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Renewable energy for Malawi's mountain entrepreneurs

Mount Mulanje has experienced widespread deforestation (WRENmedia)
Mount Mulanje has experienced widespread deforestation

Watching the 2010 World Cup on television might seem an unlikely indicator of rural development, but for some newly formed solar energy clubs around Mount Mulanje in southern Malawi, this was their goal. Formed in 2009, the clubs are promoting new ways of making a living to over 250 young people, who were formerly engaged in firewood and charcoal trading. Many of them now work in 'alternative energy enterprises' based in ten solar powered business centres around the mountain. Their businesses include barbershops, battery-charging stations, TV viewing rooms and telephone bureaus, all powered by solar energy.

The introduction of solar technology comes in the context of massive deforestation on the mountain slopes. Rising population has increased demand for timber, firewood and charcoal, and for young people in the area there have been few other sources of income that could offer the same immediate rewards. But in 2009, the Energizing Mountainous Communities of Mount Mulanje for Sustainable Livelihoods (ECOMUSU) project was started, with the aim of tackling biodiversity threats, raising awareness of natural resource management and the value of the forests, and introducing ways to prevent deforestation, including use of alternative fuels.

Solar power - looking long term

Solar technology has been introduced to tackle deforestation (© FAO/H.Wagner)
Solar technology has been introduced to tackle deforestation
© FAO/H.Wagner

With around US$40,500 of funding from the UNDP's Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme, solar generators were installed in 20 villages. These have become the focus for 20 solar energy clubs, established by the UNDP in partnership with the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust. Sustainability is always a crucial factor with new technologies such as solar energy. Design, installation and long-term maintenance of each solar generator are the responsibility of an executive solar energy committee, which works alongside government extension officers.

Alex Damaliphetsa, National Coordinator of the UNDP's GEF Small Grants Programme in Malawi, admits that renewable energy enterprises do not necessarily bring the immediate cash returns that sale of firewood or charcoal can. But, he notes: "One does not have to invest the same amount of energy once the enterprise is operational, as opposed to going into the forest to cut firewood or make charcoal. I think we can talk of renewable energy as the smart way of making money."

Tree planting campaign

As well as promoting alternative energies, the project has also focussed on other solutions to deforestation. A conservation awareness campaign has been launched in schools, youth groups and faith-based organisations, which offers involvement in renewable energy-based business as an incentive to take part in environmental protection activities, such as tree planting.

Mount Mulanje, a large massif topped by rocky peaks that rise above high-altitude grasslands, is rich in biodiversity. The massif has been gazetted as a forest reserve since 1927, but in recent years the area has experienced widespread deforestation, with rising fuel demands from an increasing population. Some tree species, such as the native Mulanje Cypress (Widdringtonia whytei), have been so heavily logged that they are considered endangered. The massif is home to the last remaining stands of this tree, which plays an important role in supporting wildlife and biodiversity.

A total of 80,000 trees of various species have been planted over two tree planting seasons with community participation. These include more than 1,000 seedlings of tree species with high economic and social value, such as Pongamia pinnata, a nitrogen fixing plant with high oil content, used to make soap. Other plants and trees are specifically grown and managed for their firewood, fodder or medicinal value. The awareness campaign also provides information about invasive plants such as the Mexican pine and Himalayan raspberry, which are threatening indigenous plant species.

Mount Mulanje is rich in biodiversity (WRENmedia)
Mount Mulanje is rich in biodiversity

In the run up to the World Cup, three of the solar clubs that had opted for entertainment as their project focus set themselves a target to beam the matches in their solar-powered TV viewing rooms; two of them succeeded. But according to Damaliphetsa, the wider achievements of the project, while perhaps less quantifiable or obvious at the moment, are just as important. In particular, he notes that raising awareness about the Mount Mulanje ecosystem and building the confidence of the communities in making decisions on energy and business development have created the potential for long-term sustainability. Seeing the World Cup on solar-powered TV is just an indication of what could be possible in the future.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: August 2010


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