The inaccessibility of modern energy (electricity) to meet the basic needs of lighting, food processing, education, health centres and income generation industry demands of populations in low-income countries (LICs) continues to be a problem in the 21st century. While governments of industrialised countries appear to be focused on global oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security, climate change and the need for more alternative energy contributions to total energy supply, this energy crisis (inaccessibility and significant energy poverty), affecting millions of people in LICs, has been largely ignored. The lack of access to electricity has led to the inability of government and institutions to implement developmental structures and initiatives, which has in turn condemned millions of men, women and children to continue living in absolute economic poverty. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), intending to improve the quality of life of populations across the planet. Among them, SDG 7 targets the delivery of affordable clean energy for all by 2030. A total of 1.2 billion people were reported to have no direct access to electricity as of 2010, with this number decreasing to 733 million in 2020, which falls short of the initial target defined by the UN [1
]. In 2020, it was estimated that over 600 million inhabitants in the region have no direct access to electricity, representing 77% of the global population without electricity access [2
]. The situation is particularly critical in remote and rural areas. This means no electrical lighting in homes, limited access to radio and modern communications, inadequate utilisation of modern and digital education support systems, poor health facilities and services (i.e., with limited refrigeration capacity for vaccines and inability to carry out medical procedures) and insufficient power to support businesses for such communities. While considerable progress and successes have been realised, especially in the past two decades, through electrification projects which have led to a greater accessibility to electricity than ever before, the world still remains off-track in its efforts to achieve the UN SDG 7 objectives. The SSA region appears to be where most work is still required, with 15 countries in the region having access rates below 25% [3
]. Furthermore, recent events, such as the COVID pandemic, coupled with the energy crisis resulting from the Russia–Ukraine conflict has brought about a slowdown in efforts and programmes aimed at achieving improved energy accessibility for SSA LIC communities, including Malawi [4
]. A reduction of the annual investment globally for electrification projects has been observed, dropping from USD 24.7 billion (in 2017) to 10.9 billion (in 2019) [5
], with forecasts indicating that such investments will see a reduction after 2020. The SSA region is reported to require a total investment of USD 45 billion to USD 49 billion by 2030 to ensure universal access to a source of electricity [6
]. Although current investment levels are off target, there are renewed expectations of improved capital flows to facilitate the target realisation, especially with the mechanisms put in place through the African Development Bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa (NDEA) and Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) [7
]. International agencies and government activities, as well as campaigns and projects funded and executed in the SSA regions, have further helped increase the expansion of electricity access and implementation of renewable energy solutions.
Historically, mechanisms to facilitate improvement in electricity access to populations have been mainly implemented through the expansion of existing grid systems and an increase of the large-scale power generation capacities of such countries. However, the unfavourable costs, operational limitations and issues such as pilferage and limitations related to the use of centralised power management systems, especially for cases where there are small load requirements, could render the use and expansion of existing grid infrastructures unattractive for remote places, and in some cases impractical [8
]. With SSA rural areas, typically with lower load densities, experiencing inaccessibility problems more frequently, this proves problematic since rural electrification has been reported to be typically more expensive (than urban areas) due to lower capacity utilisation rates, greater electricity transmission costs and higher infrastructure and maintenance costs [9
]. The cost of electricity being delivered to a given location directly relates to the load factor, transmission and distribution losses and the electricity generation cost; therefore, increased distribution lines, low load densities and high transmission losses would make the expansion of conventional grid systems to remote rural areas economically unsuitable [8
Alternative systems or a combination of mechanisms to afford the ability to access an electricity source in such currently underserved communities are therefore required, although grid extensions are still being pursued in SSA countries, with large-scale power generation infrastructures and the distribution backbone already in place, so its extension is a more ideal option where practical. Off-grid solutions, including the installation and operation of renewable energy systems (RES) such as solar PV and wind generation systems, are increasingly being used to provide electricity access. Off-grid systems (which can function independently without a connection to the central grid network) can be categorised into distributed and decentralised systems. The distributed off-grid systems are usually characterised by having a power distribution network, similar to a mini-grid, and the decentralised systems mainly find applications in a particular location (home or community use) and encompass solutions such as solar or micro-wind systems for single home use and community grid systems [10
