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MALAWI: Water Promises Light for Isolated Community

Charles Mpaka

BLANTYRE, Nov 14 2011 (IPS) - In just a few weeks, seven villages that had expected to remain “in the dark forever” will finally have electricity, courtesy of a small hydroelectric power plant on Lichenya River, one of the major rivers on the eastern slopes of Mulanje Mountain in southern Malawi.

The Mulanje Renewable Energy Agency (MuREA), a non-governmental organisation that provides access to modern and renewable forms of energy in rural areas, is constructing the micro hydroelectric power station, which will come online in early December.

Isolated in the Mulanje Mountain, Malawi’s highest at 3,000 metres above sea level, the district of Bondo is difficult to access even though it lies 22 kilometres from the Mulanje district through where the national grid of the state-run Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) passes.

However, Escom believes that it is not economically viable to provide electricity to this hard to reach mountainous area with an estimated population of only 13,000 people.

“We have grown up here knowing that we will live in the dark forever. We are away from everyone, including Escom. We could not dream of having electricity in our homes. But this project is about to turn our area into a small rural town in the mountain and we are excited,” says Levison Robert, the headman for Kalamwa Village, one of the seven villages in Bondo to benefit from the project.

At least 250 litres of water per second will be diverted into a 620-metre-long canal, which will descend 300 metres through sluices to a power house located on the lower riverbank.

“The project will not affect water levels in the river as most of the water we are diverting will be released back into the river straight from the power house,” explains MuREA project coordinator Vincent Gondwe.

Feasibility studies have shown that at its lowest point, the river generates up to 300 cubic metres of water per second.

The new hydroelectric power station will generate about 75 kilowatts of electricity. According to engineer Horace Lumby, this will supply electricity to the 3,084 households in Bondo’s seven villages, a primary and secondary school, a clinic, and two small business centres, which are to be built as part of the project.

The hydroelectric power station is also expected to unlock the area’s economic potential. It is Malawi’s largest tea- and fruit-growing district and people in Bondo earn a living growing and selling pineapples, mangoes and bananas. They also grow tea on a small scale, which they sell to the larger tea estates.

Electricity will provide them with more business opportunities, Robert says.

“We grow a lot of pineapples, mangoes and bananas here but we sell them cheaply for fear that they will go to waste if we keep them too long. We believe electricity will give us a chance to add value to some of our fruits and we will be able to keep them longer and sell when prices are right,” says Robert.

With 425,000 dollars in funding from the European Union, the project is being implemented with the help of the community. Locals have provided labour to engineers and have been engaged in digging the canal and sourcing sand to be used in construction.

Esnat Godfrey, a small grocery shop owner in Kalamwa II Village, says local women are helping with the project because once the plant is operational, it will save them from walking long distances to the nearest electricity-driven maize mill. A maize mill will be established at one of the two business centres that are yet to be built, says Gondwe.

“We’re lucky we have a big river, so we’re providing all the help the engineers need for the plant. Electricity will save us from the torture of walking seven kilometres to our nearest maize mill, where we spend the whole day when there is a black out,” Godfrey says.

MuREA will charge for the electricity the power station generates and is forming an independent body whose task will be to collect revenue and work with the community to manage the project.

Malawi’s energy act allows private sector participation in the supply of electricity but limits these suppliers to rates no higher than Escom’s.

“We will be using the money that the independent body will be collecting for other renewable energy exploration and development programmes,” Gondwe says.

The Bondo Micro Hydro project has the technical support of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment, Escom and the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority.

Escom is currently in the sixth phase of the Malawi Rural Electrification Programme (MAREP), under which 53 rural trading centres have received electricity since 2004.

However, according to an Escom official privy to the conditions considered when deciding on the centres to be provided with electricity, Bondo was not included because it is not economically viable.

“It has a small population, it’s hard to reach and there isn’t much business activity there for Escom to receive a good revenue from electricity usage. That area is unlikely to fall on MAREP’s list. So the MuREA plant is some redemption for them…More importantly, it’s an illustration of how the electricity supply can be improved in Malawi,” the official says.

Various studies, including one by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, have identified more than a dozen potential hydroelectric power plant sites on Malawi’s many rivers and the government says it will exploit these sites to increase Escom’s power capacity.

Government is yet to do this, however, as it continues investing in rehabilitating Escom’s power stations on the Shire River.

Power outages are a perennial problem in Malawi, sometimes lasting as long as 17 hours, and are often attributed to Escom’s aged machinery. The corporation has a total capacity of about 300 megawatts, 90 percent of which comes from hydroelectric power, with the remainder coming from thermal plants.

Against an annual customer growth averaging 8.5 percent, Escom is struggling to meet the increasing demand for electricity. Less than two percent of the 13 million people in this small country in southern Africa have electricity, Escom’s records show.

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