The Terrible Toll Of Malawi’s Power Cuts

By Paul Homewood


Just before Christmas, the Guardian ran a piece which revealed the realities of living without a proper supply of electricity:


Rural health worker Patrick Kamzitu is relaxed about the long and frequent power cuts that plague Malawi and which last week almost brought it to a halt when the whole country went dark for two hours.

“Power cuts? We have no power cuts here. We hear of what is happening in the cities but we have no problem here because we don’t have any electricity to cut,” he says.

Nambuma, a small town 50km over dirt tracks north-west of the capital Lilongwe, was promised mains power by the government five years ago. But although there are new poles lying on the side of the road five miles away in Ngoni, the electricity has still not come.

Like almost 90% of Malawians, the 12,000 people living in the Nambuma area are resigned to never being able to switch on the lights.

But patience is wearing thin for the 10% of Malawian households that are connected to the grid and are supplied by the state-owned Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) or the private Electricity Generation Company.

Prices have risen sharply, and daily rationing and lengthy “outages” lasting from a few hours to several weeks, depending on where people live, are now the norm. A familiar sound in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, the country’s three urban centres, is of diesel generators kicking in as the lights flicker and go out.

People are long used to shrugging and accepting the cuts, but anger boiled over at last week’s national blackout. Irate MPs were forced to use their mobile phones to read in parliament, businesses complained about having to burn expensive diesel and there were threats of demonstrations.

Escom was forced to make a rare public apology, blaming the national blackout on a fault on the power line between two of the country’s largest hydroelectric plants.

“There are people’s lives concerned here. We have cases of premature babies dying in hospitals due to the absence of power for the incubators. This is unacceptable,” says Dorothy Ngoma, president of the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi.

The usual explanation for power cuts in December is that it’s the end of the dry season, when water levels in Lake Malawi and the Shire river, which together feed the country’s largest hydroelectricity plants, are at their lowest. In the past three weeks hydroelectric output has been halved, a figure worsened by the two-year drought brought on by El Niño, which has left lake levels at historically low levels.

New back-up diesel generators, hydro and solar plants are due to be installed shortly which should improve the situation in 2018, say the power companies, but they warn that people must be patient. “Malawi will continue to experience power cuts unless the country receives above normal rainfall for five consecutive years,” says Escom’s former CEO Evelyn Mwapasa.

But it will be decades before every household gets connected. Malawi has the capacity to generate just 300MW, which is little more than a single Scottish wind farm; and even without a creaking infrastructure its power companies cannot keep up with soaring demand from a fast growing population and fuel-hungry companies needing electricity for computers and manufacturing.

“The country faces a widening gap between electricity demand and supply, which is being exacerbated by urbanisation, economic development and population growth,” says John Taulo, deputy director of the Malawi industrial research and technology development centre in Blantyre.

Grid coverage is growing slowly but demand is doubling every 10 years or so. “[We are] faced with serious energy supply problems, including rising energy and electricity demand; insufficient power generation capacity; increasingly high oil import bills; lack of investment in new power generation units; high transmission and distribution costs, transmission losses; poor power quality and reliability,” he says.

No electricity means no development but also widespread environmental degradation, according to the UN development programme. Nearly 75% of Malawian households depend on charcoal and wood burning for cooking, and coal and fossil fuel imports have grown, it says.

Charcoal production is now big business, with people carrying it many miles to sell in cities. Aside from the indoor health impact of burning wood to cook, deforestation also leads to soil erosion, which, in a vicious circle, silts up the rivers and blocks the hydroelectricity plants.

The power cuts keep the country poor and hungry, says the World Bank, which calculates that electricity rationing loses Malawi up to 7% of its GDP a year. This is more than any other country in Africa. In comparison, Kenya, Niger, Madagascar and Benin all lose under 2%.

There is a strong link between human development and per capita electricity consumption, say researchers. Malawi has one of the world’s lowest electricity consumption levels and its human development index, of 0.418, is far below even the sub-Saharan regional average, ranking 170 out of 187 countries in the world.


Being the Guardian, the article went to explain that the real solution was to build lots of solar panels, (even though these would not work at night), and lots more hydro power, (even though these rely on adequate amounts of rainfall, all of the time).

[One particular aspect about hydro power, which the Guardian failed to report by the way, is that one major reason why river levels are low is that more water is being pumped away to urban areas.]

I actually would not dispute that there is a role for micro grids, using solar and wind, to provide power to villages that are already off grid and have to rely on generators or burning wood. Constructing a grid to such outlying areas would be immensely expensive, and solar power may be a much cheaper option, even though it would not provide reliable energy. After all, some electricity is better than none.

But the real issue is the provision of affordable and reliable power to the rapidly expanding urban and semi urban areas, which will be the key to growth of Malawi’s economy.

As the article points out, it is a vicious circle.

No reliable power = no development = = no economic growth = no money = no investment in the power grid.


Fortunately for Malawi, help may be at hand, as there are plans to build a 300MW coal power plant, which would not only double the country’s current capacity, but also be able to provide power day in day out, winter and summer, rain and drought.

The proposed plant at Kam’mwamba will be financed and built by China.

When the Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Chinese in 2015, Finance and Economic Development Minister, Goodall Gondwe said that Malawi was one of the poorest countries in the world and that a project of such magnitude would help to move it out of poverty.

Thoroughly worthwhile objectives, you might have thought.


Unfortunately for Malawi, not everybody agrees.

The World Bank has already set its stall out against any such developments of coal power in any country. Its policy regarding energy now revolves sustainable and modern energy and doubling the global share of renewable energy by 2030.

And more recently the UK Govt, who ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, have at the forefront of efforts to phase out coal power worldwide, regardless of the consequences.


Coal supplies for Kam’mwamba would be readily available, either from across the border in Mozambique, or from within Malawi itself.

Indeed, in 2013 the Malawi Govt set a target to increase the contribution of mining to 20% of Malawi’s GDP by 2023.

From an economic point of view, the project would make sense all way round for the region.

Despite outside pressures and delays, it appears that the project is going to go ahead. The US Dept of Commerce now states that the plant should be up and running in the next couple of years.


Perhaps Guardian writers, who continually demonise fossil fuels, should be made to live in Lilongwe for a year or two, and see what it is really like to live without a proper power supply.


January 5, 2018 at 12:36PM

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