Malawi represents an interesting case study in energy transitions and also helps to put South Africa’s energy challenges in perspective. Our northern neighbour has barely begun to enter the fossil fuel age but, unless it discovers oil, it is doubtful whether this largely agrarian economy will be able to follow the traditional path to industrialisation. Instead, it will have to leap-frog to a renewable-energy-based regime.
Malawi, home to about 16-million citizens, is ranked as one of the poorest nations on earth, with an average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of just $365 in 2011. According to World Bank data, almost three-quarters of the population survived on less than $1.25 a day in 2010, while 90% lived on under $2 a day.
On the other hand, the unemployment rate was estimated at just 8% and the Gini coefficient – which measures income inequality on a rising scale from 0 to 1 – was comparatively low for developing countries, at 0.39. Only about 16% of the people live in urban areas and car owner- ship is limited to a tiny minority.
Malawi has an energy consumption profile that is typical of most low-income countries. Some 85% of the country’s primary energy supply is derived from biomass, including wood, crop residues and animal dung.
The nation’s electricity supply of 285 MW is supplied by a single hydroelectric power plant on the Shire river. That is just over a third of the generation capacity of one of the six coal-fired boilers in Eskom’s new Medupi power plant. Although electricity is relatively cheap, supply is erratic, as river flows fluctuate, and availability is restricted to about 10% of the country’s population living in the largest cities and towns.
According to government statistics, households derive 98% of their energy from biomass and just 1% each from electricity and petroleum. Even industry obtains more than half of its energy from biomass – the balance comes from petro- leum (17%), coal (19%) and electricity (11%).
The transport sector bucks the trend by relying on petroleum fuels for 95% of its energy supply – the remaining 5% is pro- vided by two domestic sugar-to-ethanol refineries.
Petrol and diesel prices in Malawi are among the highest in the world. Petrol costs the equivalent of about R16.63/ℓ – the premium over South African prices being due largely to the high cost of transporting fuels by road to this landlocked country.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, Malawi’s petroleum consumption averaged a miniscule 6 000 bbl/d in 2011 – which means fuel consumption per capita was just 0.2 barrels per person per year, compared with 4.4 barrels in South Africa.
The vast majority of Malawians rely on nonmotorised forms of transport – walking, cycling and the odd animal-drawn cart. Minibus taxis – generally in very poor condi- tion – are fairly common in the main cities.
Freight transport is a real eye-opener. All over, one sees men pushing or riding bicycles precariously loaded with piles of wood, sugar cane or sacks of grain. While recently driving the roughly 300 km section of highway between the capital Lilongwe and the southern town of Zomba, I saw very few trucks – and nearly half of them appeared to be broken down on the side of the road.
This oil-deprived situation might change, as a British firm called Surestream Petroleum has secured a licence to explore for oil under Lake Malawi. The company, which is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment, is fairly confident of finding significant oil deposits following discoveries further north in the Great Rift Valley. But many locals are worried that development of oil resources would threaten their fishing livelihoods.
The Malawi government is also keen to further develop the biofuels sector in a bid to reduce dependence on petroleum imports. There would seem to be significant potential for increased sugar-cane production, possibly irrigated with water from Lake Malawi – but this would require investments in electrification for pumps.
For the household sector, investments in efficient woodstoves and solar cookers could help to reduce the rate at which forest resources are being exploited.
The Malawi government recently commissioned an investigation of the country’s wind power potential – although the logistics of transporting, erecting and connecting large turbines in this landlocked country with its poor transport and grid infrastructure presents a big obstacle.
Malawi produces about 5 000 t of coal a year, which could possibly be ramped up somewhat. Coal could in principle be imported from the huge deposits in neighbouring Mozambique, but Malawi is already struggling to earn sufficient foreign exchange.
If it is to develop its economy, the nation will have to find creative ways of financing and harnessing indigenous energy sources. If it strikes oil, it will have to circumvent the resource curse that has plagued so many other African countries.