]. The installation and operation of community-based decentralised off-grid RES has been reported to be critical for the achievement of universal electricity access; this is especially significant in sparsely populated rural regions where the high cost of centralised power generation and transmission infrastructures has been a huge barrier to electricity expansion to such areas. Furthermore, the use of such decentralised RES have been acknowledged by the IEA to be the least expensive route to ensuring power provision and improving access to more than half of the currently deprived populations by the year 2030. Even with such optimistic projections, the installation of decentralised RES systems, especially in SSA countries, has still not experienced significant uptake owing to a number of factors, resulting in the possible non-achievement of the SDG 7 targets by 2030. With the reduced prices of solar PV and battery systems in recent years, the investment of micro-grids has increased; in 2016, the RE market was worth over USD 200 billion each year [11
]. However, the implementation of RES to improve electricity access in SSA LICs is plagued by low private sector engagement notwithstanding the tremendous future growth potentials, with investors deterred by the lack of profit in the short–medium term. This is mainly due to the low-income rates of the inhabitants of such regions and the inability of such communities to economically sustain such projects. With only about 14% of the national population having access to electricity (2020 estimates), Malawi has one of the lowest electricity access rates in the world. With a population of approximately 18.1 million (2018 figures), 83.1% of the inhabitants of Malawi live in rural areas (with a density of 192 people per km2
]. The population growth rate for the country has been observed to be increasing significantly over the last few years, with the population expected to reach 25 million by 2025 (with a growth rate of 2.8%) ([13
]). The Malawian economy is highly dependent on the agriculture industry, with over 80% of the population working in this sector ([13
]). The agriculture sector contributes roughly 34% of the gross domestic product of Malawi [15
]. With the majority of the activities in this sector taking place in rural settings, electricity inaccessibility is expected to negatively impact the processing and preservation capabilities related to agricultural production which would in turn have improved the contributions of agriculture to the economy. Malawi is currently reported to have one of the lowest GDPs in the world (the third lowest) with approximately USD 349 per capita (2018), which is below the regional average (USD 4098 (ppp)) [16
]. The rate of poverty is high and observed to exceed 50%, especially in rural areas, where the vast proportion of the population are currently living on less than USD 2/day [17
The prevailing widespread non-accessibility of electricity and the economic characteristics of Malawi, therefore, make it a suitable candidate to explore the mechanisms (current and proposed) put in place to facilitate electricity expansion. Evidence-based research conducted across varied communities, i.e., from Zimbabwe [18
], Brazil [19
] and Indonesia [20
], has shown the close relationship between electricity access and poverty alleviation. The current state of play regarding electricity provision (including the energy generation and supply issues), national electrification programmes, challenges, and situational analysis to support the universal electrification goals of Malawi will be covered in this paper. While there has been some research output on the issue of electricity inaccessibility in Malawi and the electricity landscape in the country, e.g., [21
], a lack of academic research papers covering situational assessments of specific national mechanisms, and their limitations to affording improvements in electricity access in Malawi, was observed.
This paper intends to address this gap identified in the literature. The paper will provide an understanding of the particular situation regarding the overall power generation and distribution situation in Malawi. Furthermore, the challenges for the persistence of low electrification rates nationally will be investigated, with a specific focus on RE initiatives that have been pursued, and a reflection on why electricity expansion using decentralised RES has not been successful historically. The policies and government mechanisms supporting energy generation and RE implementation will be covered in the paper and used as a basis to evaluate the systemic issues impacting the uptake and use of such technologies in Malawi. Recommendations and discussions on how improvements to national electrification can be attained using decentralised RES are then put forward. Although the analysis is initially focused on Malawi, it is anticipated that the findings and assessments put forward in this paper will be similar to the experiences of and be used as a pointer for potential accessibility for, other SSA LIC communities.
