In his bestselling memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (2009), William Kamkwamba laid bare the challenges faced by millions of Malawians living in rural areas without access to electricity.
Kamkwamba's epic memoir, in which he recounts how, forced to drop out of school at 14 because famine had ruined his family's harvest leaving them unable to pay his fees, he used books from the local library to teach himself how to build a windmill using scrap materials to generate electricity.
His innovation and determination to provide his village, Kasungu, with electricity and water garnered first national and then international attention. Today the teenager, whose story culminated in a book and a film (available on Netflix) is still changing lives through his Moving Windmills project. The Environmental Studies graduate and entrepreneur and Moving Windmills project have a long-term plan to distribute power using low-cost technologies, which will be anchored by solar, wind and rivers (mini-hydros).
The challenge is huge. Some 83% of Malawi's population of approximately 19 million people lives in the rural areas. Online energy portal Energypedia noted in a 2020 report that: "[Malawi's] National Energy Policy estimates that 93% of total energy demand is met by biomass. Households consume 84% of the total primary energy. A staggering 99% of household energy is supplied by biomass. Less than 2.3% of the total national energy demand is met by electricity, 3.5% by liquid fuels and gas, and 1% by coal." Energypedia's report said that only 18% of the population has access to the grid, while the almost blanket use of charcoal and firewood for domestic use is "exerting significant pressure" on the country's forest resources.
A 2017 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that Africa has huge untapped resources for renewable energy, which must be used to meet increased demand.
Meanwhile, the Malawi Renewable Energy Strategy estimates that the country could actually connect 27% of the population by establishing decentralised mini grids in communities of 250 people located at least 5 km from the national grid. However, since the Malawi Rural Electrification Project (MAREP) rolled out 40 years ago, 96% of the country's rural population still remains off grid. At the present rate, Malawi needs at least 960 years to connect every rural home or institution and achieve energy for all.
"I'm very interested in finding ways to use the knowledge that I have gained through my education and interacting with people to solve some of the problems people are facing in Malawi," Kamkwamba told Africa in Fact.
Malawi's Department of Energy Affairs agrees that the country cannot eliminate the huge unmet need for electricity by extending the national grid alone. The country's revised National Energy Policy recognizes the challenges of continually extending the grid because some rural populations live in hard-to-reach places. Instead, the policy recommends that Malawi diversify the generation and distribution of electricity by embracing the use of solar, water and wind mini grids to accelerate rural electrification.
"Rural access is to us still on the lower side; we wish we could have done more [by now]. The 2018 census shows that 84% of people in Malawi live in rural areas. This means we are still doing them a disservice," Edgar Bayani, the Director of Community Energy Malawi (CEM), says. Bayani suggests that Malawi's energy woes would be met if the government operationalized key policy documents such as the National Energy Policy, Renewable Energy Strategy and Action Agenda.
Kamkwamba, meanwhile, is actively pursuing his ambition to assist Malawi by coaxing a cadre of youngsters to embrace innovation from a very young age. This includes the creation of an innovation centre in Kusungu, which will be a hub for "students, mentors and community to create innovative solutions to Africa problems".
"We talk about wind and solar because it's a simpler and cheaper way to give us electricity and irrigation," Kamkwamba says. "Clean water and power are our right as humans on this earth, and for too long our governments in Africa have failed to provide these things."
The Moving Windmills Foundation is working with five primary and secondary schools in Kasungu to solarise their power and has installed internet-in-a-box systems with the primary goal of bringing consistency to every school day for hundreds of students.
"We have been able to build three classroom blocks with two classes each for the local primary school, Wimbe Primary School," Kamkwamba says. "These new classrooms have solar panel installations that allow the students to study late into the night. We have also installed solar panels and systems in Kachokolo High School, which has allowed the students to use computers for their studies for the first time in their lives."
Malawi needs to invest $3 billion to leverage abundant renewable energy resources to save money, while providing reliable electricity for growth and rural electrification, according to a 2019 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute. "Malawi has an abundance of resources with which a sustainable energy sector could thrive. Ending energy poverty and ensuring that no country or person is left behind must become a priority for all stakeholders," the study said.
