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CEM’s Edgar Kapiza Bayani Talks On Investing In Off-grid Energy Solutions

Community Energy Malawi’s (CEM) Country Director, Edgar Kapiza Bayani, gave The Weekend Nation Newspaper of Saturday, February 1, 2020 an interview on ‘Investing in off-grid energy solutions’. Below is the interview in its entirety. 

Change agents in the energy sector are talking about decentralized solutions to accelerate the provision of power to people who need it to walk out of poverty. In this interview, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA engages Community Energy Malawi country director EDGAR KAPIZA BAYANI on how mini-grids could speed up access to sustainable energy for rural communities far from Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom). Excerpts.

Question 1: Congratulations for the launch of Sitolo Solar Mini-grid. Can you shed more light on the project?

Answer 1: Thanks. The 80 kilowatt (kw) solar mini-grid currently has 150 connections. We plan to extend to 1140 connections by end of February. This will directly impact around 10 000 people in Sitolo, Ndawambe and Molosiyo villages in Mchinji. We implemented the project in partnership with Community Energy Scotland with support from the Government of Malawi, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and GEF. CEM is a Mera-licensed mini-grid operator selling electricity at $0.18 per kilowatt hour. Sitolo now has a maize mill and women no longer go 13 kilometers to access milling in Mchinji. Sitolo Primary School has extended remedial classes and reading for learners into the night. This is holistic development.

Question 2: How sustainable are mini-grids in Malawi? Can the Sitolo business mode be replicated in other areas excluded from the national grid?

Answer 2: Previous experiences with mini-grids in Malawi have not been good, but they are viable means of connecting the masses and a sustainable business model. In our case, we have a business model and charge cost-reflective tariff of $0.18/kWh. This enables us to meet operation and maintenance costs, which is critical to sustainable business. We also promote productive uses of energy because we realize that people need energy to make money and they need money to pay for electricity. With Community Energy Scotland and the support from Scottish Government, we have trained people on productive use of energy. Currently, we are working with the Department of Trade in facilitating the formation of cooperatives involved in milk cooling and agro-processing. The goal is to create inclusive and sustainable value chains that create wealth for all. Therefore, the key thing is that a mini-grid must be operated as a business and ensure that rural businesses are built around the energy project.

Question 3: Are Malawi’s energy goals and aspirations attainable?

Answer 4: The country has the best policies and strategic documents currently. It is time to move beyond policy to practice. If we can implement the policy to the letter, we will even beat the 30 percent target by 2030. The majority of Malawians, 84 percent, live in rural areas where they rely on subsistence farming. This is where our economy hinges, yet they are the least connected in terms of access to electricity. Beyond extension of the grid under the Malawi Rural Electrification programme (Marep), deliberate efforts must be made to connect these people.

 Question 4: What is the best way to accelerate access?

Answer 4: The country must do away with the obsession that electricity is only grid power or Escom. It is time to also concentrate on mini-grids for example. Malawi Renewable Energy Strategy indicates that promoting mini-grids in areas that are more than five kilometers from the grid and have 250 inhabitants can connect 27 percent or 4.6 million of the unconnected Malawians. Let Escom and Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) power big industries while and decentralized energy systems power rural areas. Let us encourage cooperatives and private sector players to take this business opportunity. The Rural Electrification Fund, which bankrolls Marep, must open up to other players other than Escom. In fact, the fund has started by supporting CEM in the Sitolo Mini-grid project. Energy sector players must invest resources in doing through feasibility studies to come up with bankable mini-grid projects. Business models are necessary. If CEM had a poor business model, I am sure Rural Electrification Fund could not have released resources to support the Sitolo Solar Mini-grid project. Above all, corruption must be eradicated at all levels. It is a vice that is killing Malawi.

Question 5: There are concerns about the governance of the Rural Electrification Fund. Are they founded?

Answer 5: The public is at liberty to ask questions. For every liter of fuel you put in your car. 4.5 percent of the pump goes to Rural Electrification Fund. At the current price, this translates to K41.58 for diesel and K41.85 for petrol. The fund was established by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, it is a public entity that requires transparent processes. It is a requirement that the fund releases open information on how much is being collected and utilized. Usually, I see more reports about expenditure on Marep connections and I have read about Rural Electrification Funds as having funded the Kapichira Hydropower Generation project and that it is currently also supporting Kam’wamba Coal Plant secretariat. I think it is a matter of being as open as does the Roads Fund. The Roads Fund produces reports in newspapers stating how much has been collected and used for what.

Question 6: Looking forward, how do we move forward to achieve universal access to clean and affordable energy by 2030?

Answer 6: We cannot continue doing business as usual. We need a business unusual approach to accelerate access to energy for all by 2030. Malawi has the means and the potential. Let us put our house in order and put together our efforts, resources and expertise. The year 2030 is just 10 years from now. We should not repeat the failures of Vision 2030. As for me, I want posterity to remember me as that champion of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number seven whose efforts helped connect millions of people to clean and affordable energy in rural areas.

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