Africa initiative includes wind

The poor country of Malawi in southern Africa is starting to encourage the use of renewable energy so that more citizens have access to reliable electricity. In late September the Malawi government announced a $7.3 million initiative to promote access and use of renewables including wind, solar and bio-gas by its citizens in rural and semi-urban areas. The initiative, the Malawi Sustainable and Renewable Energy Program, is funded by the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, the Danish government, the Malawi government and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the Washington-based organisation financed by the UN and World Bank.

"The idea is to enable the majority of Malawians access to alternative and affordable energy for their socio-economic development," says the Malawi energy ministry. "The program will create an enabling environment for the promotion of the renewable energy services focusing on the formulation and promotion of appropriate policies and incentives."

For example, the UNDP will help finance a new renewable energy financing scheme to give local people and institutions like rural hospitals access to loans with a very low interest rate and less collateral. The energy ministry will also seek to have taxes on imported renewable technologies removed, as well as local technicians trained in installation, operation and maintenance of renewable technologies. Environmental Affairs minister Harry Thomson says provision of solar-powered refrigerators in rural areas for storage of vaccines and other medicine should enhance public health in rural areas, while PV systems for lighting schools and libraries will help students and others to study for longer hours.

Today only about 4% of the country's ten million people have electricity -- much of it hydro -- while the rest must gather firewood for fuel, a backbreaking task. The supply of wood is also dwindling as forest resources are used up more quickly than they are replaced. Fewer than 1% of those with electricity live in rural areas. In Malawi -- landlocked and independent from Britain for 35 years and with a per capita gross domestic product of only $200 -- the costs of imported fuel are also prohibitively high.

The media and development workers are welcoming the initiative. They warn, however, that it could be wasted unless the government promotes the program effectively. Solar technology has been touted for years in Malawi, but little has come of it even though the country has plenty of untapped solar energy -- about 3,000 hours of sunshine a year.

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