David Keith, an African energy sector expert at Tetra Tech International Development Services, agrees that billions of dollars in investment in Africa's electricity sector are needed. "The key here is we really believe the energy sector is just another industry--it is not a government enterprise. And if we could get that sort of belief across, then governments will get out of the power business," said Keith, who has worked on energy projects in South Africa, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, Benin, Tanzania, and for the West Africa Power Pool.
To augment Kamkwamba's efforts in powering and lighting Malawi, the country's government is now working with Independent Power Producers (IPPs) to help the country in power generation endeavours. It has engaged 14 IPP companies to generate solar power and others to use wind, geothermal, waste and coal.
Helping to fill the energy void in his home village and lessening energy poverty, Kamkwamba's Moving Windmills Foundation has established a biogas digester project in Kasungu that uses cow dung to generate gas, which is used for cooking and lighting homes. It has also taught villagers how to fix water wells to avoid cultivating diseases that come from lack of maintenance.
"Deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi, which only adds to the problem," he said. "People cut down trees because they have no power to run electric stoves, etc. So, they use firewood. This is a problem all over Africa. The windmills don't produce enough power to operate a stove, but with some more innovation, this could be easily solved."
Kamkwamba still regularly speaks at conferences and other events, where he continues to explore various renewable energy sources that could have the potential to help Malawi.
"Africa is blessed with renewable energy and does not need fossil fuels to help people access energy and create growth, and the cost of renewables has come down significantly and is much lower than that of fossil fuels," Mohamed Adow, the founding director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa told Africa in Fact.
On November 4th, 2020, the United-Kingdom based public health organization Knowledge Action Change, which aims at promoting health through the concept of harm reduction, issued an expert report entitled: Burning Issues: The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction. In parallel, the organisation hosted two discussion sessions about the state of tobacco harm reduction in the world.
The first session dealt with 'The context and importance of tobacco harm reduction for global health' and the second one 'The current challenges for tobacco harm reduction'.
It was apparent from these discussions that Tobacco Harm Reduction is a very sensitive topic. Several studies have shown over the years that innovative smokeless tobacco products cause potentially less harm than traditional cigarettes. However, many voices are against these supposedly safer products (on the frontline the World Health Organization) considering that they are still harmful and dangerous especially for the youth.
For the experts who advocate in favor of Tobacco Harm Reduction, it is a critical public health issue and the most important thing is to meet consumers where they are regarding their addiction and offer them the best option to live longer and prevent suffering. Most experts have noticed over the years that quitting smoking, although it remains the best option, can be an unachievable goal for many smokers. As a consequence, intermediary solutions have emerged such as e-cigarettes, heated tobacco, pasteurized tobacco. It is notable that a couple of independent scientific studies, such as the one led recently by Public Health England recently, show that e-cigarettes are "95% less harmful than cigarettes".
What are the challenges in low and middle-income countries?
In low and middle-income countries (LMICs), regulations, policies and information around Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) are particularly restrictive. Dr. Mwawi Ng'oma is the Programme Manager of St John of God College of Health Sciences. She is a professional nurse specialized in mental health in Malawi. She stated that to her there is no doubt that current policies and regulations are counterproductive and lead to more confusion and misinformation: "Governments policies and regulations are being unduly influenced by flawed science and anti-harm reduction lobbying. Also, flawed public health information in many countries is confusing and misleading people who want to switch away from smoking but are not aware of the available options".
She added: "Many LMICs are not sufficiently resourced to implement and adopt tobacco harm reduction measures. The situation is further complicated in countries where the economy is reliant on income from cultivation, such as Malaw)".
