Solar power has long been hailed as the answer to the electricity conundrum facing many parts of rural Africa.
Like many remote areas of the continent, much of Malawi is cut off from access to reliable sources of electricity – resulting in a growing reliance on renewable energy sources.
Areas deprived of power are restrained by a glass ceiling of development, with school days limited to learning in crowded classrooms, and few earning opportunities outside of the big towns and cities.
An initiative to help train and educate young and old in solar energy production is helping communities to break through that glass ceiling, and is winning global attention.
The plight of the nation was bought into the international eye when Malawian student Dikirani Thaulo addressed the UN Sustainable Energy for All Forum at the UN headquarters in New York in 2015.
In December that year he attended Cop21 negotiations in Paris as a part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda focus day on energy, where the urgent need for renewable energy in Malawi fell into the spotlight.
Mr Thaulo, 22 at the time, took the stage where presidents and world leaders had preceded him to deliver an emotional speech on the impact of a world without power in Malawi.
Giving people the opportunity to develop solar power in their own homes was the obvious answer to a national problem.
Since then, and thanks to funding from the Zayed Future Energy Prize, life is slowly becoming that little bit easier for many communities, cut off from the national grid.
New opportunities are being found, in work and education and fewer young people are feeling the need to leave Malawi in search of a better life elsewhere.
Improvements to societies offered the chance to tap into the power of the Sun are slowly beginning to divert the course of the economy towards a more prosperous path.
As the clock ticks closer to 5pm, the Sun is already beginning to set over the dense bushland in rural northern Malawi.
The nights are long in this part of the world. There can be few places on Earth as dark as this corner of Africa. Less than 1 per cent of the country has access to reliable electricity from the national grid.
Little Mary Banda hurries along a dirt track from school to the home she shares with her mother, grandparents, brothers and sisters. It will be dark soon.
With no money, no power at home and no hope of going to university - the future is far from bright for children like Mary looking to escape one of the poorest countries in the world.
That is beginning to change.
With an average of eight hours a day of year round sunshine, solar energy has long been promised as the answer to the nation’s frequent power failures. But with few qualified solar engineers to service new and existing energy systems, the concept has struggled to become a reliable source of power in homes, schools and hospitals.
Every year, hundreds of young women in the village are giving birth in a run-down brickwork maternity ward with no electricity or running water. Beds and walls are covered in a suffocating red dust, and gaping holes that let the air in during the stifling summers are bricked up in winter to keep out the cold.
Mary was one of the lucky ones. The six-year-old arrived in the middle of the night, with solar panels attached to the roof of the clinic helping to power lights to guide doctors through her birth.
Those panels have since been removed, taken to a health centre deemed to be in more urgent need, more than 100 kilometres away. Since then, the small clinic has been left to rely on an expensive diesel generator. That broke down in October 2016.
Things are not much better in the schools of the Nkhata Bay district of the rural north. Children have historically relied on kerosene lamps and candles to light their homes to catch up on their homework overnight.
It is not uncommon for young girls like Mary to wake up coughing or blowing black mucus from their noses after an hour or two of studying by kerosene lamp. Some villagers reported homes being burnt to the ground after playing children knocked over candles.
When lorries carrying vital supplies to communities and businesses break down, they can be left for days on the roadside because of a crippling skills shortage that requires mechanics to be called in from neighbouring Tanzania.
With no reliable electricity, it is a struggle for the next generation to better themselves and help contribute to their nation’s economy.
All Malawians want to be self-sufficient, and to learn the skills to earn kwacha so they can look after their own, but those opportunities are rare. Of the 18.2 million population, 15 million live in rural areas, with many cut off from power.
In 2014, a teacher in one of the local schools in Nkhata Bay, a beautiful region nestled into the banks of Lake Malawi, heard of the chance to make a difference in his community through a sustainable energy competition sponsored by the UAE.
The Zayed Future Energy Prize supports deserving causes to help defeat poverty in places like Nkhata Bay.
In 2014, Maula and Sanga Schools won the Global High Schools (Africa) category of the prize and with it US$100,000 (Dh367,250). That cash has sown the seeds of change that many hope will help to develop a new solar revolution in Malawi.
That initial award has been spent on developing a solar academy to train local people as technicians in the skills to instal and maintain solar energy systems. It is providing jobs, an income and, most importantly, bringing light to the homes of hundreds of villagers.
The progress being made has encouraged others to follow suit with similar investment. The European Union has pledged €1.8 million (Dh7.76m) to help develop more solar academies around Malawi.
