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Keep it clean – catalysing the solar market in Malawi

Gill Davies is researching the growth of developing renewable markets in Malawi. Lucky for us, Gill is working with our team in Mzuzu and keeping a blog of her findings. Read on…

“I’m a second year PhD student at the Centre of African Studies, based in the University of Edinburgh. After a first year of research training, literature review and learning about the African continent, I get to spend my second year experiencing it first-hand! Focusing on how development organisations are working to catalyse markets for small-scale renewable and clean energy products. 

That’s how, at the end of March 2012, I found myself packing my bags and heading to Mzuzu, in the north of Malawi, for four months in the SolarAid office.

I was really excited to see Malawi – everyone I’ve met who’s spent some time here raves about it. It’s also fascinating from a research perspective, as compared to other countries I’ve focused on, Malawi’s solar market is very fledgling, so almost a blank slate for SolarAid to have an impact on. And they definitely are having an impact! I’m now half way through my trip and in two months of being here, I’ve seen how incredibly hard working the Malawi team is – they always seem to be on the go!

An exciting aspect is seeing how SolarAid, with the establishment of SunnyMoney, is transitioning to a social enterprise approach. The new business-minded attitude seems to be paying off and sales of solar lights are increasingly rapidly. This is despite constraints that make Malawi a difficult country to develop the market in – being land-locked means consignments of stock take a long time to arrive. What’s more, the on-going fuel crisis here causes delays and logistic issues, yet with dedication the team manage to find solutions.

Mobile phone repairers are able to quicky find faults in solar lights and fix them.

The fuel crisis also means that many people in rural areas, who rely on kerosene for lighting, either can’t get hold of it or can’t afford it, and consequently resort to candles or battery-powered torches – meaning really poor light quality and similarly high costs over time, as I saw when visiting primary schools in Karonga.

Students studying for their end of primary exams go to school each evening to revise. At a school without solar, groups of students huddle around candles and, maybe, one or two kerosene lamps. Not only was it really hard to see, but also the heat and acridity in the room made it a very uncomfortable working environment. When I visited schools where students had bought solar lights, the difference was incredible – they could actually see their homework!

Aside from working, I have managed to squeeze in a few extra-curricular activities too. The team introduced me to Savannah Dry cider, something the UK definitely needs to start importing! And the delights of Mzuzu nightlife – Friday is the big night here. The lakeside is also fantastic, I couldn’t believe the first time I went to Chikale Beach in Nkhata Bay – it looked like the Caribbean! I guess our concept of a lake in the UK is a bit less exotic – I know Brave was rather disappointed when he went to the ‘lake’ in St James Park on his recent trip to London and discovered it was a mere pond!

Lake Malawi’s Nkhata Bay. Wow!

I’m looking forward to my next two months here to see how SunnyMoney develops further, particularly the rolling out of the schools campaign, which has already shown real success in the Karonga pilot.

The team are also working on the after-sales service, to ensure customers can get their lights maintained and repaired – a key component for a sustainable market. With all these activities, the future for SunnyMoney is looking really promising, and that means more and more people in Malawi will be able to access good quality low cost solar lights.”

 

Read Gill’s blog here:  http://renewablegill.tumblr.com/