Samrat Chowdhery is President of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations, and Director of the Association of Vapers, India. Mt Chowdhery is of the opinion that harm reduction is the best option to significantly reduce tobacco related deaths and diseases especially in those countries: "Given that over 80% of tobacco users are in low- and middle-income countries with meagre means to deal with tobacco-related consequences, the focus ought to be unwaveringly on maximum reduction of harm, by allowing people to exercise the choice of avoiding death and disease by switching to affordable and accessible risk-reduced alternatives if they are not willing or able to quit."
Clive Bates is now Director of Counterfactual, a consulting and advocacy practice focused on a pragmatic approach to sustainability and public health. He is very well known in the harm reduction environment as Former Director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK), (campaigning to reduce the harms caused by tobacco). According to Bates this pragmatic approach should be the rule for tobacco because it is the most efficient in spite of a restrictive context: "Good is more or less how we would like the world to be. That requires a few things. First, it requires a change of understanding in the public health community and the world of how harm reduction works. It is not about offering smoking cessation products. It is a reliable, valuable proposition of healthier alternatives…We need much more mindfulness of the perverse consequences of blundering in clumsy excessive regulation that does a disservice to the public good".
He then stressed the importance of communication: "We need a new narrative about THR in the public. The relentless negativity has to stop. People must start to see where the benefits are. We have to stop the tirade of false and misleading misrepresentations of science. Thirdly we need to shift to a risk proportionate regulatory regime. This means being very tough on the most harmful products, and being much more liberal and open minded about encouraging consumers to switch to the far less harmful products"
According to the WHO, smoking kills 8 million people each year and it is the leading cause of preventable death.
Every day, hundreds of millions of payment transactions are completed across the African continent. They're done using myriad technologies including cards, mobile money, and digital payments. By far the most, however, are in cash. Each of these competing payments is trying to dominate and defeat cash, with siloed "winner takes all" consumer payment offers, but which payment type can most effectively promote financial inclusion, helping grow economies and jobs along the way?
Given the success of mobile payments in Africa over the past decade or so, you might be surprised to learn that it isn't the technology most likely to be a game changer for meaningful financial inclusion for the informal productive economy. Instead, the best hope for financial inclusion and growth on the continent is a digital payments platform that is merchant centric, and that benefits the artisans, SMEs, and small farmers. A payment that empowers the productive economy.
Cash and mobile money
At present, cash is still king in many African countries. According to one report, cash accounts for over 50% of transaction value in South Africa. This is despite South Africa having one of the most mature banking and payment spaces and the deepest card penetration rates on the continent.
Despite the growth of digital payments, cash isn't going away. In fact, a report from The Currency Association shows that the value of cash in circulation grew steadily in six major African countries between 2008 and 2017.
That's understandable. Cash is easy to understand. Cash is trusted. You hand over a set amount and get the goods or services you desire. It's also so culturally entrenched that it doesn't require learning new behaviours or learning for merchants to "trust" that somehow your valuable goods are being exchanged for money in an account somewhere.
Despite its ubiquity and being the most deeply entrenched incumbent payment, there are serious downsides to cash.
Cash is costly and does not provide the digital transparency that financial institutions need to provide small merchants with helpful products and services. Cash that is taken into a business and then goes out again leaves no trace of it ever having been there, at least to the bank that is trying to serve the business. It is opaque by nature, which makes it difficult for the bank to understand a business. That opacity effect locks out small businesses and those operating in the informal sector from being included in the formal economy. Although counted as "included" for having a transaction account, cash-based businesses present too much cost and risk to be banked with higher value financial services and credit.
Mobile money throws up similar issues and introduces consumer fees which are also a significant inhibitor to financial inclusion, particularly if the P2P payment is on a 3rd party platform. One of the biggest drawbacks is the peer to peer (P2P) nature of mobile money payments (like cash, it goes in and out of a business without a record of the transaction). A merchant can spend or deposit cash and P2P payments anywhere. This is convenient but the flow of payments cannot be seen or predicted and therefore cannot be collateralized. This leaves the business as unbackable beyond a low value, fee-based transaction service.