3. Implementation Considerations and Relevant Technologies to Facilitate Energy Access
Prior to discussions on the potential implementation and adoption of suitable mechanisms to improve electricity availability to areas which currently do not have access, an understanding of possible electricity requirements and consumption patterns is necessary to inform the best-suited solutions. Ideally, such solutions should be fit to meet the economic, operational and use capacities of the targeted users.
The multi-tiered framework approach put forward by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) and Sustainable Energy for All Program (SEforALL) [13
] measured and used household electricity access as a continuum of improvement and reflects on all aspects of electricity supply. The multi-tiered framework considers different energy sources (i.e., electricity and fuels) and services (i.e., lighting, refrigeration and space cooling), electricity availability, affordability and consumption, and uses these metrics as a basis to identify energy use segments (tiers) as shown in Table 7
With only 14% of the population currently having access to electricity, this means that 86% fall under Tier 0. Proposals to improve electricity access to communities not covered by the national grid or supplies from decentralised mini-grids or household electricity generation schemes would therefore ideally target providing tier 1–2 capacity for households (at least in the short and medium term). This will be with the intention of providing entry electricity access for such households while meeting their basic needs for space lighting and communication.
To meet this goal, appropriate, adequately sized, economical RE technologies are required. Here, renewably driven electricity generation systems in the pico- or microscales can be applied to meet the electricity access goals. In the context of decentralised installations in Malawi, the main renewable resources considered to meet RE generation both for household and community levels are solar, hydro (due to a predominance of water bodies), wind and biomass. The specific RE technologies which will be considered are highlighted below (Table 8
These systems are often available commercially from a wide range of suppliers. The pico-solar systems are normally small independent devices (usually plug and play) mainly used for lighting and, where modular configurations are available, can also be used to power smaller devices or charge a battery. What is designated a pico-solar system varies and is usually dependent on industry and manufacturer naming convention and marketing, as well as the local use environment.
Pico-solar systems are currently the largest and most widely used technology to attain energy access penetration in Malawi and the Sub-Saharan African region, especially on a household level. Potential electricity access proposals and mechanisms will most likely include the use of such systems, owing to their affordability, ease of use and comparative availability compared to other systems.
5. Decentralised Renewable Energy Systems (DRES) Case Studies in Malawi: Progress and Challenges
The successful installation and operation of decentralised off-grid systems, especially those driven by renewable resources (i.e., RES), is an important factor in the potential electrification of the rural areas of Malawi. Several projects are implementing such off-grid technologies driven by the Malawian government and NGOs; for example, the Sustainable Energy for all (SE4All) campaign in Malawi with the initiative village power programme, or the UNDP and the MoE’s sustainable energy management support project. These projects are run co-jointly by different organisations. There are also projects run by private investors and companies. This includes the 1 MW hydropower micro-grid managed and operated by the Lujeri Tea Estate, which they use to power the industry’s energy requirement, with the excess power exported to the surrounding local communities [35
]. Little information is commonly available regarding the efficiencies, economics and maintenance of this and similar projects. Table 9
lists some of the projects of previous and present mini-grid initiatives as reported in [35
The following subsection sections looks specifically at some previous and current DRES projects implemented in Malawi, and uses them as a case study to provide an analysis on the causes of failure or underperformance, as well as the successes, of such projects. It is essential to learn from past projects in order to develop a successful systematic framework for evaluating current and future decentralised RE projects.
