Our outlook in life is usually informed by the locality where we are born. In areas where public service delivery is functional most of us see no need to make changes. In one of my early solutions mapping trips, when I asked one group village headman in a remote area north of Malawi, why he came up with the innovation he was showing us, he had looked at me, paused a bit and said “Poverty. When you are poor you look for ways to make life bearable”. I looked back at him, feeling chastened, followed as he went ahead to show us the rest of his innovation. What I was seeing reminded me of a similar innovation we had seen a few days back in the south of the country; a wind turbine like the one created by Malawi’s famous “Boy who Harnessed the Wind”. The set-up of both innovations made me question safety, efficacy, reliability, sustainability, and at that moment I wished I were seeing something cleaner, and more appealing, and identifiable.
Different yet so similar
The Mini-grid: Richard Mhango Ngulukira, a group village headman in Nkhata Bay learnt how to install a hydroelectric power system from his cousin who lives in a nearby village. Ngulukira got his first motor from his cousin in 2013 and proceeded to install the system in his own village. He explained how he had used scrap material to install the whole system – the wires, extension, pipes and motor cost him about USD106 using savings over time.
He can generate 240 watts which allows lighting of 7 bulbs, listening to the radio and watching TV in his home. From the river where he taps the power, Ngulukira has connected 10 other households (for free) including grocery stores in the village that are able to operate until evening.
The Wind Turbine: George Kalichero is a young man who finished his secondary school education with credits too low for University admission. Living at a tea estate with his parents in Mulanje, one of the remote districts in the country, there isn’t much to do. George dreams and innovates, his curiosity of how things work has led him to create prototypes and test his innovations.
Five years back while visiting an aunt in the city, he got fascinated one day by a thing that looked like a magnetic motor. It was swept from inside the house and was meant to be thrown in the trash. Two years later, George had produced a windmill from scrap metal, bicycle parts and a used car battery, powering 3 houses in his compound.
Relatives and friends are using the generated power for lighting as well as charging phones. His sister who is still in school studies in the evenings because the house has light. George says the windmill could do more, only that the batteries that save the power are too small and he has no money to buy bigger batteries. Like Ngulukira, over time through savings, he has spent ~USD94 on the innovation.
George plans to find environmentally sustainable alternatives for building the windmill tower, to make it stronger and easily replicated without causing environmental degradation. One of his options is to turn plastic waste into durable thick pipes that can be used to build the tower.
Unmet needs and value addition
Talking to both innovators, each confirmed their biggest motivator was their situation and the desire “to find answers” and “to create change”. Although George being curious and young showed willingness to explore and refine his innovation, Ngulukira being older is satisfied with his system since “it’s working perfectly meeting his needs and the needs of others”.
It made me think of how we determine if a solution needs to be refined or scaled. Most grassroot innovators do not care about the frugality of the solution, only its function. Care must be exercised when we come in with expert eyes tinkering on the solution. How we add value to the solution equally matters for replication and adoption by similar communities. As Honey Bee Network’s Professor Anil Gupta has said, “you can add value to form, feature or function of a solution”, but getting the formula right requires humility, collaboration, recognizing the innovators’ role and sensitivity to community needs and values.
Getting country office programming teams involved
Mini grids have been estimated by the International Energy Agency as the best solution for over a third of the global population currently living without electricity access. We have involved the UNDP Malawi’s Access to Energy project team to fund, provide expertise and collaborate with Government into exploring opportunities for refining and scaling these innovations, so that they are compliant to quality, safety and environmental standards for sustainability [more in the next blog].
Providing energy access to people currently living without it by 2030 demands new and innovative solutions for rural electrification and we are committed to find the right formula.