The recent census shows that Malawi’s population has surged from 13.1 million to 17.5 million between 2008 and 2018, with 84 in every 100 Malawians living in rural areas.
However, only 18 percent of the households have access to the national electricity grid—and this includes a meagre four percent among the rural majority.
The low access to electricity, which is rightly touted as a trigger for economic transformation, health and other marks of well-being, slows the growth of small businesses.
However, a solar-powered mini-grid installed at Sitolo Village in Mchinji shines a light on how decentralised systems can deliver the game changer to communities excluded from the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi transmission lines.
The 80-kilowatt mini-grid in Mchinji District along the border between Malawi and Zambia is a fruit of the National Renewable Energy Strategy of 2017 adopted to close energy gaps.
Through the blueprint, the government encourages solar, hydro and wind power mini-grids by independent power producers for communities located at least 15 kilometres from the grid.
According to the strategy shows, the self-sufficient power generation and supply systems detached from the national grid can accelerate access to electricity for about 27 percent of the country’s population.
Sitolo is located 15 kilometres from the Malawi-Zambia border, a rural setting marked by subsistence farming.
The sustainable energy project is being implemented by Community Energy Malawi (CEM) in partnership with Community Energy Scotland and the Ministry of Energy.
The mini-grid was developed with financial support from the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Delopment Programme in partnership with Malawi Government.
Just like most areas in Malawi, Sitolo has abundance of sunlight for a solar mini-grid. The mini-grid launched on December 23 2019 by Bintony Kuntsaira, then minister responsible for energy, harnesses this natural resource for the benefit of the farming community.
The government and its partners recognise the project as a trendsetter in terms of its quality and impact in the area.
Ministry of Energy spokesperson Upile Kamoto terms the Sitolo solar mini-grid a flagship project that demonstrates the power of decentralised solutions to transform lives and livelihoods.
“As a ministry, we look at it as an example of what must be replicated in other areas to improve access to electricity. We are also encouraged by the project’s socio-economic impact,” she says.
During the launch, the mini-grid was supplying 160 households and businesses in the area.
This has helped the subsistence farmers diversify their income generating activities, with some venturing into high-earning start-ups that depend on the electricity such as welding and maize milling.
And the shop owners connected to the mini-grid started selling refrigerated goods and increased their business hours.
This has improved their profit margins, to the delight of CEM country director Edgar Kapiza-Bayani.
“Our aim is to transform communities, so we are satisfied with our work in Sitolo together with our supporting partners,” he says.
CEM has since expanded the mini-grid to Ndawambe and Molosiyo villages in the vicinity.
With the extension, it now benefits over 1 000 households and businesses and services.
Bayani says the expansion to the two villages has connected new businesses.
“The current administration has an objective of creating one million jobs, especially for the youth and women. From what we have seen in Sitolo community, mini-grids can help in achieving that,” he explains.
The new businesses include a tailoring shop owned by 23-year-old Samuel Daka of Ndawambe.
For Bayani, Daka is only an example of how access to reliable sustainable energy can help end the country’s massive youth unemployment, which fuels an endless exodus of the rural young Malawians to towns and cities.
“Many young men have expanded their means of income to barbershops, tailoring, grocery shops, video showrooms and entertainment places. This potential lies untapped in several areas across Malawi,” he states.
With the transformation underway in Sitolo Village, it is clear mini-grids can help the government create one million jobs while accelerating the rise of new and existing businesses.
The good news is that similar game changers can be implemented in many places across the country, thanks to the abundance of renewable energy sources such as sunlight.
As the dark spots of Sitolo get lights and power, the rural Malawians are waking up to a new reality that reminds them how the majority of the population not electrified keeps suffering amid plenty.