5.1. The Solar Village Concept
This initiative involved the installation of a micro solar–wind hybrid system set up to generate electricity in large enough quantities to supply between 100 and 150 households, a school and a trading centre. The communities and villages receiving these systems were then referred to as “solar villages”. The solar–wind hybrid system had an installed capacity of 25 kW and available capacity of 20 kW [22
In 2007, using this mechanism, a total of six solar villages were commissioned on the following sites: Kadzuwa in Thyolo District, Chigunda in Nkhotakota, Elunyeni in Mzimba, and Mdyaka in Nkhatabay, Kadambwe in Ntcheu and Chitawo Solar in Chiradzulu District [26
]. The installed capacity for the solar–wind hybrid system each cost USD 60,000.00 (2008 prices), with a total of USD 360,000.00 used for the system development and execution in the six solar villages. In terms of financing and payment, some villages were supplied free of charge while others paid USD 0.20–0.50 (per household connected) every month to a local fund, used for paying an operator of the plant, the security guard (to prevent theft of the infrastructure) and some minor repairs. An additional consumer cost was USD 2 per connection including wiring materials or USD 1 in cases where wiring accessories were not included.
The concept of the solar village involved the government hiring a contractor to construct and install the renewable electricity generation facility. Upon completion, the facility is handed over to the government. The government enters a one-year contract with the contractor for the repair and maintenance of the facility. The government then hands over the facility to the concerned community. The community assumes ownership and is expected to manage the facility. The community is then expected to establish a committee to be responsible for the day-to-day management of the facility, revenue collection and repair and maintenance beyond the one-year contract. The labour and employment opportunities related to the plant operation, safety and maintenance are also expected to be drawn from the local community. For example, one member of the community is employed as the operator of the facility while another is employed as the security guard.
The findings made by [26
] indicate that solar villages registered the following successes: a high sense of ownership of the facilities such that people displayed their acceptance of the facilities that had been established by forming committees to manage them including their daily operation, revenue collection and repair and maintenance. Additionally, the community members were willing to pay for the electricity despite some cases of defaulters.
Studies by [35
] indicate that it was costly to install the solar villages and the operating costs were too high, such that the locals could not afford to repair and maintain the system, especially the batteries. Furthermore, there was a lack of dedicated funding for sustaining the programme, such that currently, no solar village is operating. The other challenge was the unsustainable electricity pricing mechanism, such that electricity tariffs were equivalent to monthly expenditures on torches, candles and other lighting sources used by the community members.
5.2. Decentralised Systems Strategy: The Barefoot Engineers Concept
In 2007, the Barefoot Engineers concept was introduced in Malawi through a project that was financed by the Indian Government in collaboration with the Malawi Government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation [26
]. The objective of the project was to disseminate solar home systems to vulnerable people in rural areas. Under this project, a total of 316 solar home systems were installed in 316 households in 4 villages in all 3 regions of Malawi. The installed system capacities were based on the number of electrical appliances a household had or intended to have, as well as the operating hours of such appliances. However, most SHSs installed were 1 kW systems. The Indian Government provided full scholarships for the training of selected rural women in solar PV engineering. These women were trained for a period of 6 months at Barefoot College, India. The last cohort of women to be trained under this project did so in 2013. For its part, Barefoot College has partners in countries where the project is being implemented. In Malawi, the partner is the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE).
Since the Barefoot Engineers project focused on the installation of solar home systems which are simple and less complex, it was easy to transfer skills to the local community and less costly, thereby making it easier to repair and maintain the systems. Additionally, there was a strong sense of ownership and community participation since each household had its solar home system. Thus, the decentralised system strategy provides a self-regulating environment as far as ownership, operation, care, repair and maintenance are concerned. However, little is known on whether all of the solar home systems installed are still in operation.
The strategy was weakened by the fact that the first batch of the systems were given out to the selected participants free of charge. There was no provision for people purchasing the systems on their own. This means that the rest of the villagers looked forward to “receiving” rather than “buying” the systems. A knock-on community uptake of the concept and the solar home systems was therefore observed not to have occurred. Furthermore, due to its dependence on donations, the project had very limited coverage. For example, Chitala Centre comprises 19 villages but only 4 were covered by the project [22
5.3. The Sunny Money Concept
The Sunny Money concept, operated by the UK-based charity Solar Aid, works as a social enterprise which identified the need and potential market for affordable lighting systems in rural areas, and aimed to provide a sustainable market model to meet that need. With the concept, Solar Aid imported solar PICO lights and sold them to customers [26
]. The business model applied saw the use of an innovative marketing system to deliver new products to hitherto unknown markets. With this scheme, Sunny Money involved the participation of local individual dealers and entrepreneurs across the country to increase the reach of these products. This is prompted by investment in the collaborative marketing of solar PV technologies to end users.
