‘Biomass electricity project plans started with PP govt’
United States (US) power engineering and construction company, Symbion Power, plans to start producing electricity from biomass in the country. This was announced when the company’s chief executive officer Paul Hink met President Peter Mutharika in US recently. But former Energy minister in the People’s Party (PP) government Ibrahim Matola, who says the plans started with the Joyce Banda administration, explains the background in this interview with Our reporter Watipaso Mzungu.
Q. The US power engineering and construction company, Symbion Power, plans to start producing electricity from biomass in the country. Government has already indicated this will help narrow the power generation gap Malawi is currently facing. But as Malawi’s immediate former Minister of Energy, do you think this project is practical? If not, what do you think could be the stumbling block?
It is practical, but there is need for clear policies to guide the implementation of the project. In my assessment, the major stumbling block could be feed-in tariffs because we do not know how they intend to sell their power and at what price. Therefore, these companies should make this information available to the public to enable customers make an informed choice.
Q. Symbion Power founder and chief executive officer Paul Hink alleges that his company faced hassles to roll out its activities in the country because it was not given clearance. Should we say the former PP administration frustrated efforts to deal with power problems?
No, that’s not correct. In fact, the Symbion project started during the PP government together with another American company called Aspire. The former President Joyce Banda unveiled this project during her first 100 days into office. At the time, Symbion first said they would be producing electricity from bamboos. Government dully allocated them land in Kasungu where they could be growing bamboos. But they said the allocated land was small. Unfortunately, we could not give them beyond that because that would have meant grabbing land from farmers for the project. Another option was to allocate them land in Chikangawa Forest. At this point, we advised them to partner with Total Land Care to ensure there is no environmental degradation.
Q. If you can enlighten me, at what level did the PP administration leave the Power Interconnection Project? What challenges did the then government face to roll out this project?
The major glitch was change of scope of work after discovering that the project would not materialise because at the time, Mozambique was faced with floods, which resulted in loss of some its grid. This meant that we should redesign the whole project to ensure that what Malawi needed should not interfere with the needs of our neighbours. But the technical teams from the two countries have since then been meeting to map the way forward.
Q. For decades, Escom—the sole power generator in the country—has failed meet the electricity demand of its customers. What do you think is the main problem?
The energy policy is the major hindrance. The policy states that we should add power generation in five years’ time, yet the demand is increasing each passing day. Imagine, UDF commissioned the Kapichira Phase One Power Station in 2002. The PP government commissioned Kapichira Phase Two 2014. This means that Escom will add another grid in 2019. Obviously, we cannot match supply with demand with such a policy. What you need to know is that Malawi is experiencing high rates of urbanisation and rural migration at the moment. This calls for matching of power generation with population growth.
Q. Given another chance, how could you have handled these challenges to ensure the project materialised?
We could have advised the companies intending to generate power to agree with Escom on work modalities. We believe that before rolling out their projects in the country, these companies should identify their potential customers. Otherwise, may end up having another Air Malawi at Escom.
Personally, how has been life and what have you been doing since you lost your parliamentary seat in the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections?
There is always life after politics. There are a lot of opportunities outside politics.
I am currently studying for a Masters in International Relations and World Order with Leicester University. I enrolled in March this year, but had to take a short leave to concentrate on the campaign. I have just resumed my lessons in September and I expect to finish my studies in September 2016.
One thing you must appreciate is that the May 2014 Tripartite Elections were not [free and fair] elections per se.
Some of us are out of Parliament because we are vocal and a decision was made that we should never come back. But I believe that time will come when democratic elections will be held in this country.
Q. Do you see yourself coming back politically with PP after your party faired dismally in elections in an area that is now a stronghold of UDF?
For sure, I will come back with the will of Allah and the wish of the people of Makanjira. By the way, Mangochi is not a stronghold of the UDF. I challenge that on this premise: In the 2004 General Elections, UDF secured four out of the 12 parliamentary seats in the district while eight went to independents. During the 2009 General Elections, UDF got eight, DPP secured one seat and the rest went to independents. And in the just held May 2014 Tripartite Elections, UDF has secured six; PP got one while independents got five.
Would this be the case if Mangochi were a UDF stronghold?