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Young brains bring light to Malawi’s darkest corners

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ENERGY IN THE SKY – A windmill invented by 19-year old Kalichero

By Imam Wali:

The story of low coverage of electricity in Malawi is well told.

The Annual Economic Report 2021 released by Ministry of Finance, in the year 2020, says the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) sold 1,576 GWh of electricity. This was a 6.3 percent increase over the 2019 electricity consumption which was at 1,477 GWh.

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According to the report, the customer base also increased by 6.13 percentage points from 413,816 in 2019 to 439,187 in 2020.

Clearly, at 439,187 as a customer base, Malawi’s electricity coverage should be one of the lowest in this part of Africa.

Lack of access to electricity, as supplied by Escom, means that many poor Malawians in rural areas are being deprived of the essentials of life including quality entertainment, education and health, among others.

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However, some renewable energy innovations – by young ordinary Malawians — are bringing light to people that would have otherwise not seen light in their homes and communities.

Mzimba’s crude hydropower plant

In Group Village Headman Bondera Nyirenda’s area in Traditional Authority Kampingo Sibande in Mzimba, Corled Nkosi, 38, has been generating power from a self-made hydropower plant since 2016.

At some point, his system supplied power to as much as 100 houses in the village.

To achieve this, he modified an old diesel motor into an electricity generating machine which he planted at Kasangazi River.

“This project started with a diesel maize meal motor which I modified to start producing power,” Nkosi told Malawi News.

He said he had returned to the village after completing his studies at Mzimba Secondary School and he found life in a home without electricity a menace. He therefore created the Kasangazi Hydroelectric Power Plant.

“Power was first supplied to 12 houses, then to 28 before hitting the mark of 100 houses. However, Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) advised me to reduce the numbers [back to 28],” he said.

The system is enabling him to provide welding and phone charging services at his residence.

Among those connected to his system is the Kasangazi Primary School. He is giving the school power free of charge.

“Having noted the challenges that learners and teachers at Kasangazi Primary School were facing, we connected them to the system. So for three years the school has been using the power for lights for reading and charging electronic gadgets. All this was done using my own money,” Nkosi said.

The ever-cheerful Nkosi said he has a vision of upgrading his system so that more people in the surrounding communities can benefit from the innovation.

“But for this dream to materialise, I need support with money or equipment. This would enable more people to benefit,” he said.

Head teacher at Kasangazi Primary School, Chandiwira Chawinga, testified that the electricity has been of great impact to the community and more importantly to the institution.

“In the past three years we have experienced tremendous improvement in terms of learners’ performance. The night and morning preps using lights have helped,” he said.

Dedza’s inventor

In Dedza, in the area of Group Village Chikweleza under Senior Chief Kachindamoto, Mandela Chilenje, 26, has also a mind-blowing innovation.

A form three dropout from Kapiri Community Day Secondary School, Chilenje invented own gadget which he uses to produce power. Currently, seven houses are benefiting from this innovation.

According to Mandela, the innovation has among other things helped those using it to save money they used to spend on purchasing batteries for their torches and on charging their phones at the nearest trading centre.

He said with financial support, he can upgrade his system and make it give him bread and butter. Currently he depends on farming and piecework to purchase equipment.

“The demand is high but the only challenge is lack of equipment which I can be using to supply the power. If only I can be helped with wires and other accessories. With K5 million I can supply the whole village,” he said.

Power system that doubles voltage

In Traditional Authority Sitola in Machinga, Benadic Kankhulungo, 27, is another innovator who invented an equipment that boosts a solar power system.

“This is the system which boosts the solar power. For example if you have a panel of 100 watts and you have connected it to the system it means when that power passes through the system it is going to be 200 watts,” he explained.

According to Kankhulungo, 3D designing machines and a winding machine for making transformers — all estimated at K50 million – would be enough to grow his system.

19-year-old and his windmill

Another renewable energy source which is often overlooked here in Malawi is the wind mill. And on this, 19-year-old, George Kalichero in Mulanje district is doing wonders with the windmill which he made using local materials.

It is a journey which started in 2019 as an experiment for Kalichero. Now it is bearing fruit as he is able to provide power to three houses for lighting and phone charging.

“It has been a challenge to come up with this innovation,” Kalichero said.

Pledges made but support not forthcoming

It is apparent that despite their potential these innovators have the common challenges which affect their operations.

According to Chikumbutso Vumbwe who is into biogas in Blantyre, the innovations in renewable energy are critical in environmental conversation in Malawi.

“The country is currently facing deforestation so biogas is one of the innovations that can be applied to stop this. Instead of using charcoal people can be encouraged to be using biogas type of energy,” he said.

“Almost every now and then people visit us making pledges of supporting but there is not action,” they said.

Chief Technology Transfer Officer at National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST), Isaac Chingota, acknowledges the challenge innovators are facing in the country.

“The innovative acumen is there. The ones we have talked to, the gaps seems to be similar. Most of them are looking for technical improvement of the innovations as most of them are in crude form so they have to be scaled up in terms of technology readiness levels.

“There is also the challenge of markets as some are doing it as a simple community service without expecting any remuneration but then they are also worried how they are going to sustain providing the services and some need skill development,” he said.

Chingota said NCST has put in place a system which will be identifying technologies that have potential for scale up and larger impact to the society so that they are supported with specific needs that might trigger growths.

He said Mera, as NCST, partner has a large role to play further urging the innovators to abide by the law since most of the innovations being done poses a risk to the community.

Mera’s interest

Mera spokesperson Fitina Khonje said the authority has been in touch with some of these young innovators.

“Indeed there a good number of such innovations coming up. We have inspected and been in touch with some of them. For example, Mthembanji in Dedza, Lusangazi in Mzimba, Chapopoma in Rumphi,” she said.

According to Khonje, Mera licenses those with of capacity of 150 kilowatts and above.

“However, we still inspect, advise and register systems that are below 150 kilowatts. Our interest as a regulator is threefold: safety in terms of people’s lives and property; fairness in terms of charges, availability of power and resolving consumer complaints; and third, sustainability of operations particularly the adequacy of the supply chain in the long term,” she said.

Khonje added that there are some common challenges that the upcoming systems face. These include safety risks emanating from compromised standards of materials and poor installations and sustainability because lack of maintenance.

“We engage the innovators and communities to inform them about these issues and how they can be rectified.

“Generally these innovations transform the socio-economic status of communities. They should be supported,” she said.

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