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Thursday, June 4

Snapshots from Malawi: Lights Out

Last night our power went out. First at 8:45 pm for just a minute or two, then again at around 10:00 pm for an hour or so. I was folding laundry and had to hold a flashlight under my arm to complete the task. I didn’t get to finish watching an episode of Damages. We had to brush our teeth in the dark. It was rough. {Italics appearing in the role of Sarcasm today.}

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi | photo by karen walrondPhoto credit: Karen Walrond

I jokingly said to Nate that I must have brought back the “Spirit of Malawi” with me, i.e. constant power outages. Nate asked if that really happens a lot in Malawi and I was like, “Um, pretty much ALL THE TIME” and then proceeded to rattle off all kinds of interesting yet discouraging facts about the state of electricity in Malawi.

Before my trip to Malawi, ONE mailed a binder filled with information about the country and the various foreign aid groups that we would be visiting and learning about. One of the many statistics I read was that only 9% of Malawians are connected to the electrical grid. That’s right, 9% of Malawi has electricity (only 0.4% of rural Malawi), which means 14 million Malawians do NOT have electricity. While reading that number was both shocking and thought provoking, actually visiting Malawi and talking to the people about the problems with electricity was incredibly eye opening. Every site we visited is impacted by electricity (or the lack thereof) in some way, from homes to businesses to hospitals and more.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, ESCOM control center | by @janemaynard

The country has only 350 megawatts of generation capacity. For comparison’s sake, Nigeria generates over 4,000 megawatts and the United States generates over 1,000 GIGAwatts annually. Essentially, it’s no comparison. And the 350 megawatts Malawi does have is not sufficient to meet current demands. They would need 400 megawatts just to cover the 9% of Malawi now on the grid.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, ESCOM control center | photo by karen walrondPhoto credit: Karen Walrond

We had the opportunity to meet with Oliver Pierson, Resident Country Director at Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and Patrick Kadewa, Systems Operations and Power Trading Manager, Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM), as well as take a tour of the National Control Center for ESCOM.

Oliver is an American living in Malawi managing a $350 million dollar project that MCC has in place to improve Malawi’s electrical grid. MCC is an innovative and independent foreign aid agency created in 2004 by Congress (with strong bipartisan support) that is doing work to fight poverty in many countries throughout the world (see more about MCC here). In 2013 MCC signed a 5-year compact with the government of Malawi aimed at improving the generation, transmission and control of electricity.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, ESCOM control center | photo by karen walrondPhoto credit: Karen Walrond

Oliver and Patrick both shared such an abundance of information with us I could write a book. This is but a wee blog post, so I’ll do my best to keep it short. Here are a few of my main takeaways from those conversations:

  • The National Control Center keeps a constant eye on the electrical grid, tracking problems and helping to resolve them. Patrick said their job is to balance supply and demand at all times. For example, ESCOM controls “load shedding” (similar to rolling blackouts experienced in California when power demands are high). Load shedding is necessary to keep the system from collapse. Without these planned blackouts, the entire electrical grid would go down. And, even with this vigilant eye, the electrical grid does in fact crash. That means the ENTIRE COUNTRY has a blackout at the same time. I asked Patrick if that happens often and he said, “Oh, no. Just four or five times a year.” (Me, responding in my mind while quietly nodding, “WHAT?!?!?!?!”)
  • Power blackouts are not just an inconvenience, they have a significantly negative impact on the economy and the ability for Malawi to develop as a nation. While we did experience a blackout ourselves near Lake Malawi, talking to people and finding out what a huge impact these blackouts have was for more informative than my small experience at a hotel. Some buildings have back-up generators, but those are expensive to run, often break down and are not the norm. Hospitals are especially vulnerable to blackouts, affecting care as well as the storage of precious vaccines. The milk bulking groups that we visited also suffer from unreliable electricity, losing all of their milk supplies with extended blackouts. That means the farmers who walked or biked kilometer after kilometer to deliver their milk to the facility completely miss that income. These are just a few examples, not to mention what daily life is like for most Malawians living without electricity entirely.
  • Malawi’s power is all hydro, generated from 3 dams on the Shire river, one of which is in need of serious repair (an MCC project). Solar is looking like the best secondary option, but coal is being explored as well. I personally have hope for solar. For example, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in California generates 392 megawatts. Patrick said the biggest challenge with solar was cost, which is not a surprise considering the Ivanpah facility was a $2.2 billion project. Installing solar alone is not all that cost-prohibitive, but getting the batteries to store the energy nearly doubles the cost. Despite these challenges, one example of successful solar power use in Malawi is the Lilongwe airport, which runs entirely on 1 megawatt of solar power.
  • MCC employees are almost entirely Malawian. This was a theme I saw time and again among the groups doing sustainable foreign aid work in Malawi – employing locals makes the work far more effective and long lasting.
  • MCC’s compact with the Malawian government is for $350.7 million. The Westfield mall in my neighborhood is currently getting a “beach chic” makeover for $300 million. Just some food for thought.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, ESCOM | photo credit karen walrondPatrick getting his thank you gift for the tour! Photo credit: Karen Walrond