Malawi has the world's lowest gross national income (GNI) per capita, according to a latest World Bank report, and while the average wage in the country is about $7,000, in rural areas it is considerably less.
EU funding will develop solar training centres in six institutions, while future plans include developing the Zayed Solar Research and Training Centre for Rural Electrification for Africa.
Training is at the heart of the legacy being created by this latest investment. A nine-month vocational training programme at the Zayed Solar Academy has been backed by government regulators from the Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training Authority (Teveta).
Shorter workshops are also available to help offer an early insight into how the technology works.
At the academy, students can enrol in a four-week class in solar energy and installation techniques, or an 18-month class where students attend for three hours, two days a week.
A women-only course is proving a resounding success in the community, offering a route back into the classroom for many women who left school as young teenagers to have children.
The course is offering a new lease of life to mothers and grandmothers who have gone back to school to learn new skills, keen to carve out their own careers in Malawi’s growing solar energy industry.
Those new skills are helping single mums deserted by their husbands and partners who are either too lazy to support their families, or have moved to nearby South Africa and Tanzania in search of work.
One of those students is Mary’s grandmother, Joyce Mhango, 53. She has six children – four boys and two girls ranging in age from 30 to 17, and has just become a grandmother for the seventh time.
It hasn’t been easy for Joyce, going back to school after 40 years while trying to manage a busy family home.
“Like many women here, we do nothing except raise our children and look after the home,” she said.
“In some cases when a husband dies or leaves the village, women are left on their own. With these courses, we can learn new things and create a business.”
Courses at the academy do not just focus on solar energy, but also on how to make families become self-sufficient.
Joyce and her classmates have learnt how to make manure, cultivate land and fix a borehole. She proudly grows her own vegetables now, with onions and tomatoes in regular supply.
“To be able to repair these things ourselves is helping us every day,” she said.
“Our children are also learning from all of us. They like that we have gone back to school. I don’t have solar at my home yet, but I will want to use it in future.
“My neighbours who have solar panels have had to call in engineers from town to do repairs. That is expensive, so now they can ask us to do the work for them. It is cheaper, and gives me an income.”
Her biggest challenge has been electrical work, something she has had little experience of before.
Joyce hopes the academy will help keep young people in the village to train as solar engineers, rather than leave for the bigger cities to find work or leave Malawi altogether.
The nights are long in Malawi, and average about 12 hours most of the year. Although about 10 per cent of Malawians have access to grid electricity – the reality is the availability of power is closer to 1 per cent of the population. Rural incomes are swallowed up by kerosene fuel costs and candles to light homes.
Basic tasks like charging a mobile phone can involve a walk of several kilometres to the nearest charging point. This is often the case even for those living in relatively developed urban areas of the country.
The Zayed Future Energy Prize is the UAE’s global awards for renewable energy and sustainability pioneers. More than 289 million have been positively inﬂuenced by the sustainable actions of the 57 Zayed Future Energy Prize winners since 2009.
Established by the UAE leadership in 2008, the Zayed Future Energy Prize represents the vision of sustainability advocated by the nation's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. The annual awards invite pioneers from around the world to be part of a growing community, committed to developing renewable energy and sustainability solutions that will serve future generations.
Following a rigorous evaluation process each year, prizewinners are chosen by a jury that includes former heads of state, leading energy experts and world-renowned personalities committed to the global effort of accelerating the adoption of renewable energy and advocating sustainable development.
In 2014, two schools applied for the prize after being encouraged by a respected former teacher in the area, Gilbert Kaunda.
Maula and Sanga Community Secondary Day Schools are located in Nkhata Bay, one of the poorest rural areas of Malawi.
Neither has access to a municipal electricity grid, so the schools conduct classes in poorly lit and ventilated conditions. Candles and kerosene lamps have been used there for years, but are dangerous and have been blamed for respiratory problems in young people there.
Mr Kaunda, who has polio, has been teaching in Nkhata Bay for 31 years.
Five years ago, he wrote a letter to World Vision International asking for help to implement a teaching programme on solar energy in the villages of Chiziya and Chihame.
“Before solar, people were using kerosene and burning grass and candles to light their homes,” he said.
“It was very dangerous, particularly as people were leaving the lights on at night. Children were knocking them over and there was a risk of burning.
“Children were getting respiratory problems and tuberculosis.”
Schools in the area of Malawi where Mr Kaunda worked traditionally had pass rates of about 47 per cent.
Since solar energy schemes were introduced three years ago, children have been able to take their work home and study safely, using lamps powered by the sun during the long winter nights.
Pass rates have almost doubled.
