Accelerating the energy transition in Malawi

7th November, 2022

Biomass in the form of firewood and charcoal is the predominant source of energy in the energy mix in Malawi. At least 87% of the population in Malawi use biomass as primary source of energy for heating and cooking purposes. The sources of firewood and charcoal in Malawi are indigenous forests in rural areas supplying the markets in peri-urban and urban areas. Despite efforts by the government to regulate the use of firewood and charcoal through the department of forestry, little has been achieved to eradicate unsustainable consumption of firewood and charcoal in Malawi. As a result, forest reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate, which is contributing to climate change. In addition, the ever-increasing demand for firewood and charcoal has resulted in increase in the prices for firewood and charcoal. Consequently, households are spending more of their finances on purchasing firewood and charcoal, especially in urban and some rural areas.

Electricity generation in Malawi is heavily dependent on hydro power with most of the generation plants located on one river. In 2021, Malawi experienced cyclone Ana, which affected and destroyed the dam at one of the hydropower generating plant resulting into a loss of 132 MW from the national grid. As a result of this loss in generation capacity, the Malawi started experiencing long hours of load-shedding causing some rural communities that are connected to the grid to experience 24 hours of electricity outage. However, some communities in Malawi where community energy systems (CES) have been implemented are safe from experiencing such long hours of loadshedding.

Community energy systems implemented as Mini and Micro grids have proven to be viable option for generating and supplying electricity in rural areas of Malawi. There are a number of CES in Malawi such as Chipopoma micro hydro in Rumphi, Bondo mini hydro in Mulanje, Sitolo Solar PV in Mchinji, Mnthembanji Solar PV in Dedza and Nyamvuwu and Chimombo Solar PV minigrids in Nsanje. These mini grids are supplying the rural communities in these districts with electricity all day long without unnecessary interruptions. The generated electricity is used for meeting the household energy basic needs such as lighting, powering small appliances like television radios and charging phones just to mention a few. The electricity has also catalysed the productive use of energy activities such as: small and medium scale agro-processing, TV showrooms, barbershops and operating shops etc. Majority of these minigrid users heavily depend on biomass as the source of cooking fuel. In a bid to foster the adoption and transition from biomass to clean cooking fuels, minigrids have a great potential to play a vital role in rural areas through the introduction of E-cooking and LPG.

Electric cooking is one of the cleanest and most effective source of cooking option in as far as decarbonisation is concerned. This is achieved through the use of different electric cooking 
appliances which have higher energy efficiency and lower energy consumption hence not stressing the power generated by the minigrids. These cooking appliances includes pressure
cookers, rice cookers and small electric stoves called hotplates. A study by A2EI in Arusha found that pressure cookers are the most effective cooking appliances based on three factors; time, ease to use and cost, as compared to other biomass fuel cooking options. However the only challenge would be the pricing in Malawi of these pressure cookers which may appear to be higher but then with good payment schemes this cooking option can be adopted by a good number of charcoal and firewood stove users. The effective possible payment method can be through pay as you go and instalments. The case of Bondo hydro minigrid which has the highest number of users more than 2000 connected to the minigrid , plans are underway to implement a pilot trial of using electric stoves in an effort to achieve the shift from biomass to E-cooking and once implemented the number of biomass users from Bondo is expected drop by a good number of population.

Rolling out the use of LPG which has been widely adopted in other rural areas of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya appears to be another promising option for rural minigrids. This option can be viable to microgrids which are generating electricity mainly for energy basic needs such as lighting and powering small electric appliances only. However, the back side is the high initial costs which includes that of the stove and cylinder. To amplify the adoption of LPG, minigrid operators should consider using the Pay as you cook business model which helps to remove the upfront cost barrier of LPG allowing the customer to make series of payments in the course of using the product. This model has been successfully implemented by different projects in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. This approach depending on the content of the model also allows the customer to only pay for the gas consumed in the cylinders. Currently the Malawi government is highly recommending the adoption LPG in a bid to achieve the decarbonisation in the country and contributing to the SDG 7.

Moving forward, acknowledging that these transformation stages cannot only be achieved by one stakeholder a strong collaboration between different stakeholders and other energy players ia
highly recommended. The following stakeholders; Minigrid operators, Department of Energy Affairs, Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority and Malawi Revenue Authority should map the way forward on how best to implement and increase access to these cooking options through sound policies. Minigrid operators should come up with best options on how to incorporate these clean cooking options in their projects through the revision of tariffs to down play the firewood and charcoal prices hence increasing the adoption. Mini/Micro-grid operators should also consider up-scaling their generation capacity to accommodate E-cooking which will help realise more investments returns since most of electricity generated throughout the day will be much in use by the customers through cooking. In addition, more cooking options should be explored such us biogas and briquettes at a household and community level.

The government should consider revising taxes imposed on efficient electric cooking appliances such as pressure cookers and electric stoves to upscale the use of these technologies. The tax revisions will help increase affordability and accessibility of these technologies on market even in rural areas. In addition, the government should also encourage innovation, development of skills and expertise locally of these technologies to support the acceleration.

The main challenged expected to be faced in achieving this transition is financial support. This transition will require huge amount of funding and not all minigrid operators can manage roll out
these initiatives by tapping from their savings. This is where potential donors and the government should come in to support these initiatives. If these options are to be achieved and implemented then jobs will be created and contribute to expansion of green economy in Malawi hence a just transition attained.