Renewable Energy

Africa’s energy poverty: How energy crisis is gripping Malawi

Country still dependent on unclean fuel like firewood, charcoal that is estimated to cause 13,000 deaths a year

By Winnie Botha
Published: Friday 07 July 2023
Villagers in Malawi walk long distances — up to 16 kilometres — to gather firewood for cooking. Photo: iStock__

Africa has historically been energy poor and is struggling to make the switch to renewables for energy security. The scenario in many countries has worsened in the past decade. In Malawi, many regions are losing their woodlands, as rural areas are still dependent on unclean fuel like firewood. 

With no serious measures to protect forests, many woodlands are no more. Villagers walk long distances — up to 16 kilometres — to gather firewood for cooking. Lack of clean energy options also disproportionately affects women and girls. 

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Women and girls carrying huge bundles of firewood on their heads are a common sight in Karonga district, in the northern part of Malawi. 

Linda Banda (32) covers the distance with a heavy load of firewood on her head every weekend. At home, her husband and the three kids wait for her to come back and cook for them. 

There are no other options, said Banda. “We don’t have electricity and can’t afford the expensive gas cookers,” she said. The chore is mostly delegated to girls and women, who spend around four hours on every such trip. 

In 2021, 98.4 per cent of Malawi’s population didn’t have access to clean cooking fuel, found Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report, 2023 by intergovernmental organisation International Energy Agency. About 85.81 per cent people had no access to electricity. 

The women and children are also exposed to sexual abuse on their long walks to fetch wood. The girls also have less time to focus on education as well, compared to the boys, who are allowed to study over completing such chores. 

“The distances are tiresome, but I must do this to help my mother, who is getting old,” said Temwa Mwenitete, a girl from Mwenirondo in Karonga district. 

Fuel spending varies across the country. Rural areas collect firewood for free, but pay with their time, labour and health. The cities mostly depend on unclean fuels like charcoal (wood burned until it is reduced to almost pure carbon, which burns longer and hotter).  

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A bag of charcoal, usually around 33 kilogrammes in weight, costs about 18,000 Malawi Kwacha or around $19, said Country Director for Community Energy Malawi Edgar Bayani. The organisation works to create sustainable, renewable energy solutions. 

“Families need about 2-3 bags of charcoal a month, our recent study found,” he said. 

The country has huge disparities in terms of energy access, according to energy experts. It still has low access to the grid at 12 per cent and about six per cent access via off-grid options like mini-grids or solar home systems and most of it is concentrated in urban regions. 

“Even with electricity access, just around three per cent of the population use it for cooking as it is expensive and unreliable. Around 89 per cent of household energy needs are met by burning biomass (mainly charcoal and firewood),” said Bayani.

Burning unclean fuel also raises the risk of acute respiratory infections, said Dzinkambani Kambalame, a public health expert who works with the health ministry. Lack of clean energy for cooking is estimated to cause 13,000 deaths a year, he added. 

“Exposure to smoke also impairs the productive health of women, who have care giving duties as well. Children born to mothers who are overly exposed to smoke from biomass cooking usually have poor birth weight or developmental problems,” Kambalame said. This is common in rural areas of Malawi, but a nationwide study is needed to ascertain this, he added.

Energy activists have been advocating for renewable energy usage in the country for a long time. The country has potential for several types of renewable energy like solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and general waste, said environmental and energy activist Matthews Malata. 

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“However, the government is not prioritising the energy transition. Usage of biomass for cooking is depleting the country’s already gone forests and the politicians don’t care,” Malata said. 

The country has policies pushing clean energy. The National Energy Policy seeks to increase the role of renewables in the energy mix to around six per cent, said Bayani. 

“Malawi Renewable Energy Strategy also specifically focuses on promotion of renewable energy but so far there is nothing to show for it,” Bayani added. “The policies are being pushed at a snail’s pace via liberalisation of the electricity market and off-grid options.” 

The government of Malawi seems to be moving slowly, but has set up goals to reduce biomass use to 33.5 per cent in 2035 from 88.2 per cent at present. 

It also seeks to increase electricity generation from renewables to 28.9 per cent by 2035 from two per cent and promote decentralised mini-grids to villages that are more than five kilometres from the grid.

Malawi has potential solar yield of 6,000 gigawatts per hour, 1.4 GW hydro potential, seven megawatts from municipal solid waste, 7,000 giga Joules per annum of crop residues and 50 known geothermal sites with 200MW potential, according to a study by Mzuzu University in the country. 

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The country has nationally determined contributions with both climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Just like other countries who signed for Paris Agreement, Malawi also seeks to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to Minister of Energy Ibrahim Matola. 

“Malawi seeks to curb GHG emissions from rising from the current 9.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) to 34.6 million tCO2e in 2040,” he said. However, despite these energy plans, Malawi is still investing in coal, which is recognised as a higher emitter. 

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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