Project to connect African village has ‘life-changing impact

Residents of a remote Malawian village have been able to switch on wired lights for the first time thanks to a unique project.

The village of Mthembanji in the Dedza District in Malawi’s Central Region has been connected by a solar PV microgrid - the first of its kind in the country – which brings stable and low carbon energy.

The 12kW microgrid provides wired connections to around sixty households and businesses for domestic and commercial use including lights, phone charging and TVs and fridges. For many, this is their first experience of wired household electricity and will have life-changing social and economic impacts across the village.

Engineers from the University of Strathclyde have finalised the testing and commissioning of the microgrid this summer as part of the £1.3 million Scottish Government funded Rural Energy Access through Social Enterprise and Decentralisation project (EASE).

The installation marks the first step in a new social enterprise strategy to provide sustainable energy access to one million people over the next 10 years. It comes after previous collaborations between Strathclyde and Malawian NGO United Purpose funded under the Scottish Government’s International Development programme, including the Malawi Renewable Energy Acceleration Programme (MREAP) which resulted in almost 80,000 people in rural Malawi obtaining improved access to electricity.

The decentralised microgrid under EASE is the first of two with linked ‘satellite’ kiosks and three solar PV energy hubs which aim to provide a sustainable and affordable energy provision to rural communities in Malawi.

Research Associate from Strathclyde, Aran Eales said: “The majority of Malawians don’t have electricity and many in rural areas are unlikely to get a main grid connection in the near future.

 “Solar micro grids such as the one we’ve installed in Mthembanji provide a reliable source of electricity to these communities. The system also allows for more electricity and higher impact than solar home systems and is cheaper, quicker to implement and potentially more financially sustainable than larger capacity minigrids used in Malawi.”

Villager Fedrick Jumbe has been able to set up his own barbershop thanks to the connection, and said: “Our life has changed a lot because we now use the electricity for lighting both inside and also outside for security.

“We now watch TV for our entertainment and I have opened a barbershop where I also do phone charging. Though the barbershop has just started I believe that with this income my family will be well supported economically.”

Person charging their phone in a barbershop in Malawi.

Our life has changed a lot because we now use the electricity for lighting both inside and also outside for security.

We now watch TV for our entertainment and I have opened a barbershop where I also do phone charging. Though the barbershop has just started I believe that with this income my family will be well supported economically.

Economic growth

Less than 12% of the population in Malawi are connected to the national grid, limiting development and economic growth.

Strathclyde and United Purpose worked with technical partners in Malawi, South Africa and the UK to install the system. An online portal allows for real time remote access to system performance and customer demand, as well as alerting system managers to any problems on the ground.

Electricity is distributed through overhead wires on nine metre poles to customer premises while smart meters automatically disconnect them when their balance runs low, as well as setting power limits to protect the system from misuse.

The sophisticated technology means there can be remote monitoring and control of the microgrid, and data is gathered to improve system performance and inform future system designs.

This will be analysed and used to inform future projects in the sector as a whole for reliable and cost effective electricity provision.

Customers have also been given training on safe use of electricity, which is sold at tariffs designed to balance income from sales to ensure sustainable operation and maintenance. A detailed business plan ensures economic sustainability over the project’s 20-year lifetime.

Smart technology

Fellow Strathclyde researcher Damien Frame added: “The project is a first in Malawi in terms of the smart technology used and scale. Bringing electricity to use at home and start a business has made an immediate impact on people’s lives, now we plan to use this platform to promote further electrification and support local economic growth”.

The local school and church are also connected and receive a discounted tariff and the system – which has only been up and running since July, is already having a positive impact on lives of villagers.

Local Kinlos Spiliano said: “There are a lot of changes because of the coming of electricity. The first change is of security, we have a kraal (enclosure) for my cattle and the electricity provides enough light there that we no longer worry about robbers.

“We also now watch TV for entertainment which has improved our social life in our family. I am planning to open a barbershop and phone charging station next month.”

Lloyd Archer, Project manager from United Purpose said:

The EASE project is an excellent example of high impact collaboration between academia and NGOs which has laid the foundations for a long-term partnership between United Purpose and Mthembanji village to bring about sustained change.

Hastings Chipongwe, Director of Energy Affairs for the Malawian Government, said it recognises the importance of solar microgrids as key to enabling energy access for rural communities in Malawi, and for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and universal access to electricity by 2030.

He added: “Pilot projects like this one are essential in testing technical systems and business models to provide essential learning to the growing microgrid sector in Malawi.

“We welcome this successful initiative and look forward to the shared research and learning outcomes from the University of Strathclyde as we endeavour to achieve 70 per cent of our access through decentralised energy systems by 2030.”

Grocery store in Malawi at night, with customers outside.

Outside of a house in Malawi with a light on at night.