April 3, 2018 Solar Energy Written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima
Solar power in Africa
It is Tuesday morning in Makata,

a rural area outside Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub. It is very hot as it is unusually sunny on this day. However, Sungeni Chimkoka is going to a local health centre to have her 10 months old baby vaccinated against measles, a disease that usually affects children, often even resulting in death. Unlike the last time, she was at the clinic, today she is sure to get her baby vaccinated.

On her previous visit two months ago, her child was not vaccinated on time because the vaccines did not arrive on time. The vaccines were supposed to arrive from another health facility, 10 kilometres away, but the motorcycle which transports the vaccines broke down. This was when Makata Health Centre did not have electricity needed to store the vaccines refrigerated, as the area is far away from the main electricity grid. This meant that a number of babies missed their scheduled vaccination appointment.

However, that is a history now. The health centre has its own electricity! Thanks to a renewable energy powered unit made from used shipping container that was customized to be used as a clinic and a drug storeroom, provided by the Bell College of Scotland in collaboration with Kamuzu College of Nursing at the University of Malawi.

The unit’s twelve solar panels produce about 800 watts of electricity and power the facility’s two refrigerators.

According to Ireen Dimba, a primary health worker at the health centre, the renewable energy unit has greatly helped them in their work, as they are now able to provide vaccinations to children on time.

“The coming of solar power has greatly improved our service delivery because are able to provide vaccinations on schedule, unlike in the past, when we did not have power here at the health centre. We used to collect our vaccination kits from Mlambe Hospital 10 kilometres away and it was time consuming.” She said.

Dimba said that the solar power unit is working well on contrary to their expectations. It powers the clinic’s two refrigerators, while at the same time provides lighting to the facility.

“Unlike in the past, the health centre now has lights all over which helps the facility’s clinicians work without challenges at night in times of emergencies, while at the same time securing the facility as well.”

Ireen Dimba

There has been increase in usage of small solar power torches in most households recently, thanks to the promotion of renewable energy by various stakeholders like non-governmental-organizations and companies, that are providing the rural communities with solar torches at prices that most of them can afford.

A combined solar and wind powered refurbished shipping container, now used as a clinic at Makata, Blantyre rural
A combined solar and wind powered refurbished shipping container, now used as a clinic at Makata, Blantyre rural.

One of the firms promoting solar powered torches and appliances is Powered By Nature. The company is investing heavily in making affordable solar powered torches for rural people. According to their operations and outreach director, Dickson Salanje, they are placing subsidies on their products to make them affordable to most people living in rural areas, whose livelihoods are dependent on subsistence farming and are not able to meet most of their needs all year round.

“Our renewable energy solutions range from large scale solar power kits for homes and institutions, like schools and clinics, to small lighting units for household use. However, most people in rural areas find solar products beyond their reach. In response to this, we have subsidized some of our products to make them affordable.” He says.

Salanje says that although their products are perceived out of reach for many people, they are of high quality, long lasting and would save users a lot of money, which they otherwise spend on battery cells for their dry cell powered torches or kerosene for their lamps. Apart from saving money, using solar lamps helps in conserving our environment as there is no air and land pollution through disposal of used dry cells and the fumes the kerosene lamps produce.

“Solar powered lamps effectiveness outweights the initial cost of buying them, as the user will only need sunlight to charge and use them. Furthermore, when one uses solar lamps, they are saving our environment. Solar energy is clean when compared to using kerosene and dry cells.” He adds.

One of the locals in the area, who have recently bought a solar powered lamp, is Thokozire William. What made her choose the solar lamp was the overall cost of candles, which she was previously using. According to her estimate, on average she was spending US$10 a month on candles, while the torch cost about US$30.

Thokozire William and her relation showing off their solar powered torches.
Thokozire William and her relation showing off their solar powered torches.

“I felt I needed to switch to solar lamps, and I don’t regret it. The lamp is brighter and cleaner without the fumes like those produced by candles. In addition, the risks of fire accident caused by a forgotten burning candle are prevented.” She says.

William says in addition to lighting purposes, she is also able to charge her phone from the same torch, when having it charged to the full capacity from sunlight. This also saves her money, because previously she used to spend money to have her phone charged at a local power shop. She thinks that solar lamps are a way to go for people to have sustainable lighting solutions and reduce the costs of living.

Although renewable energy in Malawi has been associated with areas away from the main grid, there has been an increasing number of households in towns and cities using solar energy as well. It becomes obvious by solar panels appearing on rooftops. This can be attributed to erratic supply of electricity by the utility companies.

Malawi generates 100 percent of its main grid electricity from its three hydroelectricity power stations along the country’s biggest river, the Shire. However, due to the lowering levels of water in the Shire, the electricity utility companies are failing to generate adequate power for industrial and home use. As a result, people are enduring prolonged power outages, which have forced more people supplement their energy needs with solar power.

As much as solar energy is an alternative source of energy, there are several challenges, which need to be addressed by Malawian authorities if the sector is to continue growing, as explained by renewable energy expert, Mavuto Kambochola.

A solar panel on a house roof
A solar panel on a house roof

He says that the renewable energy sector is still struggling with taxing issues when importing equipment, since most of the solar energy equipment is imported from outside Malawi. At the moment, there are clearly no stipulated taxing policies on renewable energy equipment, which eventually leads to double taxation and affects their pricing on the market.

“If taxes on renewable energy equipment and materials are well stipulated, it would help with the pricing, since, at the moment, sellers are selling depending on how much they invested in their initial capital and taxes they paid to government.“ Mavuto Kambochola said.

Kambochola also says that there is a need for the authorities to strengthen the regulatory framework to ensure that gadgets found on the market meet the basic safety and durability standards. And at the same time, it is important to educate people about these standards.

“At the moment, the market has seen a proliferation of substandard solar products, which are putting the lives of users at risk of various dangers. These substandard products are also discouraging others from embracing solar energy solutions. Authorities need to put measures to ensure only best solar products enter the market.”

Mavuto Kambochola

Despite the pricing and quality challenges, more people are embracing the sustainable and cleaner way of lighting and powering their appliances. One can hope that stakeholders will work out a way of dealing with the challenges, which are choking the growth of renewable energy, so that in the near future, majority of households both in rural and urban areas are able to embrace this cleaner source of energy and help in conserving the environment.

This is a guest post written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima.

Deogracias Benjamin Kalima is a Malawian journalist based in Blantyre. He mostly report on environment conservation, agriculture, and rural development. His work has appeared in German (journafrica.de), American (earthisland.org) and African (ruralreporters.com) online platforms.