“This is just the beginning,” Mr Kaunda said.
“It was more than giving people the chance to power their homes, it was giving young people access to a better education.
“Children in towns are doing far better than those living in rural areas. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, just that they have less access to light so are not able to read and write when they go home after school.
“If you give children more learning exercises at home, they will develop faster and their grades will improve.”
Training people up as engineers and technicians will help to maintain Malawi’s future solar industry, it is hoped.
Mr Kaunda said he can hardly charge his phone from power supplied by the national grid, and is forced to use his car.
“Some people think solar power is not good, but that is only because they have bought faulty panels or substandard batteries,” he said.
“We have to go to Lilongwe, Mzuzu or Nkhata Bay to buy these panels. It is very labour intensive.”
After winning the $100,000 energy prize, a further dilemma facing local decision makers was where the money should be spent and how. The idea of an academy was an obvious one, but further questions arose over how much the land would cost and where it should be built.
As in much of Africa, Malawians are subject to a state-enforced chieftaincy system in many rural areas. The Maula area sub-traditional authority is ruled by Chief Fukamalaza, who lives on a smallholding on the edge of the village, with his wife, children and grandchildren.
After much negotiation and intervention from Mr Kaunda, and discussions with the 40 or so other chiefs ruling across the district, it was decided a plot of land would be donated free of charge on which the academy could be built.
“We knew about this solar project at the Chilala school that was doing very well, not just in this area but the whole of Malawi,” said Chief Fukamalaza.
“Because of this we wanted to support it. I got together with the other chiefs to see how we could help develop this idea to help more people in the community.
“We had the land, and thought this would be a good space to use to build a new academy.
“That place was given freely. There was a brief discussion with the smaller chiefs, and it was agreed that this new academy should be built.”
While much of the money and power is locked into the larger towns of the capital Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba – local village chiefs are held in high regard and often involved in key decisions on how infrastructure should be developed.
Chief Fukamalaza saw the opportunity to help further the education of those cut off from schools and universities in larger towns, and help his own young family in the future.
“Students in this community are now learning more skills, and that will help them to get jobs,” he said.
“If the academy was not there, the young people have nowhere to go after form four. All they do is loaf about, and some are stealing things and becoming criminals.
“Now they have a focus and an opportunity to better themselves.
“I have no solar power at my house. If I had it, the difference would be great to my life – like spending a lifetime sleeping on the floor, to then having a mattress and a bed.
“My grandsons now have a very bright future, and a chance in life that was not there before. The academy is helping to lift up the entire community.
“Where there was darkness there is now light.”
The Zayed Solar Academy was the first solar academy in Africa, and from the beginning has experimented and developed new and innovative approaches to promote renewable energy and developed new models for training.
The academy is unique in that it is located in a village setting, and focuses on training rural solar engineers specialising in off-grid solar photovoltaic technology.
The training programme is comprehensive, where students not only learn solar installation, but are also given a solid training in electrical theory and installation, as well as in computer and business skills.
It has grown into a technical college and initiated the development of the first solar curriculum for Malawi, which is now being rolled out throughout the country, helping secure EU funding to develop solar training centres in six other institutions.
Future plans include developing the Zayed Solar Research and Training Centre for Rural Electrification for Africa.
Mwanjiwa Chirwa, 21, is a student enrolled on a month-long solar technician course.
Smartly dressed and tuned into the internet age, Mwanjiwa is all too aware of the opportunities that wait beyond the boundaries of her village, a short walk from the solar academy through dense scrubland, just a short drive from the shores of Lake Malawi.
Education is a privilege rather than a right in many rural villages in the north. In a table of educational opportunities in Africa, Malawi ranks a lowly 47th.
Mwanjiwa has a burning ambition to better herself by grasping the opportunity she has been offered to create a career for herself in a new industry with the potential to change Malawi’s future.
“I’ve no idea what job I want to do, but I know I will have to move away to Lilongwe to reach my goals,” she said.
“My parents are very happy that I am visiting the academy. They want me to get some knowledge and to be able to help myself to a better future.
“The academy has given me a new opportunity in life, I had nothing else to do so decided to come here to learn.”
Shortly after its launch in June 2014, about 133 students registered for the first Zayed Solar Academy solar installation course.
The 25 brightest applicants, including four women, entered the inaugural six-month programme after a lengthy assessment. Teveta accredited the academy and certified the students upon their graduation in 2015.
The nearby Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre also serves as an official Teveta institute. In addition to the solar installation course, the centre will provide classes in brick-laying, carpentry and welding.
