Update: Malawi develops 100-kW micro-hydroelectric project in “tea town” through UK company

During the first week of March, the Scottish Government announced it awarded funding to SgurrEnergy, based in Glasgow, Scotland, to develop a 100-kW micro-hydroelectric scheme on the Lichenya River in the Mulanje district of the Republic of Malawi. Located near Mozambique, the country is Africa’s second largest black tea producer and Mulanje is the second-highest tea-producing district in Malawi.

Financial terms of the award and overall project costs are not immediately available, but project completion date is scheduled for 2018.

Of the country’s estimated 17 million inhabitants, published reports indicate 87% of rural Malawians do not have access to grid electricity. The major hydroelectric facilities in Malawi are on the Shire River: 24-MW Nkula Falls A and 100-MW Nkula Falls B; 40-MW Tedzani 1 and 2; 52.7-MW Tedzani 3 and 64.8-MW Kapichira Falls.

The three-year Mulanje project could potentially have a long-term affect on more than 1,000 villagers in Mulanje-proper who currently are not connected to an electrical power grid. Access to power will also help a portion of the people who live and work in Mulanje from October through April when the tea industry’s estimated 50,000 seasonal workers harvest product.

Tea production first began commercially in Mulanje during the 1880s. As a whole, the country annually exports more than 43,000 tonnes (47,399 tons) of tea and has a 3% share of world exports. Combined, about 21 of the country’s 44 tea estates are in Mulanje and the neighboring district of Thyolo, which rank second and first respectively, for domestic tea production.

In 2013, according to the World Trade Organization, Malawi accounted for 10% of Africa’s total black tea production, surpassed only by Kenya, which accounts for 22%. Tea produced in Mulanje is exported for use in blended teas in the UK, Western Europe, the USA and Eastern Europe.

The 100-kW micro-hydro project is part of a continuing effort to provide accessible, reliable power to rural Mulanje inhabitants and the thousands of seasonal employees who work what the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates is 47,000 acres of land for the cultivation of tea.

SgurrEnergy is a renewable energy consultancy, that provides engineering and technical advisory services in onshore and offshore wind, solar, wave and tidal, and hydroelectric projects. The company has an office in South Africa and will work in tandem with Malawi partners that include Mulanje Electricity Generation Authority (MEGA), Mulanje Renewable Energy Agency (MuREA) and Practical Action, a European non-governmental organization (NGO).

According to the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), MEGA is Malawi’s first independent power producing company, which is also a multi-site social energy business. MEGA formed to facilitate micro-hydropower schemes planned for 10 sites on the perennial rivers that originate in “Island of the Sky.”

Mount Mulanje rises 9,847 feet and is the highest point in south-central Africa. It is dubbed “Island in the Sky” because on the weather side [southwest] in the Mulanje district, annual rainfall averages 100 inches.

MEGA employs a mini-grid system that conveys electricity to remote areas. MMCT helped form the organization a few years ago because MMCT thinks extensions from large existing grids located in more populous regions will likely not extend to sparsely populated, difficult to reach mountainous areas similar to portions of Mulanje.

Practical Action
MEGA’s grid actually uses power generated from micro-hydropower schemes, according to Glen Burnett, director of U.S. operations for Practical Action.

Practical Action, headquartered in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, is an international NGO that uses technology to challenge poverty in developing countries. The NGO promotes small-scale hydro schemes that generate up to 500 kW.

“Practical Action seeks access to power for 1.3 billion people who are still without any form of electricity and 3 billion people who still cook over open fires,” according to the NGO.

Burnett said, “MEGA aims to change that and to create a far more cost effective solution than expanding the grid.”

According to SgurrEnergy, the company will manage the design and installation of the scheme in Mulanje, as well as a community education program to provide skills for the operation and maintenance of the technology.

Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the original post. The original article contained an incorrect reference to the Malawi Innovation Challenge Fund.

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Gregory B. Poindexter formerly was an associate editor for HydroWorld.com.

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