Lessons from the Concept
The significance of the Sunny Money concept is that it contributes to the development of the market infrastructure for the transfer of solar PV technologies. To be specific, the model highlights “dealerships” as a marketing strategy that enables the transfer of solar PV technologies deep into rural areas [26
]. The dealership which builds local capacity for the supply of relevant products is therefore an important feature that should become one of the pillars of a sustainable strategy for the transfer of solar PV technologies to the rural areas
5.4. The Empower Concept
Empower Inc. is an Australian NGO that operates the Empower Malawi concept (a social enterprise that seeks to achieve energy access improvement), as well as the promotion of a savings culture. Empower Malawi facilitated the distribution of solar lanterns for lighting in the remote community of Kapita in Mzimba District in 2010. The project was first piloted in Zatuba Village in the South-East Mzimba District, Northern Region of Malawi [35
]. The project was designed in such a way as to empower the people economically, first and foremost.
In 2017, Empower Malawi partnered with the NextEnergy Foundation to establish five “independent” energy hubs with the aim of providing electricity to hard-to-reach rural communities in Northern Malawi. The hubs were positioned to bridge the finance gap for very-low-income community consumers through a service offering pay-per-use access to energy goods and services. These included the charging of mobile phones, batteries and other portable devices, periodic rentals of solar lights and other solar products and carrying out minor repairs. These hubs therefore allowed consumers to access such services without incurring the relatively significant costs associated with their outright purchase.
The energy hubs further worked in conjunction with local schools across Northern Malawi. The schools were used as hub bases, while they in turn were provided the benefit of free lighting (which allowed remedial classes to be run late in the evenings, thus improving the services provided by the schools). With regard to the empowerment goals through encouraging a savings culture, Empower further provided seed money of USD 10,000.00 to facilitate its objectives. One of the first activities was to establish a village bank to engender self-reliance in the area through the promotion of a saving culture in the community. According to [26
], in addition to promoting saving, the bank aimed to provide business and development loans in a region that has no financial services within a 50 km radius. At the community level, savers earn 7 percent interest on their savings while borrowers pay 20 percent interest on the loans. Empower engaged a local training and consultancy provider, namely Business Expansion and Entrepreneurship Development (BEED), to train members of the community in business and entrepreneurship, as well as to establish a Village Revolving Fund. The fund would be the capital base for the provision of loans. One outstanding feature of the project design is the absence of donations.
The Empower concept is very close to being a sustainable strategy for solar PV technology transfer. The potential for sustainability lies in the fact that there are no donations involved. This means that any capital injections by Empower Inc., referred to as seed money, will be repaid. The other favourable aspect of the model is that it has a built-in economic empowerment component, which enables participating communities to develop the financial capacity to purchase solar lanterns, among their other needs. The model highlighted “economic empowerment” as an important pillar of a sustainable strategy for the transfer of solar PV technologies in remote areas of Malawi.
There is no effective supply chain for the technologies built into the project design. Communities cannot usually support the establishment of the hubs on their own, and individual consumers were usually unable to afford the solar lanterns, relying on the sponsors to keep supplying them. This is where the sustainability of the project is compromised.