Thinking about the issue of electricity in Malawi is overwhelming. Talking to the people who are working on the system, however, is inspiring. It cannot be denied that they have their work cut out for them but they keep at it valiantly, despite the challenges of ESCOM’s antiquated system.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, solar light| from @janemaynardSolar light used at night by the Mtika family in their home

So, what’s the point of today’s post? For me the two biggest messages are this. First, the less than 1% of the U.S. budget that goes towards foreign aid is doing phenomenal work. For the price it takes to renovate a mall we can make significant improvements in the lives of millions of people. We need to keep letting our government leaders know that we support these programs (organizations like ONE help us do just that!). Second, the problems are vast and complex, but we cannot and should not give up. Just like the workers we met from ESCOM, you do the best you can with what you’ve got and continue to work hard for better.

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, village kitchen | from @janemaynard

snapshots from malawi: electricity in malawi, village kitchen | from @janemaynard

The Mtika family (who I introduced you to last week) does not have electricity. Each day they put a small solar light on the roof of their maize silo, which is what they use to light their home at night. Their kitchen is in a separate building from their home, with efficient fire-powered clay ovens that they use for cooking. This kitchen is a huge blessing compared to what others have, yet there is still no electricity. Over the last four years the Mtika’s lives have improved significantly while working with Heifer International, but the lack of electricity is still a huge challenge. When I hear the statistic “91% of Malawians do not have electricity,” I think of the Mtikas, their kitchen, and their smiling faces. And I hope that one day they too can enjoy the benefits of electricity and so much more.

I traveled to Malawi as an expense-paid guest of The ONE Campaign (www.one.org) and Heifer International (www.heifer.org). We visited to see the economic progress—and the lives changed—made possible by U.S.-funded programs and Heifer International’s donor-supported programs.

ONE is a campaigning and advocacy organization of more than 6 million people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. Not politically partisan, ONE raises public awareness and presses political leaders to combat AIDS and preventable diseases, increase investments in agriculture and nutrition, and demand greater transparency in poverty-fighting programs. ONE is not a grant-making organization and does not solicit funding from the public or receive government funding.

Heifer International’s mission is to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. For more than 70 years, Heifer International has provided livestock and environmentally sound agricultural training to improve the lives of those who struggle daily for reliable sources of food and income. Heifer is currently working in more than 30 countries, including the United States, to help families and communities become more self-reliant.


6 Comments »

  1. 1
    Wendy

    Thank you for sharing this Jane. It was very informative and moving too. Just reminds me of how much I take for granted. I’m amazed by the Malawians. Hoping this situation continues to improve for them. Thank you for spreading awareness.

    • thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, wendy. and, yes, I feel the same way – so much in my life that I take for granted. simple things. xo

  2. We really are spoiled in our nice homes with electricity at our fingers tips and so reliable. It seems so unfair.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. but, I keep thinking about that scripture Luke 12:48 “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Karen Walrond on our trip quoted it a few times and I think it’s perfect. the difference in our lives is completely unfair, but those of us with more have the responsibility but also wonderful opportunity to be able to help others. I just have to keep looking at it that way to keep from crying all the time 😉

  3. 3
    Nikki CB

    This is fascinating, and also such a difficult problem. Thank you for the important information, and the great presentation of this information (comparing the $ for the mall makeover to the $ for MCC’s contract with the Malawian government, etc.) I hope you keep posting about this!

    • I will keep posting about this! in fact, I’ll be doing an interview with the CEO of MCC, which should be fascinating. Yes, such a difficult and complex problem. I think the issue of electricity was one that felt VERY daunting to me in Malawi as we learned more about it.

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