The power of digital payments
Digital payments provide a track record in data that forms the basis of a formal banking relationship. It's for that reason that digital merchant-centric pull payments, where a customer presents credentials to a merchant and authorizes the merchant to "pull" the payment from the consumer's account, should be the norm.
This ability is provided to a merchant by an "acquiring bank", which assures that the payment will be received by the business' account at that bank. Because the payment cannot be redirected, it is a reliable indication of the business' cash flow. These payments can be collateralized and be used to guarantee a loan, to collect premiums, to set aside savings for pensions and investment, or for payroll services. This should be the focus when it comes to financial inclusion for the productive and informal economy in Africa: using a digital payment as a gateway to higher value financial services.
For merchants, there must be a much bigger benefit to accepting a digital payment at a fee than simply being able to move away from cash. That exponentially larger benefit comes in the shape of a formal relationship with an acquiring bank and the financial services that come with becoming a bankable business. There are many incidental benefits of any good digital payment platform, including contactless payments, instant clearing, and bill payment. Bit consumer convenience is not enough. Both the consumer and the merchant need to want the digital payment.
Merchant-centric payments deliver consumer and merchant benefits such as loyalty schemes, but only this type of payment can provide the digital transparency and reliability necessary to deepen a business relationship with an acquiring bank where the real value can be realized.
Much has been said about Africa's potential, but if that potential is to be unlocked, then small, medium, and micro enterprises (SMMES) need to be empowered with access to the same kind of formal financial services that large businesses have access to. Digital mobile merchant payments are a gateway to meaningful financial inclusion for the informal sector. Whoever manages to provide this stand to make a real contribution.
The demand for cassava is overtaking that of maize on both the local and regional market, the ministry of Agriculture has observed.
Agriculture minister Michael Katambo has said cassava is one cash crop whose market is booming due to its various industrial use.
He said in an interview that Government was supporting the production of cassava as it had a wide value chain and proved to contribute to the development of the country.
"Cassava market is now overtaking maize because it is now used in mineral processing, mealie meal blending, alcohol and ethanol production, and energy generation. With this corona virus, it is now also being used to make hand sanitisers," he said.
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera has signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Economic Cooperation with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on the final day of his two-day working visit to the 'rainbow nation'.
Chakwera arrived in South Africa on Thursday through Waterkloof Military Airbase in Pretoria and held bilateral talks with his South African counterpart before signing the agreement.
The Malawi leader said he is grateful to Ramaphosa for hosting him in Pretoria and called for South Africa's support as he starts his duties as SADC chair next year.
"During our bilateral talks, we agreed to enhance our cooperation in various fields of development including trade, health, migration and labour for the mutual benefits of our people.
"This has been cemented by the signing of memorandum of understanding on economic cooperation we have just witnessed. It is my hope that in future we will sign several MOU's that strengthen our cooperation through framework of the joint commission of this cooperation," said Chakwera.
On his part, Ramaphosa said: "We have just welcomed the signing of economic cooperation agreement and further agreed to work together to identify specific areas, which South Africa and Malawi through their companies continues to do business.
"We also endeavored to put more emphasis on people-to-people cooperation between our two countries given that we are one people and our people have been travelling between our two countries for generations."
The South African leader said the cooperation need to be advanced in areas such as culture, sports and recreation in an effort to bring the people of the two countries closer.
"We reviewed the state of peace and security in Africa, specifically Southern Africa and noted the need to collaborate efforts at addressing issues of peace and security in our region," he added.
Chakwera who flew on a chartered Malawian Airlines plane returns home.
His delegation included Cabinet ministers Eisenhower Mkaka (Foreign Affairs), Patricia Kaliati (Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare), Richard Chimwendo Banda (Homeland Security), Khumbize Chiponda (Health), Sosten Gwengwe (Trade) and Ken Kandodo (Labour).
Some of the ministers visited about 100 Malawians in detention at Lindera Repatriation Centre.
The trip to South Africa is the fifth for Chakwera since becoming Malawi's sixth President following his triumph in the court-ordered Fresh Presidential Election on June 23, 2020. To date, he has visited Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.