Myles is a bit of a geek. That shows itself in at least two ways: he struggles to survive without a web connected computer, and he loves it when he finds numbers that illuminate the scale of issues we see in our day-to-day lives here in Malawi.
So you can imagine that Myles has been getting frustrated – along with much of the rest of Blantyre – with the Malawi, state-run, electricity company (ESCOM) as they have struggled to provide 24×7 supply for the last few months. There is a reason their company motto is: Towards Power All Day Everyday !!!
There have been various rumours about why this is: some say the Shire river that supplies the water for the hydroelectric power stations is exceptionally low, others say ESCOM is doing a poor job of keeping the water inlets clear. But the rumour Myles feels most likely to be true is that two Chinese-built turbines have failed and are taking forever to repair. For a country on a knife-edge between supply and demand at the best of times this inevitably means rolling brown-outs – unless you happen to be on the same supply as one of the president’s residencies of course!
So this morning, with advice from an electrical engineer in our home church in the UK and also some helpful vendors in Blantyre, Myles has proudly commissioned a little back-up power supply that will keep our two PCs, two lamps, and our broadband connection running for many many hours without ESCOM while also keeping our phones charged.
Great result … except the underlying statistics show that the challenge for the majority of Malawians is not having an intermittent power supply – it is having no power supply at all! The latest available World Bank statistics (for 2012) show that only 9.8% of Malawians have access to electricity. This is the fourth lowest number in the world, with only South Sudan, Chad and Burundi having lower.
Now, before us Westerners get all romantic about our times camping by candlelight, just imagine what that means for the daily life of the majority of Malawians compared to our daily lives in the West. When the sun sets (at 6pm, all year round), much of the activity in villages ceases: shops close, business comes to an end, and streets are emptied. Perhaps most important for the future of the country, in order to do their homework children have to turn to kerosene lamps, candles, the dim illumination of street lamps, or just give up and do nothing. Beyond the issue of lighting, in order to cook their family a meal mothers use firewood or charcoal that uses the last remaining trees in Malawi to burn in highly inefficient ways.
As we have visited village communities over the last 10 months we have seen solar begin to make some impact. However at $10 for a small light sufficient to see when reading, the up-front cost is significant in a country where over 70% survive on $1.25 or less a day.
Social enterprises like Sunny Money are trying to make a difference. They recognised that a typical off-grid household will spend 50-60 US cents per day (or even as much as 25% of their income) on kerosene lighting and basic charging. So they are allowing cash-strapped customers to pay about 45 cents per day until they acquire full ownership of their solar system and have access to free solar energy.
Who knows what technology will eventually bring power to the estimated 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity. However, there is certainly no magic-bullet that will allow Malawians to quickly bootstrap their economy into a Singapore-type transformation. And lets admit it: when we in the West try to impose, often simplistic, solutions on our African friends the unintended consequences are usually crippling.
So next time you flick a switch and the light comes on for your child’s homework, or you turn a dial for the chicken to start roasting in the oven, give a thought for your brothers and sisters in Malawi.