Student shines a light on Malawi electricity shortage in Abu Dhabi

Solar power is the way ahead for rural Africa where electricity is a rarity and candles and kerosene cost up to half of families’ incomes, says Zayed Future Energy prize winner Dikirani Thaulo.

Dikirani Thaulo, a past winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, makes an impression with his emotive speech at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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Solar power is the way ahead for rural Africa where electricity is a rarity and candles and kerosene cost up to half of families’ incomes. The natural resources are there, but the know-how is not. Help is needed to train technicians.

Amid the summit meetings, press conferences, book launches and panel discussions that have taken place in the past few days as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, it took a presentation from a candle-wielding 22-year-old to focus attention on the harsh realities of energy poverty confronted by millions of people throughout the developing world.

“This is what we use for lighting in rural areas of Malawi, for studies and for reading at night,” said Dikirani Thaulo.

“This is 500 Malawian kwacha,” he said, holding up a beige bank note. “It is the equivalent of one [US] dollar. This is the daily salary of a person living and working in a city in Malawi. It can support a family of five people a day.

“This is 100 Malawian kwacha, which buys one candle,” Mr Thaulo said, showing the audience a pinker note. “And this bunch of candles is what women take to the hospital at their delivering time so that the doctor can see when they are delivering their babies.”

Despite facing an audience that included Han Seung-Soo, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Michael Liebreich and Zayed Future Energy Prize winners such as Ewa Wojkowska, the co-founder of Kopernik and Litre of Light’s Ami Valdemoro, the trainee teacher remained unfazed.

Although this was only the third time Mr Thaulo had left Malawi, it was not the first time he had addressed an international audience. Last May, he addressed the UN Sustainable Energy for All Forum at the UN headquarters in New York and in December he attended the COP21 negotiations in Paris as a part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda focus day on energy.

“I had never travelled and never imagined that I would fly on an aeroplane,” Mr Thaulo said as he recalled his trip to New York.

“I have had a lot of experiences and seen things I have not come across in Malawi, boarding big aeroplanes and seeing big cities like New York and Paris with unbelievable electricity, no blackouts and buildings and hotels with elevators.”

In Malawi it is dark for 12 hours each day and, thanks to the fact that only 10 per cent of rural Malawians have access to grid electricity and the availability of power is closer to 1 per cent, anywhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of rural incomes are spent on candles and kerosene.

Tasks many people take for granted, such as recharging a mobile phone, can involve a walk of several kilometres and – even for the people in urban areas who are connected to the grid, Mr Thaulo said, access to electrical power is far from guaranteed.

“In Malawi, we produce our electricity using hydro but the production we have is very little and many people cannot afford it. There is not enough for the whole country and it is unreliable, there are a lot of blackouts.”

For Mr Thaulo, the answer to Malawi’s energy poverty is obvious.

Solar power, he said, would allow people to generate their own power in their homes but the problem is that we do not have enough solar technicians in rural areas who could work in their communities,” he said.

“If you travel through Malawi, from south to north, you will find a lot of solar panels installed but very few of them are working because the solar technicians are in the big cities and for them to travel to rural areas is difficult.”

It was with this issue in mind that the Zayed Solar Academy was built in Nkhata Bay in rural northern Malawi. The institution was established, along with the Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre, using the US$100,000 prize money from the Zayed Future Energy Prize Global High Schools (Africa) category in 2014.

The Zayed Solar Academy trains students to become rural solar engineers, while the Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre demonstrates practical applications of solar energy to local communities.

Mr Thaulo has been studying at Zayed Solar Academy since July 2014 and will finish his training as a solar teacher and instructor this year.

Mr Thaulo grew up in a village near Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, in a four-room house – lit by candles – with his mother, her partner, his four siblings and the family’s chickens and goats.

He was the first person in his family to go to school and the first child in his village to experience secondary education.

“When I finished my secondary level [education] I had no chance of going to college or university,” he said.

“Then I was introduced to Gail Swithenbank who was going to start the solar academy. She asked if I wanted to be trained in solar and said if I did well, I could be trained as a solar teacher.

“I wanted to help my village because they study and read with candles [and] kerosene which are bad for health. The Zayed Solar Academy was my opportunity to go further with my education.”

When he left his village to study at the Solar Academy, the biggest change in Mr Thaulo’s fortunes was not the fact that he now had a chair or a bed for the first time, but that he had access to electricity and with that light to study by and a means of accessing the internet.

“I spent so many nights studying until very late that a neighbour asked why we left the light on all night,” Mr Thaulo said.

“They thought we were wasting electricity but it wasn’t, it was because I was working so late.

“The visiting teachers were very kind to give me extra tutoring at night, so I learnt much about solar and about the rest of the world. I learnt to eat and cook mzungu [western food] and learning about the world made me want to travel very much.”

After his duties at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Mr Thaulo plans to stay in Abu Dhabi for some time to learn more about solar energy from experts at the International Renewable Energy Agency whose headquarters are at Masdar City. He will then return to Malawi and finish the two-year teacher training course that will allow him to teach new solar technicians at the Zayed Solar Academy in Nkhata Bay.

“I love teaching very much,” he said. “I was teaching children and elders to read in my home village even before I went to become a solar teacher at Zayed.

“When funds are found I will be sponsored to open another Zayed Solar Centre that will serve the central region of Malawi. We are hoping this will happen by the end of this year.”

As well as looking for funding for a new academy, the Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre is also looking for funds to set up a vocational, solar photovoltaic curriculum that could be used to train new solar technicians throughout Africa.

When asked about his personal ambitions for the future, Mr Thaulo is very clear.

“I still want people, especially the youth in other countries, to know what it is like in Malawi and to have to use candles to study and read at night,” he said.

“I want to be the best solar teacher ever, so I need to work with many different people on solar energy to increase my education and work experience.

“I want to bring light to rural areas in all of Africa because I believe solar can eradicate energy poverty and help mitigate climate change.”