A solar power project to connect villages in Malawi has had a ‘life-changing’ impact for the rural communities there.
A three year initiative led by researchers from the University of Strathclyde to provide the remote southern district of Chikwawa with affordable energy has seen supply businesses set up in four villages.
The Sustainable Off-Grid Electrification of Rural Villages (SOGERV) project, which was awarded £600,000 of Scottish Government funding, has four community energy providers in the region to act as ‘hubs’.
The partnership with the communities means local entrepreneurs own and operate the equipment, including battery chargers and power connections for other small businesses.
Barber Hedison Charles, who had to drop out of school due to financial problems, says the project, which was partnered by the development charity United Purpose and the Centre for Water, Sanitation, Health and Alternative Technology Development in Malawi, has had a huge personal impact on him.
He said: “This programme has changed my life. Before I had no money and now I have money because of my business.
“Before people were travelling almost 30km to have their hair cut, now people are getting their hair cut here. The solar system is helping me a lot.”
The project’s Principal Investigator Professor Stuart Galloway from the university said: “The aim was to make a direct impact on the communities involved so the project doesn’t just provide an engineering solution, but is actually improving lives.”
Francis Story runs one of the energy kiosks and has installed solar systems in three local shops. Other customers include those who want to rent and buy batteries and lanterns and also charge their mobile phones. He says that the project has meant many local young people now have a livelihood.
He said: “It’s a global issue that a lot of young people are just loitering around unemployed, so the situation has changed simply because some have started running their businesses. Some have bought hair clippers, some are running video shows, at least some of the youths are self-employed.”
Two schools in Mandrade and Gola with a combined pupil roll of more than 12,000 are now also supplied by solar energy, along with two health clinics.
Another bonus has been an increased number of children passing the end of primary school leaving exams. Children sit the Malawi School Certificate of Education – MSCE at 12-years-old and there has been a significant improvement in results, especially among girls.
More than 100 teachers across the area have also bought sustainable energy products - which means that they are able to plan lessons and mark children’s work once the school day has ended, as well as enabling more students able to study at home.
Stuart Galloway added: “One of the benefits has been that schools which use renewable energy are recording large numbers of students studying at night, and the most recent exam results indicate a substantial improvement in pass rates.
“Teachers are also more inclined to come and work in the schools because they have electricity.”
Energy access tripled
The percentage of households now using renewable energy in the villages the project has reached of Mandrade, Kandeu, Gola and Thendoin, has almost tripled, with energy access improving for more than 4,000 people.
International Development Minister for the Scottish Government, Ben Macpherson says he is pleased at the ‘life changing’ impact the project is having and added: “Working in partnership with the University of Strathclyde, projects such as this demonstrate Scotland’s and the Scottish Government’s commitment to good global citizenship.
“Implementing efficient energy schemes in rural areas of Malawi will play a major role in alleviating poverty and reducing inequalities in some of the country’s most vulnerable communities.
“This project will continue to have a life changing impact beyond the three year grant period through enabling communities to develop new enterprises, supporting schools and helping hospitals.”
Only 12 per cent of Malawi’s 18 million population is connected to the main electricity grid, which dips to two per cent in rural areas. For 89 per cent of the population the main energy source is open fires, which is putting pressure on the country’s forests.
Solar power is also considerably cheaper for local users, who also now don’t have to make the journey to the nearest large town of Nchalo to pay power bills, and have also seen their average bills slashed by up to a third.
Mandrade villager Patricia Tembo, who uses the solar network to boost her expensive and unreliable grid connection said: “When the bills come they are reasonable. Even when the power is out we can use the radio to hear news from outside.
“We don’t think much about the bills. Sometimes we were paying up to £65 but now we pay around £20.
“Most of the time we use the solar lights, and they are good and work for up to 12 hours.”
Damien Frame, a Research Fellow in Strathclyde’s Institute for Energy and Environment who was involved with the project, said: “The solar power has had a life changing impact, and a community changing one too. We built something from grass roots for customers who were stepping on to the electricity ladder for the first time.
“Local businesses have benefited and we expect more to set up now they have electricity, from everything from tailoring to computer services.
“This brings new economic activity to the villages, so it’s not just an improvement on daily life for those who can afford it, but also a boost for the whole community.
“By powering the school you allow teachers to work more effectively and it’s also been shown to improve teacher recruitment.”
The Strathclyde team is now building on the success of the partnership, which ended in September 2018, with a new initiative to install micro grids to support solar power in the district of Dedza in Malawi’s central region.
They have been awarded £1.3M Scottish government funding over four and a half years and will build two micro grids in separate villages in the district to create enough solar energy to connect around 50 households, 20 small businesses and potentially the local primary school.
Strathclyde Research Associate Aran Eales, who conducted the initial feasibility study in Dedza, said: “The micro grids are essentially a roof of solar panels and quite small-scale on purpose because we are locating in very rural, subsistence farming communities that don’t have any likelihood of being connected to the national grid in the near future.
“The nature of the geography and also how poor these communities are, mean the government are encouraging projects such as this and they’re a really powerful solution that’s small, modular, flexible and low cost.”
The scheme will operate from a small hub, similar in size to shipping type containers, with solar panels on top and from that there will be a small distribution network.
Stuart Galloway added: “The people here have little prospect of accessing the national network and are right at the bottom of the poverty scale in the poorest country in the world.
“The communities are locally built brick houses with grass or tin roofs and people light them with battery torches, candles and paraffin lamps. People mostly cook on open fires and that’s essentially their energy consumption.
“Our energy service will initially target the basic lighting and powering of homes and small business with efficient LED based lights, a power source for charging your phone or radio, perhaps even a TV and fridge.
“It’s better and safer.”
Smoke inhalation and general air pollution in Malawi is shown to cause more deaths annually than malaria. Cleaning up the air within people’s houses, particularly for women and young children is a huge challenge.
Damien Frame added: “Initially our project will only go part of the way towards that because we aren’t going to be able to supply enough energy for electric cooking as the power draw is huge for standard appliances.
“But we anticipate that as we see some benefit in the areas with an economic boost, that we can upgrade the service the grid provides.
“We expect demand to grow quickly and hope our network will provide a platform for innovative electric cooking programmes being promoted in the energy access sector”.
Burn accidents are also a huge issue for adults and children alike in the area, with unstable pots of boiling liquid and open flames and people sleeping under mosquito nets with a candle burning.
The researcher added: “There’s definitely a huge impact there. It’s challenging to measure but we are operating from the principle that we know it’s an unsafe environment and by providing much safer electric lighting, it’s better.”
Stuart Galloway added: “It isn’t just a one way street. The Scottish Government is very interested in rural electrification projects and we can see ways of transferring knowledge in both directions. We are looking to change people’s lives, but in doing so learn from it too.”
A short film on the SOGERV project can be found on the project webpage.