 7 years to see power generated. At last, there is excitement after seeing that it is indeed possible to have electricity generated within the Lichenya River.

The first customer got connected in 2013 and people couldn’t imagine their dream was coming into reality upon seeing the health centre also having light.

This pushed many into investing in having their own houses getting wired in anticipation that they would soon forget using the hazardous kerosene.

“I am one of the beneficiaries of locally generated electricity that I am using to light my house; my electricity kettle is used to make hot water within the shortest possible time as opposed to when we had to light fire using firewood.

“Imagine I have now procured a refrigerator in which I am stocking cold drinks for sale,” said Bester Godfrey of Chuma ndi Anthu Grocery in Traditional Authority Mabuka in the district.

The productive use of the Bondo micro hydro scheme project works is to improve the economic status and livelihoods of local community through up scaling of opportunities and access to locally generated hydro power electricity. And there are plans to increase electricity consumption and revenue from business customers.

“The component has three areas of interest namely: productive use which deals with enterprises emanating from the use of electricity; social use which focuses on schools and the health centre; and lastly the village electricity committee which is a link between Mega Ltd and the community,” says Arnold Kadziponye Coordinator of Mega in an interview during a visit to the area.

The coming of electricity to Bondo area has witnessed the mushrooming of different business enterprises such as shops with refrigerators and entertainment outlets.

“I started selling freezes, I used to wait for my husband to give me money to buy vegetables, but now I can decide to go to the market as I do have money” said Line Mangani of Kalamwa Village in the area.

Unlike the power generated at Nkula, Tedzani and Kapichira hydro schemes those connected to both Bondo and the other mini turbines rarely complain of long hours of outages. They have learnt to conserve the very own resource that provides them the power for its long term sustainability.

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