What comes to light when electricity goes off? Silence. Machines grinding to a halt. Production dying in a flash. Noisy generators springing to life as people scamper from various spaces where money change hands in the name of business. I witnessed darkness suddenly descend on Mzuzu soon after high-powered assurances that sanity is returning to the energy sector.
Blackouts. Load shedding. Outages. Darkness has become by-word for energy in Malawi where electricity supply remains skewed, erratic and unpredictable despite all the lights in political lingo.
Just when the 2008 census show only nine in 100 Malawians have access to electricity and none admits knowing when an end to the persistent power problems will dawn, there is one place where energy is sure-fire and interminable—the never-ending assurances from Minister of Energy Ibrahim Matola.
Sitting in Matola’s shadow in the glow of fluorescent lights that illuminated Mzuzu City Assembly’s Civic Hall alight on a rainy Wednesday night, it was not surprising seeing journalists being electroculated by more of the same: talk, glorious figures and more promises.
“If you read the news, you will notice that blackouts and advertisements of load-shedding are no longer common. Instead, now we are having major maintenance,” said the energy minister, waxing lyrical of improved electricity since the launch of the second phase of Kapichira Hydropower Generation Plant which President Joyce Banda envisaged significantly re-energising the country’s business sector.
With the power plant entering a second month, the optimism which was supposed to be an icing on the cake has become a painful surprise for Mzuzu residents, the likes of Zolozolo’s Edmund Gondwe who are dying for uninterrupted electricity.
“Its surprising Malawians are being forced to accept there is nothing wrong with frequent blackouts. Some of us are getting sick and tired of this,” says Gondwe, 42 after seeing the on-and-off lights blink into unexpected darkness the night Matola and eight other ministers belonging to the cabinet committee overseeing implementation of the Economic Recovery Plan had elected to tell the press how the blueprint is transforming anything from agriculture and availability of foreign exchange to the ailing energy sector.
Of course, the gathering highlighting how the country has leapt from the economic mess inherited from deceased Bingu wa Mutharika on April 7 2012 proved it may as well be what it has always been—a talk show.
After talking the talk, the sweet-talking ministers’ glistening chauffeur-driven cars were cruising on a kilometre that splits Mzuzu City Council headquarters from the posh Sunbird Mzuzu Hotel where they were nesting than the rainy night of glorious speech flickered into darkness.
Yes it was—and the question has been lingering for nearly two months as Mzuzu residents are grappling with worsening electricity supply despite the gains promised by the introduction of Kapichira.
But this was not your ordinary outage. Not only did it span from Wednesday around 11pm to Thursday 8.30am, but the entire city was dark and gloom.
Standing on a lofty spot in the city’s commercial business centre, it was conspicuously clear that every dot was pitch black—save for telecommunication transmitters and other pustules powered by generators.
Such power outages were rare in Mzuzu, but what used to be a fortnightly mishap has become a common experience with no power all day every Sunday.
Is this how the highly touted Kapichira II will benefit the North? Why is power supply worsening when Malawians were made to believe things would be better?
Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) reporter Steve Zimba put these questions to the Minister of Energy and he affirmed the Northern Region is not yet reaping the desired fruits from Kapichira II.
“We expect the situation to improve since the US-funded Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) has embarked on a project to enhance the distribution and transmission of electricity in the region. At present, the system is outdated, with some poles dating to the 1960s and prone to destructive winds and rains,” said Matola.
The MCC signed an agreement with Malawi Government after coming to a certainty that unreliable energy supply—like high cost of transporting goods—presents a major drawback to business growth in the country.
But what does it matter when this is no US or any of those countries where a daylong electricity interruption is enough for a president to address affected citizens?
While Malawians are getting accustomed to day and nights without power, the rotten poles that can no longer stand the storms could be symptomatic of the vivid inefficiencies Electricity Supply of Malawi must surmount to turn around the energy sector earmarked to provide the firepower to put the country’s back on the path to recovery.
According to Minister of Economic Planning Ralph Jooma, overcoming the challenges in the energy and transport facilities is pivotal to ensuring other priority areas—agriculture, tourism, mining and other industries—achieve their potential to generate the revenue projected in the ERP.
“With the 64 megawatt from the second phase of Kapichira which the President successfully commissioned this year, persistent blackouts are no longer a big problem in the Southern and Central parts of the country,” says Jooma.
The unnecessary costs one-and-off power exerts on individuals and firms doing business in Malawi puts at stake the economic recovery.
According to Jooma, an economy that is recovering is one that is promising and able to give various players the means to achieve their desired end.
Unfortunately, the said ‘means’ do not only include fuel whose availability has appreciably improved since April 2012 or the $400 million import cover which the economist terms enough forex to see the country through two lean month until May when tobacco sales trigger a downpour of dollars into national reserves.
It also includes reliable energy to drive the machines and households that keep the economy afloat. With low output and frequent blackouts, the country’s ailing electricity supply will leave businesses and households with an extra cost as they rely on expensive costs like Paladin Africa Limited which struck its Kayerekeas Uranium Mine from the national grid to giant generators running on diesel.
Interestingly, government seems to know that disparities in the country’s energy sector will not end with ending persistent problems presently paralysing the national grid but guaranteeing a future where even the rural populations have access to power.
It is for this reason that government with support from the World Bank embarked on a Malawi Rural Electrification Project (Marep) which is giving remote trading centres glimpses of the brighter nights urban dwellers rue due to endless blackouts.
In Rumphi North, Mlowe residents, who were connected in 2006, hail the project for giving them the ease to use mobile phones, barbing machines, refrigerators, bulbs and other technologies despite being in a rocky remote setting.
Last year, the president launched a dream to extend Marep to 81 trading centres, starting with 27, a dream the economic planning sees spurring development and rural growth in far-flung areas.
When asked about progress, Jooma said: “We started with one in every district, 11 are already completed and 16 are at an advanced stage. The remaining 57 will be done by private partners who are expected to sign the contracts soon.”
It is commendable that populations which used to wallow in darkness are seeing the light, but the shining example will breed the inconveniences Electricity Supply Cooperation (Escom) loves to regret unless the connected few are guaranteed unfailing power every day.
The truth on the flipside was strikingly glaring the night darkness descended on Mzuzu as the energetic Matola and other minister fell sound asleep at the prime hotel where electricity never blinks like fireflies.
Memorising and spitting well-documented figures in the comfort of hotel rooms, conference centres, executive boardrooms or political rallies will bring no solution to the long drawn problem. Only radical action will.