A Site Visit to MEGA's Bondo Mini-Grid

 Rebecca Grant

Rebecca Grant,
MRes and PhD Candidate in Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews

My research interests lie in sustainable energy generation pathways, and the contributions of GIS and the energy justice framework in understanding energy inequality. My PhD focuses on the opportunities and challenges of utilising renewable energy to provide equitable, affordable and reliable energy in Kenya. I use geospatial electrification analysis to understand current and potential future energy demand, access and distribution.

Though access to electricity remains low in Malawi, models such as MEGA provide exciting insights into electrification pathways.

MEGA, due to its successes in providing sustainable and reliable micro- hydroelectricity, is heralded as a potential model for future electricity generation in rural Malawi. As such, it is popular with academics, industry and visitors alike.  With my own research interests lying in energy justice and renewable energies, I had wanted to visit MEGA to understand how social enterprise models of localised energy generation, transmission and consumption can contribute to debates on how to expand energy access.

Lichenya River
Lichenya River - Source of much needed Energy

On a busy Tuesday morning in March, I had the pleasure of visiting MEGA for a site visit to their 3 power stations in rural Mulanje. I accompanied their team on their activities, first visiting Bondo 3, the most recent station constructed to increase energy generation capacity.  A newly installed biomass briquette machine was being trialled when we arrived, with three purposes in preventing the loss of valuable biomass, in providing a source of energy efficient cooking fuel, and in limiting the use of forested wood as a fuel. Deforestation was identified by almost all I spoke to as a severe challenge in Malawi, with adverse impacts on the efficiency of hydroelectricity systems, on biodiversity, on soil fertility and on flood control. It thus makes sense to invest in initiatives to prevent deforestation for firewood, though whilst recognising that the uses (and reasons for use) are multifaceted and complex.

Briquette Machine
Briquette Machine Testing

The MEGA team work closely with a village electricity committee, who act to represent the interests of those currently (and who in the future) receive electricity from MEGA, and I met with a chief of one of the local villages who was visiting Bondo 3 when I was there. MEGA provides electricity at a wide range of scales, from the household, to businesses, schools and hospitals where access to electricity is essential to the achievement of other human development goals.

After Bondo 3, I was shown how electricity is generated, where water is channelled through concrete with the aim of minimising disruption to river ecosystems and to minimise flood risk.  Malawi experiences a rainy season every year, where river waters rise high and where river velocity increases immensely. This can prove challenging to dam systems which risk flooding, though the concrete channel proved resistant to damage from water debris and no doubt to contribute to the reliability of electricity from MEGA.

Bondo 3 Power Station
Hydro Power Station after Dark

After a (very welcome) ice cold coca cola from a local shop on our way back, we stopped off with a carpenter, collecting the discarded shavings before heading back to Bondo 3 where trials were going ahead to work out how different biomass (from maize, wood shavings, and groundnut shells) reacted in the briquette machines.  Making our way back to town after the site visit, with the sun already down, the town of Bonda was energetic, with music playing and (an aptly named) ‘After dark’ barber shop lit up and serving customers.

All in all, the site visit to MEGA was insightful; though access to electricity remains low in Malawi, models such as MEGA provide exciting insights into electrification pathways.