Energy Justice in Malawi - The Case of Solar Household Systems

In my last post about my research, I offered a primer on Energy Justice. In this post, I’d like to delve deeper into my PhD research project and to this end, my research question is a good place to start.

The primary question guiding my PhD project is “how are issues of energy justice entangled in the adoption of solar household systems in Northern Malawi?”. A mouthful , isn’t it? Let me unpack what I mean by this, and why I contend that it is worthy of inquiry.

Energy justice in Malawi

As explained previously, energy justice involves the application of social and environmental rights to energy systems. It provokes questions such as “who has access to the benefits of energy?” , “who goes without?”, “who is invovled in decision making”  and “who is excluded?”.  Looking at Malawi through the lens of energy justice reveals a pernicious and intractable challenge, that of energy poverty. This occurs within a global context in which institututitions like the United Nations and World Bank are ambitiously trying to ensure universal access to energy by 2030 through a myriad of on and off-grid interventions.

In Malawi, only 10.8% of a 17.5 million population have access to electricity through the national grid. This picture is even starker when examined along economic and geographic lines, 48.7% of the country’s urban population have grid access, whereas just 3.9% of the country’s rural majority have access to the grid.  It also bears mentioning that those who do have “access”, experience an expensive and unreliable supply. “Blackouts” due to load-shedding (demand exceeding supply) are a daily part of life in Malawi. The affluent are able to use diesel generators or powerful solar systems to get by, whereas the rest of the population, be it in urban or rural contexts,  have to fashion a range of responses to source energy services like cooking, lighting, charging, and powering appliances. This often involves households using charcoal or firewood for cooking, and battery-powered torches for lighting. Against this backdrop, solar technologies are playing an important role in what is one of the least electrified nations in the world.

PSX_20190114_211902.jpg

Solar Household Systems in Malawi

Over the last 7-8 years, basic solar lighting products have enabled Malawians, particularly those in rural regions, to transition away from kerosene lamps and torches, to brighter and more cost-effective lighting. While the statistics on adoption are sketchy, it is estimated that up to 2 million Malawians have benefitted from these small-scale products. However, while affordable, these entry level products are unable to cater to the growing energy needs of populations in Malawi. Apart from the need for high quality lighting throughout their homes, the vast majority of households in Malawi own at least one mobile phone, thus phone charging has become a vital energy service. Understandably, households also desire to power appliances  that they see as part and parcel of “the good life”, this includes sound systems, televisions, fridges and electric stoves. Many own such appliances but have no means to power them. So while solar lanterns have played a useful role in providing Malawian households with an alternative to kerosene lamps and torches, they are unable to cater to the ever-growing energy needs of Malawians. This is where solar household systems come in…

Shousehold systems (SHS)  typically involve a combination of a solar panel, a battery (to store power) and LED lights. Depending on whether the systems use alternate (which we use in our homes) or direct current, the system might also require an inverter (to convert electricity to the right voltage). There is a wide spectrum of SHS, ranging from basic systems that can power multiple LED bulbs and charge phones, to those that can power fridges and televisions.  Given the slow expansion of the grid, and the high frequency of blackouts, SHS are widely seen as a very attractive means through which households can either replace or supplement grid access. The following excerpt form a household interview speaks to this:

  "Bright: We have noticed that you have both systems - a solar system and ESCOM (grid access) In terms of use, why haven't you completely switched to using ESCOM?

Hastings: I haven't switched completely to ESCOM because of one major reason, our ESCOM power capability is not reliable. We expect blackouts nearly every day...except this month of January because I heard that the Malawi Govt sourced power of 30MW from the Republic of Zambia. Yeah...but blackouts were the order of the day in Malawi. So there's no way ...at any point in time I should say that I have no plans to completely switch from solar to electricity power. No. Our electricity is not reliable"

While SHS is a very attractive alternative to grid-based electricity, affordability has been a huge barrier to adoption. This has been eased by global reductions in the costs of panels and batteries, as well as the advent of financial innovations such as pay-as-you-go (PAYG). As the name would suggest, the latter allows households to pay for these systems incrementally (typically 6-21 months), thereby reducing upfront cost as a barrier to adoption. From an energy justice perspective, it could be argued that this innovation is furthering distirbutive justice as it allows for a greater number of households to afford a solar system. 

