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Blackouts: the case of reaping what we sowed

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A lack of electricity has devastating consequences for any economy but is even worse for a struggling economy like Malawi. Unfortunately, the problem of lack of electricity in Malawi is partly as a result of policy choices this country has made. In fact, to be crude one can argue that it is deserved. This is a case of reaping what we sowed. We can bury our heads in the sand and blame the low water levels as a cause but for a country with a vast body of water covering a total surface area of about 29,600 square kilometers, perhaps we should say it is a lack of planning, lack of innovation and spiced with lack of seriousness. Sometimes the decisions we make as a country forces one to think that Malawi does not want to develop.

The total installed capacity of Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) is about 352.8 MW of which 99 percent is generated by hydropower. Escom has power-generating stations: Nkula A (1966 with 24MW), Nkula B (1980-1992 with 100MW), Tedzani I (1973 with 20MW), Tedzani II (1977 with 20MW), Tedzani III (1995 with 52.7MW), Kapichira I (2000 with 64.8MW), Kapichira II (2013 with 64.8MW) and Wovwe (1995 with 4.56MW). Other power plants include a diesel power plant in Mzuzu and a separate isolated system in Likoma. Total installed capacity from the hydropower plants is 350.65MW. Including the 1.1 MW from the diesel power plant in Mzuzu and 1.050MW from Likoma, the total present installed capacity for Escom is 352.8MW. This pales in comparison to the 2015 estimated demand for electricity of 600 MW.

The lack of planning is apparent if one considers that while the country was busy from 1995 claiming to transform itself from an importing nation to an export-led economy, it only added 129.6 MW to the total capacity in 13 years. This translates into about five MW per year on average. I sometimes wonder where those people in the Ministry of Trade and the MITDC get their courage to go around the world in the name of attracting foreign direct investment in a country where electricity has become a scarce commodity. Electricity is perhaps the most important input in the industrialisation process. A country without electricity is forced to take the path of non-mechanised production. Persistent load shedding and power cuts disrupt production and negatively affect the durability of production machinery. It is not surprising that a survey on 10 most critical constraints in the Southern African Development Community listed electricity as the most mentioned constraint and also the most serious constraint.

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An indirect effect of power outages goes beyond the business sector alone. It has long-term consequences. Take the case of education and health services, which, in turn, affect productivity. Access to electricity can improve health outcomes since most hospitals are highly dependent on electricity for most of their machinery. Access to electricity increases opportunities to use electronic equipment (for example, computers) as well as study time in most of the secondary schools in Malawi which then improves learning. The effect on health and education are also interdependent in that better health increases school attendance and learning ability, and better education increases public awareness and capacity to address health needs.

The good news in this sea of misery is that this country has the potential to generate electricity using hydro potential as evidenced by the outcome of some feasibility studies on various rivers in the country. This can only be possible if there is action commitment from the government and I mean real commitment and not paper commitment or manifesto slogans of the various political parties. Procrastination does not pay, so goes the saying and in the case of Malawi, this is a fact. There were plans developed to bridge the gap between demand and supply and the Malawi Electricity Investment Plan was crafted with the bold ambition of equalling demand and supply by 2016. This lack of commitment to ideas and plans is symptomatic of this country and it so engrained in our psychic. Surely, we are now a country that spends money and energy to develop good documents and then shelve them in officialdom shelves! Pathetic indeed. Even before the current load shedding, the country was already losing an estimated $16 million annually with these unnecessary blackouts.

It would, therefore, not be wrong to conclude that these power cuts are a result of lack of direction and commitment. Lack of financial commitment and lack of political will are among the major factors that have contributed to the current situation. Power cuts, load shedding and power outages will continue being what they are unless deliberate steps are taken to deal with the problem. We are reaping what we sowed!

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Blackouts: the case of reaping what we sowed!

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