As Alefa Banda walked out of a grinding mill at Mponela in Dowa, her face glowed with joy. She once spent days to mill her maize flour because the trading centre constantly went up to 25 hours without power. Not any longer
“Spending less than 30 minutes at the maize mill is a miracle,” she says. “Three months ago, we used to wait for a day or two due to blackouts.”
The cause of the power problems often stirred an emotive debate and political tantrums.
But economist Fanwell Kenala Bokosi says the country was paying a huge price for not adequately investing in the power sector.
“Unfortunately, the problem of electricity in the country is partly as a result of the policy choices this country has made,” reads his article, titled Blackouts: Reaping What We Sowed.
Bokosi reckons blaming the power situation on falling water levels in Shire River is “burying our heads in the sand”.
He argues: “For a country with vast water body of water covering the surface of 29 600 square kilometres, perhaps we should say it is lack of planning, lack of innovation spiced with lack of seriousness.
“Sometimes, decisions we make as a country force one to think that Malawi does not want to develop.”
Over 50 years after attaining independence in 1964, the country’s hydropower plants generate nearly 360 megawatts (MW).
Almost 99 percent of this comes from the Shire, the sole outlet of Lake Malawi whose water level is reducing and buried in silt and debris.
The chronic droughts in southern Africa halved the country’s power output last year.
Lengthy blackouts crippled the economy as industrial production slumped, economic growth slowed and patients died in hospitals.
According to Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) board chairperson Perks Ligoya, the 160MW mostly went to referral hospitals and water boards require about 70MW.
The remainder went to industrial and domestic use, he said.
“Under-investment in the energy sector is the real cause of power crisis in the country,” said President Peter Mutharika.
He refused to solely blame the power shortage on climate change.
Unlike Malawi, Mozambique generates 2 300MW, Zambia 1 900MW while Tanzania generates 1 358MW.
Malawi has lagged behind due to the policy choices, Bokosi argues.
The country put its eggs in one basket by installing all major turbines on the Shire.
In contrast, Tanzania diversified its energy sources. Just about 567MW—about 42 percent of its power output—comes from hydro-power plants. About 607MW (45 percent) emanates from natural gas while 173MW (13 percent) comes from liquid fuel.
Amid harsh affects of climate change on hydro-power generation, Tanzania relies on the natural gas and diesel power plants.
Having been reduced to a nation in darkness, Malawi has risen to do the needful.
“Our plan is to do away with power shortage problems forever,” says Mutharika. “We have set in motion long-term plans to eradicate the energy problem permanently,”
He sounded optimistic when he commissioned the 55MW diesel generators in Blantyre.
“These generators do not solve all the power problems we have been experiencing for many years,” he declared.
The generators are installed to run for the next three years of transition, he says
Within five years, says the President, the country will have the capacity to generate over 1 400MW of coal-fired power; about 700MW of hydropower; and 70MW of solar energy.
The strategy includes connecting the country to the regional power pool where it can tap electricity during lean periods.
Some doubt the promises, but the strides and urgency demonstrate renewed resolve.
Government plans to increase the power output to 468MW by June, by another 538MW by mid-2019 and to 830MW by 2021.
Meanwhile, a solar plant, designed to 20MW to the national grid by December, is under construction in Salima. By June 2019, there will be four producing 70MW.
Another game changer includes the Chinese-funded 300 MW coal-fired power plant at Kam’mwamba in Neno, which is expected to make blackouts history by 2020.
Meanwhile, upgrades at Nkula A, Tedzani III and construction at Tedzani IV hydro-power plants are underway. The feasibility studies for new power stations at Mpatamanga, Fufu, Kholombidzo and Lower Songwe falls are in the pipeline.
“Once we have enough power supply, then we can move with full speed into large-scale manufacturing, mining and commercial irrigation. This dream is possible now more than ever before,” Mutharika states.