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Solar power for rural livelihoods

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DETERMINED—Bayani

The people of Sitolo, Ndawambe and Molosiyo villages in Mchinji are glad that darkness has finally given way to light.

For decades, the villages have been without electricity despite being located 18 kilometres (km) from Mchinji Boma and 12km from the national grid.

Thus, for years, the communities used to travel miles and miles to access milling and phone charging services at Mwami Border in Zambia.

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It is no longer the case.

People of the three villages have power at their fingertips, thanks to Enviroearth, which is implementing a 80 kilowatt peak power (kWp) photovoltaics solar hybrid mini-grid.

Sitolo Solar Power Photovoltaics Mini-grid is a project funded by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

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It is being implemented with the collaboration of Community Energy Malawi (CEM).

So far, the mini-grid has connected electricity to 671 households, grocery shops, salons and barbershops, bars, two maize mills, a local school and health clinic as well as six streetlights.

Anne Nyendwa, owner of one of successful grocery shops in Sitolo Village, says installation of electricity in her shop has helped increase sales in her business.

“I make K500,000 worth of sales per day. People from distant villages come here to drink frozen beverages. I am very happy because we are at par with those living in the urban areas,” she says.

Nyendwa discloses that the coming of power into her compound also inspired her to venture into animal production from which she gets manure for use at her farm.

“This year, I realised more than 600 bags of maize weighing 50 kilogrammes each,” Nyendwa states.

Group Village Head Sitolo describes the solar-generated power as a miracle and salvation because people do not have to walk long distances any longer to access services that require electricity.

He says, among others, the project has boosted social and economic enterprises in the area.

“We have seen businesses sprouting up in this area, which has resulted into the transformation of people’s lives. Before the project, our subjects used to go to cross the border to mill their grain, but this is now history,” Sitolo explains.

He adds that the coming of the solar powered electricity has reduced their overdependence on firewood to prepare our meals thereby saving the environment.

“With this power, households are able to cook food and heat water. This is helping women and girls to invest their time in our productive enterprises such as businesses and studies unlike in the past when women and girls would spend hours fetching,” the local ruler says.

The project’s powerhouse technician, Peter Davison Banda, laments that out of the 80kWp the system is producing, only 10.5kWp is being used, with the remainder being wasted.

“We have enough power to supply to 970 households,” Banda says.

According to CEM, the system coverage could include more households and other productive uses such as milk cooling and metal workshops.

CEM Country Director, Edgar Kapiza Bayani, says the project has resulted in the birth of a sunflower cooking oil refinery in Ndawambe.

Bayani further states that CEM will eventually offer market opportunities to the many sunflower farmers in the area.

Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) has recently embarked on a campaign aimed at motivating and promoting mini-grids across the country.

Mera Public Relations Manager, Fitina Khonje, says the initiative is aimed at ensuring that the country has adequate power supply that can meet the ever-increasing demand for electricity among Malawians.

Khonje states that in a country where less than 12 percent of the population is connected to electricity, it is imperative that Mera promotes mini-grids as an alternative source of energy Malawians can use to power their houses and business facilities.

Mera is mandated to regulate the energy sector and license energy undertakings as defined in Section 9 of the Energy Regulation Act 2004 and this includes licensing of energy undertakings, approving tariffs, and prices of energy sales and services and monitoring and enforcing compliance by licensees with licences.

And under Section 9 (2) of the Act, Mera is mandated to facilitate increasing access to energy supplies and promote the exploitation of renewable energy resources.

However, Khonje stresses that as mini-grids sprout, it is the duty of the authority to develop and enforce performance and safety standards for energy exploitation, production transportation and distribution.

She says this is to ensure safety for the users as well as producers themselves.

“While electricity is very important, it can also be very dangerous, if not handled well,” Khonje states.

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