5.5. Mulanje Electricity Generation Agency
Mulanje Electricity Generation Agency, MEGA, is located in Mulanje district, Malawi, and is considered the first mini-grid in Malawi. The concept of a community-based mini-hydropower project was introduced in 2008 and led to the establishment of the Mulanje Energy Generation Agency (MEGA) in 2011 by three founding partners [35
The installed system capacity is 80 kW. The MEGA project is managed by Powering Development in Mulanje (PDM) with financial support from the European Union and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund for International Development (OFID), the Scottish Government, Mulanje Renewable Energy Agency, MUREA, Practical Action, UNDP/GEF and other funders. Being a socially oriented company, MEGA does not seek to maximise profits. The MEGA business model aims to achieve economies of scale for central operations by developing multiple sites [37
The hydro scheme mini-grid supplies power to 740 households, 5 primary schools, 24 teacher houses and 32 businesses. Other entrepreneurs intend to venture into businesses such as maize mills, welding and machine shops, carpentry, bakeries and hair salons. The mini-grid has also improved the services at the local health centre, as the clinic is now fitted with lights and a has a vaccine refrigerator and sterilizer. Prior to electricity supply, expectant mothers brought candles to the clinic in case deliveries occurred at night. Based on the project successes, the PDM intends to install a 100 kW hydro power facility to further afford access to 400 additional homes using the mini-grid mechanism.
MEGA faces specific difficulties because the electricity tariffs are constrained by consumer ability to pay. Another difficulty is the lack of enough human and technical resources in the area.
6. Obstacles and Issues Affecting DRES Implementation in Malawi
Even though improving energy access (especially to poorer rural communities) appears to be a high-priority policy issue in Malawi, with its potential strategies and actions put forward in different government policy documents, the actual realisation or the mechanisms to achieve them have not been fully implemented or effected to ensure adherence. There also appears to be a current lack of resources to afford the realisation of such electrification goals. On a governmental level, it can be observed that even with the institution of the rural electrification fund which was positioned to assist the co-funding of DRES in remote rural communities, the inadequacy of this fund to successfully finance the national targets has been highlighted. On a community level, potential DRES projects also suffer owing to the earning power of inhabitants, especially since initial investments for such projects are normally too large to be covered wholly by such communities. A survey by the Irish-Research-Council-funded CEANGAL project in Malawi [39
] found that over 55% of the interviewed respondent households earned less than MWK 50,000 monthly (i.e., less than USD 48). More flexible funding mechanisms and financing resources relevant to the particular local scenarios are therefore needed.
While there has been some noticeable impact in improving electrification using decentralised off-grid systems through the implemented projects, the Malawian government’s operational systems do not currently appear to promote the setup of these systems. For example, in cases where a micro-grid is targeted to be established, policies associated with obtaining a license for the installation of a microgrid can be problematic. This is especially the case with the long waiting times (with reports of sometimes up to 2 years) generally encountered to obtain permissions. The price of the registration and license fees (especially for 1–5 MW RES systems generation) is also observed to be significant and potentially a hinderance, especially when compared to other SSA countries. The registration and license fees are USD 145 (for private consumers) and USD 483 (for commercial purposes, respectively (2023 estimates), which contrasts the situation in Senegal and Burkina Faso, where there is no cost for similar licenses [29
]. In Kenya and Tanzania, there is no need for a license for microgrids producing less than 1MW, regardless of their purpose. This may be one of the reasons why the implementation of these systems is more developed in these countries.
Another major issue limiting an increased uptake of DRES solutions in Malawi is the eventual costs or use fees related to the power generated by such systems. This is exemplified by the tariffs currently proposed by the company ESCOM. The common price of electricity was USD 0.09/kW or in the package of USD 33 for 365 kW/h in 2020. This price is set for ESCOM-distributed electricity, regardless of the source. Tariffs set by the company have seen increases in the last decade. The main concern with such increases is that over 60% of the households in Malawi have been identified as being unable to afford these prices, which are higher by 20% than the average household earning [13
]. To exacerbate this issue, the World Bank, in its report assessing the electricity pricing situation in Malawi, estimated that the electricity prices were not “reflective” of the real price of production. They calculated that the “ideal” tariff would be USD 0.13/kW, which would be more reflective of the production costs (note: this refers to 2016 values, with expectations that this estimate will be higher in 2023 due to inflation
). In such scenarios, where the ideal tariffs are effected, most households will struggle to pay their electricity bill, leading to further apathy regarding the need to be connected to an electricity source and the accruable benefits [13
]. To help local communities to pay for electricity consumption from decentralised mini-grids, some plans have been developed offering power using a Pico solar system (3 lights, and charging a phone) for one year at USD 42 and with SHS (four lights, charging phone and radio) at USD 102/year [13
]. Other systems, such as Pay as You Go, propose to pay by phone-in instalments.