While millions of these pay-as-you-go solar systems (PAYG SHS)  have been sold in East Africa, this technolgoy is still at a nascent stage in Malawi. In fact, I am a co-founder of a PAYG Solar company in Malawi called Zuwa Energy, one of the first to offer PAYG SHS in Malawi. To be clear though, my research is concerned with energy justice issues that are relevant to the SHS industry as a whole.  As I’ll elaborate on soon, there are a host of benefits and challenges that the industry has to contend with.

PSX_20190117_163142.jpg

Why northern Malawi?

Understanding my rationale for focusing on the north of Malawi requires a bit of context. Malawi achieved independence from Britain in 1964 and was ruled by a lifetime president, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, for 30 years (1964-1994). A referendum eventually resulted in Malawi becoming a multi-party democracy and Dr Banda was defeated in the nation’s first election in 1994. A sad legacy of Dr Banda’s rule was the marginalisation of the northern region of Malawi. Hisotorians and commentators attribute this to his prejudice towards the Tumbukka people of the north (perceived as being favoured by British missionaries), and his desire to focus the interests of the Chewa people (his tribe) in the centre of Malawi. Adding to this, many of Dr Banda’s political opponents (advocates for democracy) hailed from the north. This created a context where many feel that the north of the nation has long been sidelined when it comes to development, energy infrastructure being a relevant example. Thus, a key reason I’m interested in the north of Malawi is because I am curious to understand how Malawians in the north are responding to this legacy of marginalisation in the context of energy.

My second point of interest is the fact that the north of Malawi shares (porous) borders with both Tanzania and Zambia. This is particularly noteoworthy as both nations have more advanced solar industries and my field experience suggests that this has implications for Malawi. For instance, traders from neighbouring countries selling products in Malawi, and sub-standard goods from these markets being “dumped” in Malawi. Therefore in my view, combination of the north’s history, and it’s shared borders, shape the adoption of solar technologies in the region.

PSX_20190119_185852.jpg

So what are some the “energy justice issues” in the solar industry?

While there is great potential (actual and perceived) for solar technologies to address energy poverty in Malawi, there are also a number of critical challenges. I’ll provide a brief overview in this post and delve into the nuances of some of them in a subsequent post.

Quality - The liberalisation of the solar market are a double-edged sword. While it has resulted in solar products being cheaper and more physically accessible to the masses, it has created a market in which there is a vast spectrum of quality grades. In addition to an influx of sub-standard solar products are “fake” products e.g. stickers that look like solar cells and false claims about country of origin such as “Made in Germany”. It is important to note that these issues of quality are not relegated to panels alone, they include other components like batteries and inverters. While the local energy regulator requires importers to be licensed,and consignments to be quality-tested, the ground reality is that this does not always happen. This has in effect created a vertible jungle of products, where the onus is on an often desperate consumer to make well-informed choices. A harsh reality that has only been confirmed through my interviews with local solar businesses.

Solar Literacy - So the question is, does the average Malawian household have the capacity to make well-informed choices about solar products? After all, solar technology is technically complex and as mentioned above, there are issues of quality to navigate. While my research is ongoing, it seems fairly clear that the answer is an unfortunate “no”. Households are often basing their decisions on word-of-mouth and observations of homes in their area. While there’s a basic understanding of how solar panels work, there is often very little knowledge of the various components (and their specifications) that are required for a well-functionnig system. Furthermore, there’s often vague notions of how one can detect products that are fake. Stories I’ve heard so far tend to fixate on factors such as colour, patterning or labels on the panel, hardly an effective indicator.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the energy justice issues in the industry, I hope it paints a picture of the landscape I’m exploring. Malawian households have little faith in the national grid providing them with access to affordable and reliable electricity, which is why they turn to promising solutions like solar household systems. However, juxtaposed against strong demand for affordable solar products is the fact that the majority of Malawians have low levels of solar literacy, thus leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. My research concentrates on this as an issue of justice and my hope is that I can work with stakeholders to propose interventions that can help address this challenge.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. I’d deeply appreciate your comments and feedback.

Uninvited

We used to  play in the shade

of that old brick house,

estranged from its first family,

overwhelmed by pink bougainvilleas.

