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.
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:
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.
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.
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.