I heard the other day that the energy woes that are a constant feature in Southern Africa are giving no joy to President Lazarus Chakwera, who is also Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Chairperson. Well I am happy that he is irked by the problem but what the Malawi leader has to remember is that the problem will not go away unless those tasked with responsibility in the sector start making the right moves.
It is a pity that we still have only a fraction of the country’s population connected to the national electricity grid and, sadly, the power on that grid has equally been depleted (due to natural disasters or otherwise) such that it is not even enough to go round and, as we speak, a lot of people in the country are being subjected to intermittent power supply. It is not just us because even down in South Africa, the issue of electricity blackouts is of major concern. But, then, that is no excuse.
We only have ourselves to blame for the mess we are in because we have failed to seriously invest in the energy sector over the years despite feasibility studies being done on potential areas where hydro electric power stations can be set up.
Not only that; we also heard and saw a lot of movement to do with the setting up of a coal-fired power plant at Kam’mwamba in Neno District and how we ended up abandoning the project somewhere along the way nobody knows, although the Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) has been a lone voice pushing for the completion of the project.
But then wait a minute… should we say the idea of adopting clean energy, which has been touted highly in recent years, is not as effective as we initially thought it might be? We needed to see Malawi exploring wind energy to complement solar energy plants that are being put up in places such as Golomoti in Dedza and Salima. I take cognizant of the fact that some experts in the energy field have watered down the solar energy prospects by claiming that it is unreliable since it is dependent upon weather conditions. However, at the rate we are going, I certainly believe that we need to harness all sources of energy available at our disposal so that we can have enough to power our industries and homes.
Speaking of homes, I am not surprised with the uproar that has been triggered by the recently announced changes to the Forestry Act, whereby hefty penalties will now be imposed on those found cutting trees or logging. I hear some of the fines are as high as K5 million. Now how many Malawians producing charcoal or cutting trees for firewood can manage to meet that? Yes, it is meant to distract the people from depleting natural resources but then what alternatives have we offered these people to sustain their livelihoods before we begin taking food out of their mouths? I was not surprised when I had one charcoal seller saying the authorities would have to erect more prisons to accommodate those that would be found in the wrong because not many can afford to folk out K10 million for a fine, which is even way beyond what they earn as they live a hand-to-mouth type of life.
Similarly, absorption of alternative energy sources such as gas has been quite minimal and even products such as briquettes are not readily available in all corners of the country; so, how else do you think people will address the inadequacy in electricity supply if not through use of charcoal and firewood?
I can challenge you today that even if we were to go to the homes of senior forestry personnel, we are going to find bags of charcoal or heaps of firewood for their domestic use and, yet, the authorities are trying to be cosmetic by coming up with funny penalties and, yet, there are no ready alternatives on the ground for the people. Government must tread carefully on this issue.
Other than that, let us move with a sense of urgency on investing in the energy sector as opposed to coming up with these funny clauses. If we do not do something quick, we will find ourselves having this discussion again, 15 or 20 years down the line.
Stephen Dakalira is a seasoned Journalist who works as Times Group’s Online and Digital Executive Editor. He is also the Assistant Editor of The Sunday Times Newspaper, and author of Full Circle column which appears in Malawi News; all of these under the Times Group stable.
He has previously worked in key positions for some of Malawi’s key media institutions such as Malawi News Agency, Capital FM Radio and Star Radio (Now Timveni Radio).