In relation to the certification of infrastructures available to meet the actualisation of implementing RES systems, there is a lack of mechanisms to verify genuine and reliable systems. A recent survey established that a vast majority of the solar panels (Pico and larger solar home systems) found in Malawi were copycat/counterfeit products, with their operational lifetimes being significantly shorter than the genuine systems [40
]. The “fake” solar panels and modules usually came with no warranties, and if they were damaged, no repairs or replacement was possible. There was a lack of education for the population by the government or certification authorities in Malawi to distinguish a fake from a certified panel. Even though MAREP under its decentralised RES drive requires that solar panels have at least a warranty, most retailers in Malawi do not offer it. A significant number of such modules arrive in the country “pre-used” from South Africa. Interested off-grid RES operators and consumers in Malawi are therefore vulnerable to a lack of regulation and protection [40
]. In addition, the poor-quality materials in such systems could result in a lower yield of solar panels and reduced confidence in decentralised RES solutions.
Surveys conducted by McCauley et al. [14
] suggested that investors and stakeholders were not willing to commit substantial investments that would have supported the proliferation of DRES and off-grid systems, due to the non-availability of strong robust policies implemented by the government. There is a lack of knowledge of the current situation and misconceptions about the country. Investors are wary of the political and economic situation of the country, seeing it as being risky and not stable enough for guaranteeing payback or even a successful sustained operation of such projects in cases of a charitable donation to meet electrification goals.
Furthermore, there seemed to be an over-reliance on the expectations of the benefits of energy access through the national grid, even where such access was not currently available, and where there were no plans to achieve this in the short-to-medium term. Some respondents interviewed thought that using mini-grids could hinder the development of the national grid and identified that such DRES solutions were “unsustainable”. Some investors even identified a preference to develop the supply of energy coming from a neighbouring country such as Mozambique [14
]. There was also a fear of the inefficient management of energy by ESCOM, and this was used as a reason for the lack of confidence in further investing in the decentralised RES sector. Nevertheless, although the distribution and the generation of power have been separated into two entities, the overall system was considered poorly managed and unreliable. ESCOM is perceived as one of the riskiest companies in Africa. Indeed, they suffer from a lack of support from the government and their reputations precludes them from securing extensive funding [14
There is currently a lack of dissemination and knowledge transfer activities specifically aimed at rural communities with low electricity access opportunities, and currently at a distance from the national grid, as identified in [13
]. A study carried out in the south of Malawi in the city of Blantyre revealed that 32% of households were powered by solar energy. The majority of the respondents had a higher education with a secondary degree (52%, compared to 8% with a primary degree) [37
]. It emphasised that more communication should be effectuated by the local government regarding the advantage of this technology and reduce the misconceptions about solar energy and RES in general, which might in turn stimulate collective or individual action based on the knowledge of the benefits.
One of the major issues in Malawi was the significant lack of human resources and the local capacity to support the realisation of the decentralised RES actualisation goals, including the support structures to afford the installation, operation and maintenance of the potential off-grid mini-grids and standalone RES systems. For example, it was observed that after the installation of 5000 solar home systems in 2000, at least 50% of them were not working 3 years later [39
]. The repairs of those systems were greatly impaired with a lack of trained local skillsets to provide repairs to this equipment; hence, they ended up being discarded. Some skills to operate DRES are complex and highly qualified persons are required to maintain some systems. Although there has been increased participation of private companies, NGOs and the government sector in improving decentralised RES generation capacity with the installation of infrastructures, there has been a lack of intensive support to facilitate the continuous training of local personnel to operate and maintain these systems [41
7. Recommendations and Commentary
The perceived mismanagement of Malawi institutions and uncertainty around changing government policies could have a negative effect on the development of mini-grid and DRES projects by discouraging potential interest in the sector, not just of international and local investors, but also in community members who might have wanted to undertake such schemes. The government should work closely and in collaboration with the private sector investors, NGOs and community stakeholders to develop a more efficient, reliable and workable practical strategy; such a strategy should be easily understood and interpreted by all stakeholders, and the necessary requirements and guidelines made clear to ensure transparency.
