Africa’s energy poverty: Push to renewables, more players for power supply may help Madagascar’s electrification plans

Around 35% of;country has access to electricity, 1.4% has access to clean cooking fuel
Solar kits are extremely popular in rural areas of Madagascar and over 50,000 kits have been sold so far. Photo for representation: iStock
Solar kits are extremely popular in rural areas of Madagascar and over 50,000 kits have been sold so far. Photo for representation: iStock

Madagascar, one of the world’s most energy-starved countries, has put its energy transition plans on track with a special focus on renewable energy. The government has plans to democratise electricity access, which may help bridge the ever-widening energy gap in the country. 

Just around 35 per cent of Madagascar’s population has access to electricity and 1.4 per cent with access to clean cooking fuel, according to the intergovernmental organisation International Energy Agency.

The country mainly depends on biomass for cooking fuel. A visit to Ambohimanatrika village in Moramanga district on June 11, 2023 by this reporter showed the dismal state of their energy economics. Two women and two children could be seen returning to the village with bundles of dry twigs on their heads. 

The fuel doesn’t last long and in a couple of days, the villagers have to go in search of more firewood for cooking. Kids sometimes accompany the adults if they don't have to go too far. 

The country is running out of forests. Locals reported having to travel longer and farther in search for wood and even having to chop down trees sometimes, despite knowing its effects. Collecting firewood or substitutes is permanent work though the year for many. 

Charcoal (wood burned until it is reduced to almost pure carbon, which burns longer and hotter) is a necessity in towns too, as access to cooking gas — a luxury priced at $2 a kilo because of monopoly — is limited. 

In a year a household only uses about 400 grams of cooking gas on average. A poor household spends about one-third of its revenue on fuel for cooking.

Fuelwood constitutes 92 per cent of the national energy offer compared with seven per cent for gas products and only a per cent for renewable, according to Madagascar’s New Energy Policy (NEP). 

Ironically, the island is endowed with huge potentials: 7,800 megawatts of hydroelectricity with only 165 megawatts exploited in 2018; 1,500-2,100 kilowatt hour per square metre per year of solar radiation and 7-9 metres per second for wind turbines at 50-metre height at the southern and northern tips of the island nation.

Because of its high reliance on biomass, Madagascar has a non-sustainable management mode for its wood capital. The country’s wood stocks have significantly decreased since 2012, the World Bank pointed out.

The country’s forest cover is less than 10 per cent today, while the island might lose it completely by 2100, a study suggested.

“Reliance on biomass is another leading driver of deforestation. The high dependence of much of the population on fuelwood for cooking causes degradation, and has severe health and productivity impacts, particularly on women and children,” reads the World Bank’s Country Environmental Analysis 2022. 

It also stressed that air pollution, largely indoors, is the third largest risk factor for death and disability in Madagascar. The economic cost of land degradation since 2000 is estimated at over $6.7 billion — amounting to 1.78 per cent of gross domestic product per year. 

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research centre in Washington, estimated nearly 21,500 deaths and 912,000 days lost to illnesses annually in Madagascar. 

Madagascar is fast promoting renewable energy. In 2023, the government promised to set up solar parks with 2 megawatts of installed power in 42 districts and 32 are promised for next year. 

The transition cannot happen fast enough, said Malagasy Energy and Hydrocarbons Minister Solo Andriamanampisoa. “The country has around 5.8 million households. Only nearly 600,000 of them access electricity and the rest need solutions like the development of renewable projects by boosting rural electrification,” he said. 

The electricity sector needs total reform. Thus, the government aims at totally abandoning fossil fuels amidst the climate change goals despite the low rate emissions in the country, strengthening the national supply capacity, and reinforcing the National Regulatory Authority and the Rural Electrification Development Agency (ADER).

So far, the state-controlled water and electricity company Jirama holds the electricity sale monopoly, according to the law. But users criticise bad service and frequent power outages throughout the year.

“It would be better if Jirama had rivals in the future,” revealed a senior government official on condition of anonymity, who also called for the upgrading of the existing law to make the new vision possible. Talks are being held at the governmental level and with the partners for all the envisaged reforms.

On June 9, 2023, the WB Group Board of Directors approved $100 million in credit for a Development Policy Operation in Madagascar aimed at supporting reforms, including the energy sector, to unleash drivers of inclusive and resilient growth. 

Yet another $400 million is awaited from the Bank too. “We will set aside $250 million for the rural electrification by creating mini-grids to serve remote villages in accordance with the geographic conditions,” said Andriamanampisoa.

Around 500 healthcare centres across the country are to be equipped with kits that function with renewable energy. The state also massively subsidises petrol. “The money will be entirely invested in renewables in the near future,” the minister claimed.

At present, 15 per cent rural areas have electricity access while the forecast for 2019-2023 is 40 per cent, targeting 1.6 million inhabitants.

ADER Communication Officer Frédéric Andrianaivoravelona said installed capacity in rural areas all entirely depend on renewables. “We give energy options to locals so they don’t use firewood but the choice entirely depends on them,” he said. 

The rural electrification market in the island is a big opportunity — charging mobile phones has emerged as a major local business, showing the need for electrification in rural areas, said Satanirina Ramanantoanina, head of strategy and operations SHS at MBalik Telma company, which is affiliated to the mobile phone and network company Telma.

Solar kits are extremely popular in the countryside, similar to a few other African countries, and more than 50,000 kits have sold to 250,000 residents so far. 

Andriamanampisoa called on investors to look into Madagascar’s renewable market. However, the initial costs are steep. But the minister pointed out fiscal advantages — renewable equipment have no import duties in the country and higher investment will bring down prices soon.  

President Andry Rajoelina had earlier promised the construction of a factory dedicated to the production of solar panels for the Malagasy use. The implementation is still awaited even as there are a few months left till the next election. 

Part of this article appeared in the cover story of the July 1-15, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth under the headline ‘Time Africa Switched’ 

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