Classes will utilise the construction of the centre as an opportunity to provide on-the-job training. Teveta also hopes such courses will help to address the growing problem of high youth unemployment in the region.
Since winning the Zayed Future Energy Prize, more than 300 students have enrolled in the project, with a further 2,500 directly benefiting from associated courses, workshops or from new learning opportunities in community outreach programmes.
It is thought to have benefited about 15,000 people living in the immediate vicinity of the academy, either through learning or becoming switched on to access to reliable solar power.
“People in this area know the academy will help more installations. I now have one in my home to charge all our phones,” said Mwanjiwa.
“The battery does not have much power. I have a sister in South Africa and my brother has a genetic problem who does not leave home.
“It is a very big problem when there is a power cut in the village, particularly in the health clinic and hospitals. Women are encouraged to carry candles with them in case they go into labour.
“I know friends of mine who have done it as the candles blow out, as things can go wrong.”
One major obstacle in the way of developing reliable access to solar power in Nkhata Bay, and much of Malawi, is the import and resale of substandard equipment.
Families can save up for months to buy solar panels and battery charging units, only to find the goods they buy from local markets are often fake or damaged. Some of the panels being sold are just photocopied sheets of paper inside a laminated case.
An average monthly wage in Nkhata Bay, an area dominated by fishing in the vast Lake Malawi and subsistence farming, is about MK28,000 (US$40).
George Kulaso, an instructor at the Zayed Solar Academy, is leading courses to help people identify substandard solar equipment to ensure they spend their hard-earned kwacha wisely.
It is a problem that is growing in alignment with the popularity of solar, and is proving a lucrative industry for rogue sellers on the black market with little quality control on cheap equipment imported from India and China.
“This is big business for the guys in town,” said Mr Kulaso, who has become a mentor for many of the young students passing through the academy.
“When we are going out to buy the batteries we take a tester with us to check they are working. Most people don’t know what they’re looking for when they go to buy solar equipment.
“They hand over their money, and then take the solar panels home expecting them to work immediately.
“Either they don’t know how to instal them properly, or they’ve bought broken equipment.
“The quality of batteries and solar panels being sold here is very poor in some of the markets. People are spending the money but they are not lasting long before they become useless.
“The police are not interested, but we want the government to take more control and regulate what is being sold, with more border guards to check the quality of what is being imported here from other countries.
“People who have bought these items have no chance of getting their money back.”
A major challenge is the quality of equipment being shipped into Africa. Experts estimate that 80 to 95 per cent of that equipment is defective, with some solar panels having whole sections filled in with photocopied paper cells tabbed to look like solar cells, and batteries filled with glass or stone.
A technical document and instruction manual has been developed by the academy in response to this booming market for fake and substandard equipment.
This research was presented to the Malawi regulatory agencies, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States and the PV business division of the China General Certification Centre in Beijing.
Once published, it can be cited and used in an official capacity by standards bureaux worldwide to mitigate the flow of fraudulent solar equipment.
The visual inspection manual can be used by the solar industry as well as students to identify major quality concerns without any expensive electrical testing equipment.
As much as solar is at the heart of teaching at the academy, other skills are also being taught.
As a small brickwork building tucked away in the African bush, just off a dirt track linking Nkhata Bay to the next nearest town, MzuMzu, an hour’s drive away, it is perfect as an auxiliary classroom for packed schools near by.
It is helping children living in remote areas gain an education that may have been out of reach before the academy was built. More than 10,000 children attend the village’s school, with huge class sizes meaning some children struggle.
“We can teach maths, geography, history and science here at the academy,” said Mr Kulaso.
“Some of the older students walk 15km to get to the academy, the younger ones come from areas close by.
“The children living in rural areas are getting an education, some for the first time, so we are trying to narrow the gap between the education of children living in towns and those in rural areas.”
Children can go to the academy for two days a week, while an outreach programme is going into schools to teach IT skills and solar engineering principles.
The academy itself is powered entirely by the sun. Each of its four solar panels pump out 150 watts of electricity. The system can run the school for two days.
“This is a remote area,” Mr Kulaso said.
“I’ve been here for three years, and there are some talented students here but they cannot afford to go to any of the six universities in Malawi.
“There are more than 400 students fighting for just 120 places each year at those universities.”
University places were government subsidised up until three years ago, and many can’t now afford the fees at expensive private universities, where annual fees are about MK300,000.
There are also five programmes in welding, electrical soldering, information computer technology, carpentry and brick laying, but solar power has become the focus of the Zayed academy.
As the technology develops, the price of solar-powered equipment is also beginning to drop. Some homes have the luxury of a solar powered iron, or even a fridge.
