Wonderful Hunga: Sunshine can empower Malawians

FOR 63 years Efe Mpuche lived without electricity. Like many other people in Malawi, growing up in a village in Thyolo district meant living in a grass-thatched house, pitch black.
A catamaran on Lake Malawi. Sunshine is an abundant resource in a nation that is desperately short of electricity privision. Picture: Donald MacleodA catamaran on Lake Malawi. Sunshine is an abundant resource in a nation that is desperately short of electricity privision. Picture: Donald Macleod
A catamaran on Lake Malawi. Sunshine is an abundant resource in a nation that is desperately short of electricity privision. Picture: Donald Macleod

Only 10 per cent of Malawi’s 15 million population are connected to the grid. The lack of electricity is ironic given the potential for solar electricity that comes from the sun.

Malawi is one of the countries in the world so blessed with abundant sunlight that almost every day is sunny. But people can grow up only to die in a fire accident caused by a candle or an explosive home-made kerosene lamp locally called “Koroboyi”.

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Hydro-electric power comes from water, which covers 24,404 square kilometres of Malawi. Yet only two in every 100 rural households are connected to the grid.

It is a truth remote from the lives of Scots, who boast of 150 years friendship with the Malawians, and who are known to be warm and kindhearted people.

“It is an unimaginable poverty,” said Scottish Minister of International Development, Humza Yousaf, on his five-day visit to Malawi last week. “But what I have seen has also ­exceeded my expectations. People in this country are working very hard to address their challenges.”

Through the solar energy kiosks project funded by the Scottish Government Malawi Development Fund, 400 households in Thyolo and Phalombe districts will benefit through access to solar electricity.

In the town of Bvumbwe where this project is taking place, about 30 kilometres from Blantyre – a city named after the Lanarkshire town – electricity has been limited to the trading centre. A stone’s throw from Bvumbwe trading centre at night, residents are left in darkness and fumes of noxious material burnt to release light.

Provision of solar electricity to these households means life. More than half of the country’s population live below the World Bank’s poverty line. Without electricity, an average household has to spend at least $5 per month, which they can barely earn, on paraffin for kerosene lamps.

Alternatively, the household has to spend about $4 on batteries to light up Chinese torches, which have infiltrated the local market. A family has to invest a minimum of $3 to buy the torch.

Communications is an important part of life and business in Malawi. These days, almost every household has a mobile phone. To charge a ­mobile phone, a household needs electricity. Since almost all rural households in the country are off-grid, having a mobile phone comes at a cost.

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Men and women have to walk longer distances, at least two kilometres to get to the trading centre just to charge the phone.

On average, besides walking to the trading centres at least twice a week, an individual has to part with $0.50 a week to have their phone running.

To a Scot, the money spent by an average rural Malawian household on energy alone cannot buy a meal at KFC. To their longtime Malawian friends, energy consumption accounts­ for almost 20 per cent of their meagre income.

In addition, the difference electricity can make to a rural Malawian household like Efe Mpuche and her five dependents, is enormous. An inexpensive form of energy for lighting means more study time for school going children leading to improved results. This is besides increased expenditure on nutritious foods and other important household expenses.

“Considering that education is the only tool for prosperity in Malawi, the difference that solar energy brings here is the same as that between life and death,” notes Jabulani Kamngoya, a District Information Officer at Thyolo.

The story of Malawi is not about despair. It is actually the rhythm of hope. The Scottish-Malawi collaboration contributes to that hope.

“It is part of a legacy. Livingstone still journeys on in the hearts of ­Malawians and the Scots,” says MSP Yousaf. «

• Wonderful Hunga is a Malawian journalist. In 2013 he was a Livingstone Journalism Scholar, a project set up by Scotland on Sunday, the University of Strathclyde and the Scottish Government.