More focused education targeting local communities is also required to address the continued preference for a connection to the national grid for electricity access as opposed to the use of DRES systems. The lack of strong examples of sustained electricity access using decentralised systems is mainly to blame for this. The use of international and national case studies which have been successful in guaranteeing continuous electricity access should be shared. The benefits of RES systems and their potential impact on the livelihoods and economies of such communities should be highlighted as well.
Malawi’s government could, through a collaborative process put forward a framework to support a fairer, more sustainable and considerate tariff structure, that will not only encourage future investments, but will also facilitate an improvement in the willingness to participate and pay tariffs related to such schemes. The government could follow the example of the ReFIT schemes successfully applied in Tanzania where a standardised power purchase agreement is used [26
]. This decision could enhance the deployment of decentralised RES [15
Although the NEP clearly indicates an intention to support local capacities to distribute and supply RES, especially solar modules, to assist electricity access goals, there is currently a significant lack of suppliers and distributors nationally for these products, with the few available mainly concentrated in the urban areas and with no regional offices or sales centres available. The difficulty in purchasing and finding solar panels in the Dedza district of Malawi was demonstrated in [37
], with only 13% of the retailers selling related products having such modules available. Furthermore, in cases where these were stacked, there is no information on whether these solar panels were certified as mentioned earlier [43
]. Therefore, the government, private companies and NGOs should help with mechanisms to ensure the availability of RES modules, including solar systems for purchase. This could be through the provision of credit facilities to allow the wholesalers and distributors to effectively purchase and have such products available. The government could also play a more significant role in supporting product availability by bulk-buying the modules and selling through registered outlets in closer proximities to the rural communities, and at cost price.
To address the observed lack of knowledge and working skill sets and expertise on the concepts, operations and maintenance of RE generation systems which negatively impacts the operation sustainability, more concerted efforts by all stakeholders are needed to facilitate the training and knowledge transfer to support the RES implementation goals. More specialised training and workforces to equip individuals with required skills are needed. Furthermore, targeted community support centres providing specialised services including information on ideal RES solutions, to provide advice on system operation and to carry out infrastructure repairs are needed. This could be through the establishment of functional local service hubs for local stakeholder engagement, which would ensure the continuity of established RES projects and use, act as a regional information point for future communities’ interests in RES implementation and provide training and support to drive the continued process of RES uptake.
SDG7 and Se4All programs financed by the United Nations face the main challenge of improving the rate of electrification in low-income countries, emphasising their actions in the areas with difficulties in accessing electricity. In the SSA region, Malawi has the lowest rate of electrification, with approximately 14% of the total population having any access to an electricity source. The national grid is the main source of access, with hydropower being the primary source of electricity for the national grid. Despite the low penetration of the grid, the country cannot currently cope with the electricity demand, leading to daily long blackouts usually reported nationwide. Such power outages are more common in dry seasons (with lower water levels in reservoirs). To meet the objective of supplying at least 80% of the population by 2030, the generation of electricity using off-grid using mini-grid or decentralised renewable energy systems have been increasingly pursued. Solar photovoltaic is currently the most widespread applied RE technology in Malawi.
While more government action is required to facilitate a more favourable market to encourage an improved uptake and use of RES especially in rural areas, the availability of more practical funding mechanisms to support such goals are required. With Malawi being one of the poorest countries in the world, fairer tariff rates are needed in order for most of the underserved population to benefit from the intended electrification actions using DRES. Furthermore, government, community stakeholder and private companies should collaborate for the education of local communities on the advantages of setting up DRES to ensure that the benefits accruable with the use of such systems will be best understood by all the stakeholders.