Early graduates from the Zayed Solar Academy are beginning to make their mark in the community, and become a crucial part of its economic infrastructure.
Alec Mbanda, 30, is one of almost 2,500 students to benefit from the Zayed Future Energy Prize that has been awarding grants to sustainable projects around the world for a decade.
Alec attended the academy two years ago, shortly after it opened, and has now established a small business to support his wife and two young children in the village. His start-up has been such a success, he now wants to expand, take on an assistant and buy a bicycle so he can reach homes outside the village.
He has become the go-to man for solar installations and maintenance, as well as electrical problems that arise, when power is available.
“I enjoyed science and fixing electronics at school, but could not afford to go to university,” he said.
“Since I left school, I have been staying at home with my family. There is no work so I have been farming, but that was it.”
Now trained as a solar panel technician, he can instal and maintain the panels that are slowly starting to become more common in his village near Nkhata Bay.
Alec is proud of his tiny but colourful shop, just a short walk from the academy that taught him the new skills to help support his family.
He has installed panels at 13 houses in the village this year, and charges between 12,000 and 20,000MK each time.
His family and friends get cheaper rates of installation, so Alec is finding he has more friends than ever.
“I have my little shop, but I walk everywhere so a bicycle will help me reach more homes and expand,” he said.
“The panels are easy to install. Some people try to do it themselves, but are not trained and they don’t work. That is when they call me.
“Before the academy, I had no future and no skills. Now I can earn money and plan for the future. I want my children to have a better life.”
Jonathan Phiri, 32, is another to have changed his life since graduating from the academy in 2014.
He has trained to become a teacher, and is now passing on his knowledge to students arriving at the Zayed Solar Academy.
“The only other place where solar and renewable energy was being taught was at Mzuzu University by Chrispin Gogoda but it was expensive to go there,” he said.
“Many homes have no power, and I have seen this problem so I wanted to try and change this. Many people try and install their own solar panels, but they are not installed properly and things go wrong.
“I wanted to teach others what I had learned at the academy. There Is nothing else for me to do, either become a fisherman or a farmer, but many people are already doing this so there is no work.
“Total blackouts are common here. If people can fix their own problems with power, it will change this community.
“Some of the women on the course are going back to school after almost 50 years so it is a big challenge for them, but I enjoy helping them to learn new things that will make a big difference to their lives.”
The next step for the academy is to expand the college in Nkhata Bay, which will remain the focal point for Malawi’s solar programme as other academies are developed elsewhere.
Its progress is being keenly monitored, so lessons can be learnt when new facilities open their doors to the next batch of students.
American architect Gail Swithenbank gave up her New York life to move to Malawi and take up the solar cause in Nkhata Bay.
Tired of seeing other energy prizes awarded to those with no practical experience of how communities may use the winning designs, Ms Swithenbank decided to move to Malawi to evaluate just what was needed on the ground.
Ms Swithenbank has been a founding member of the academy and is overseeing the next phase of its development, that includes a second classroom and accommodation for students.
“It takes the time to really appreciate what is important to the people living here, and you only get that from visiting and spending time with the community,” she said.
“Designers come up with new ideas, but they are often either unsuitable for the needs of the community, or very expensive.”
Ms Swithenbank has helped to introduce a new learning initiative for young people in the village, offering 60 to 80 tablets that can be run on a solar-charged battery. The devices are relatively cheap and can be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, a mobile phone, camera, translation device and an interactive teaching module.
For just MK50,000, children and teachers can access new methods of helping educate the community. The Indian-made Ubislate and DataWind tablets cost an affordable MK35,000, with MK15,000 for a battery pack and solar charging unit.
Ms Swithenbank would like the government of Malawi to make the tablets duty-free and tax-free to help reduce the price further, by about 16 per cent, so more can be imported and distributed to rural areas.
“Our long-term vision is to develop the Zayed Solar Research and Training Centre for Rural Electrification for Africa; a think tank, incubator where designers, engineers, solar experts and entrepreneurs work alongside Malawians to develop new solutions and new products for the African market,” she said.
“A residential programme where visiting scholars, international experts, and graduate students would interact with the local village communities to better understand the challenges needs of rural communities.
“For the solar industry to grow in Malawi, there is a need for advanced technical training, teacher training, and research. Malawi needs a highly trained work force for the solar industry.”
Words: Nick Webster
Graphics: Ramon Peñas
Photography: Antonie Robertson, Christopher Pike
Editors: Juman Jarallah, Nigel Walsh, Mo Gannon
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018