We unsettled the dust of another time,

our feet bare and curious,

our fingers electric and clumsy.

We filled its interiors with cacophonies

of laughter and arguments,

the smell of smoke, and mulberry stains.

Unthinking of whether we were welcome.

Charles Darwin Walk

A short film of our walk through "Charles Darwin Walk" in the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia. I’m trying to improve my photography and videography skills. These little trips are a great opportunity for me to build some muscle. While it may sound counter-intuitive to some, I’m actually finding that I pay more attention to details when I’m filming. Less than being lost in the technical (there’s a bit of that), my experience is that I need to be far more present to capture moments and notice finer details. Much to my surprise, i’m finding it a rather mindful experience!

For those who are curious about my gear:

Camera - Panasonic Lumix GX9 w 1.7 25MM Panasonic lens.

Gimbal - Feiyutech G6Plus

Interview with Eric Maddox from Lattitude Adjustment

I had a great chat with the wonderful E Andrew Maddox last week! It was recorded as part of his podcast Latitude Adjustment Podcast. We talked about everything from my childhood in Malawi and my foray into writing across my (introverted) teenage years in Sri Lanka, to Australian politics what is meant by energy justice (my research field). Eric Maddox is a great interviewer and if you enjoy podcasts, I'd highly recommend this series. I feel very privileged to be in the company of guests who traverse between so many worlds and give voice to their values and lived experience. If you enjoyed this conversation and/or others in the series, please consider sharing it with your networks. In an age filled with sound bites and labels, I feel that these conversations offer windows into the human condition. Thanks for having me on, Eric!

Hello, World!

Shelves

IMG_20180120_201305_200.jpg

I was in my native Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. Across a stretch of humid, languid days at my mother's house in Colombo, I turned my attention to these bookshelves. Much of it well preserved but in disarray since my father's passing over ten years ago.  Now poignantly reflective of the chaos of the time. In one sense, it is a shadow of a much larger library. An entire room that inspired awe across my childhood but splintered upon my grandfather's passing and the subsequent (stereotypical) drama of selling his house. The proverbial and literal dust having settled, these are storied reminders of him and his love of books. 

In another sense, it is a tapestry that is home to three generations. As I took care to empty the shelves and dust each book, I was often arrested by the unexpected treasures they'd yield . Many of the books across these shelves are far older than I am, some close upon a century. Old stamps, penned observations and (now iconic) newspaper cuttings among the unexpected treasures between their pages. Some penned by my grandfather in high school. Upon the shelves are the works of Aristotle, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Hemingway, numerous biographies, decades of National Geographics and books on Buddhism, to name but a few.
I spent hours cleaning and of course, pouring through their contents before I organised them back on to the shelves. Yet beyond the breadth and age of these books, what struck me was that the library has, by virtue of circumstance, expanded to house the books of three men that barely spoke to each other. My father had a poor relationship with my grandfather (his father-in-law), never feeling approved of, their few interactions were frigid and painful to bear witness to. This was punctuated by physical distance given that he worked overseas. Fortress-like with his emotions, my father and I had a largely transactional relationship, centered on functional pragmatism. My sister would likely attest to this as well. As for me and my grandfather, most of our time together was after my grandmother's passing. Undiagnosed, his ensuring struggle with depression was a gulf beyond my abilities as a young teenager. I was wrapped in my own angst.

Pouring through these books, I was as struck by how much these books revealed about us as it did the conversations we ought to have but never had. My father's cryptic notes on Krishnamurti's philosophical views or outlining the  spectre of neoliberalism with my grandfather (formerly an IMF economist) being but a few of the charged conversations I'd have liked to have had. More importantly, there was so much of our emotional landscapes that romaed across these pages but remained private isles, beyond the realm of cartography. 

Yet somehow, like cool embers after a raging fire, we find a certain peace across these shelves. Even if only through the opaque lens of the living, our interests, our conflicts, our wanderings, and our yearnings settle into comfortable grooves. All preserved by the woman who binds us together, my mother, who loved us all, even when we could afford little of it to ourselves. Here in this house, she wages daily battles against tropical humidity, ravenous insects and the encroaching dust to save these books and an array of paintings, trinkets and furniture. Not out of greed or reluctant obligation, but as part of  fulfilling her part in an elaborate  web of meaning.