On a steeply wooded hillside above a village in Malawi’s Nkhata Bay, a group of young men and women are busy at work assembling pipes and machinery. Soon, the roar of a powerful generator echoes through the dense forest. It’s the sound of a revolution in renewable energy.
"Actually, the idea started with one boy,” says Cathy Mkandawire, a local youth leader. “He made pipes out of scrap, so he didn't have to buy anything. He started playing around with them, connecting them and wondering what he could make out of them. So after joining the pipes, he said to himself: we have plenty of water here, can't we use this? Can't we produce electricity from water and use it in our homes?”
That “boy” was Hastings Mkandawire, who built his first small water-powered electricity generator more than ten years ago using knowledge gained at school, parts scavenged from scrap yards and an insatiable entrepreneurial spirit. Since then his company, Turbines Energy, has installed hundreds of micro-hydro generators amounting to around ten megawatts of renewable energy, which have transformed the lives of thousands of rural people, especially women.
“Malawi has a population of around 17 million people, but only eight percent of the community has good access to electricity,” says Hastings. “Power is very important for day to day life. It helps communities have access to information, and at the same time electricity also helps them get water for domestic purposes.”
“Life has been transformed. The people, especially the women, are no longer going into the bush to fetch fuel for cooking. Young people are busy doing industrial activities for income generation and at the same time they are contributing to the development of the country.”
Back on the hillside, Cathy looks round at the youngsters working on the hydroelectricity generator and digging irrigation ditches. “When we saw that it worked, many young people became interested in learning more. So we taught ourselves how to do it.”
Malawi is one of the least developed countries, with more than 70 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. Rural communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change - devastating floods in January 2015 killed more than 200 people and displaced nearly a quarter of a million.
But all over the country, farmers and businesses are fighting back. “Individuals have found a way of adapting to climate change,” says Marchel Gerrmann, the Head of the EU Delegation to Malawi. “They generate jobs, they generate profits, they generate well-being for their families.”
The GCCA+ has been working in Malawi since 2013, with an €8 million programme aimed at helping the country become more resilient to climate change. Activities include forest management and tree planting, installing clean cookstoves stoves, sustainable agriculture, and clean water and sanitation.
But it’s people like Cathy and Hastings who are driving real change on the ground. Cathy has already installed an irrigation pump and is experimenting with drought-resistant crops, as well as diversifying into honey production. Meanwhile Hastings continues on his clean energy mission. “Malawi is a beautiful country with enough water to produce power for the country’s needs,” says Hastings. “I have the belief that it is possible for Malawi to get power to maybe ten million people.”
- Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDFHa3dFtNk (Tedx Talk)
- Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7MvOQdfBEk (video produced by U.S. African Development Foundation)