By Chikondi Manjawira
BLANTYRE-(MaraviPost)-Since his primary school days, John Silence always dreamt of bringing electricity to Manchewe, a remote area under Traditional Authority Kachulu in Rumphi. But it was a dream that most people in the area thought was farfetched due to the area’s location in relation to the national electricity grid.
“People kept on discouraging me, asking me to stop day dreaming but I was confident that one day the area would be powered by a hydroelectric power plant because I could see the potential of nature at Manchewe Falls,” said the 31-year-old form two dropout.
Silence also noted that for the area to be connected to the national electricity grid would take long due to distance, connection fees, processes as well as other overhead costs so he resolved to make his area self-sufficient by coming up with an electricity generation concept.
Despite being a school dropout, he started assembling small equipment with his friend at Msongwe in Mzuzu and it was where he got practical experience, hence he started thinking of developing the idea to make a proper impact on the society. But this was not enough as the needs of the community were so vast while his resources were minimal.
More needed to be done; more households needed lighting, electronic gadgets such as televisions and radios needed power and grinding mills also needed to run in order to shorten the distances traveled by the locals.
Silence thought deep about how to improve his project named Chipopoma Power. His long-term dream got a shot in the arm when he met two tourists who had come to visit the falls. He shared his dream with them and they showed interest.
“I was happy when Naomi and Cameroon showed interest in my dream, it was something I had never expected,” said Silence, a father of one.
The two tourists helped him with some money and basic training to help him kickstart his dream. With such assistance, he connected an alternator and started powering his grinding mill. It was a very exciting point for the people of Group Village Head Chikontha.
Even the chief himself could not hide his relief and joy, saying: “I was surprised to see the electric maize mill running on electricity from the power plant that John had built. I never thought I would see electricity in my village during my life time”.
News of the power plant spread like a wildfire and this did not just attract the attention of the locals so he consulted UNDP through national regulator Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) which was impressed by the potential in the project.
MERA gave him support and guidance that lifted the spirits of the society and conceited efforts to ensure the project’s success started. While John hatched the idea and consulted with others who imparted further knowledge, the two tourists offered some basic technical assistance, UNDP provided the powerlines, transformers, meters and poles. On the other hand, the community provided sand and bricks as well as building the power house, resulting in a fully connected area.
Today, Silence manages Chipopoma Power Station which produces 30 Kilowatts (KW) but has the capacity of producing a maximum of 53 KW that supplies electricity to 75 households a grinding Mill not to mention grocery shops and barber shops that have uplifted the lives of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the 15 villages that surrounds Manchewe area.
While Silence smiles at the way life has turned around following the success of his project, he laments the lack of capacity to market and supply electricity units to the connected households due to lack of computer systems that can enable him run an efficient fair billing system to connect or disconnect clients.
Circumstances such as Silence’s are typical of the situation in other districts where MERA has roped in assistance to ensure more people have access to electricity connectivity.
People of Sitolo area under Traditional Authority Mlonyeni in Mchinji are flourishing under a similar project called Sitolo Solar Minigrid which generates about 80KW of electricity. Out of this, 12KW is used per day by the 674 households as well as a grinding mill. The minigrid is expected to connect 1134 households which already wired just pending connection by the end of October 2021.
Anne Nyendwa, a mother of four testifies of how the Sitolo Minigrid has transformed her life two years after was commissioned: “My business has grown so much since I got connected to the electricity. I have a shop that opens early and closes as late as 9 o’clock at night because of electricity. I have two fridges, a deep freezer for cooling drinks and freezes in the shop and an upright fridge for home use.
“I also have a hotplate, electric kettle, TV set. I make about MK7,000 per day from the freezes alone. I also do animal and crop farming too. The amounts I make enable me pay my 6 employees at the farm, pay school fees for my first- born daughter at St Marys Secondary school and provide for the family needs overall,” said Nyendwa, also an organic manure proprietor.
Away from Mchinji, Mulanje district has also reaped the fruits of the MERA initiative. Through the Mulanje Electricity Generation Authority (MEGA), with a generation capacity of 93KW, the biggest of the minigrids so far. MEGA supplies 1,600 households and eight grinding mills.
Chikoka Investments owned by Arnold Phamba of Kashoni village under T/A MAbuka also bears testimony of how life has turned around due to the electrification of rural areas.
He runs a grinding mill servicing three villages, alleviating the challenges of earlier times where villagers had to travel long distances to grind their maize.
In those earlier times, they had failed to pay MK15, 000,000 to get connected to the ESCOM grid while this mini-grid framework only cost them MK20,000 to be connected.
According to MERA Consumer Affairs and Public Relations Manager Fitina Khonje, her organization has noted that the youth have embraced the minigrids regulatory framework which is based on Malawi Renewable Energy Strategy of 2017.
“The youth are indispensable pool of solutions to the energy access challenge. We are noting interesting innovations from various parts of the country. There is need to provide technical support to minigrid operators if the country id to achieve its goal of having at least 50 operationally sustainable minigrids by 2025,” said Khonje.
Khonje closes by appealing to the public to contact them for guidance and support to ensure that such projects are done in safe and sustainable environments.
As a regulator, MERA licenses those that produce 150KW and above while those that produce below are merely registered by certification.
MERA facilitated the media tour by Chipopoma Power operators to Mulanje and Mchinji minigrids so they could learn and appreciate the issues surrounding efficient operation.