Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders

Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders
Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders

Quick Summary

After the great first article she wrote for RiA, Rosalind has been spending some valuable time in Malawi earlier this year and she has put together another article and see below the summary:

* Malawi has identified solar energy as necessary to its sustainable energy future.

* Local environmental leaders can offer important lessons for solar energy leaders.

* Leadership for change is needed and desired.

* A collaborative approach to engaging communities in energy solutions is key.

* Interviews suggest that, following testing, solar energy infrastructure must:

– Be rolled out nationwide on a large scale at no cost to the poor.

– Be extremely durable and long lasting.

– Have excellent energy storage capacity.

– Be easily repaired by villagers at low cost.

– Be powerful enough for multiple purposes: cooking, lighting, device charging, etc.

– Offer employment transition from jobs causing harm to climate and nature.


Learning Local Lessons for Solar Energy

Jacaranda School for Orphans, in Malawi’s Blantyre district, hosted me for three weeks in January 2020 for an illuminating environmental leadership study. Marie da Silva, Jacaranda School’s Founder, told me the following story: The students were taught how to convert oil lamps into solar lamps. Attached to small solar panels, the lamps were intended to help students who had no home electricity to study at night. In the months after the workshop, the students wanted to continue the project but couldn’t afford to purchase oil lamps. 

So they came up with their own solution. They used less expensive reused materials, including tins, glass jars, and pieces of metal turned into reflectors to construct lamps. Some students went a step further and created permanent, efficient hanging lights for their homes. They placed the original small solar panels on their rooftops and pulled the wires down. They now had sturdy lamps that they could make and repair themselves. Perfect for village life. The remaining challenges: the solar panels would only last two to three years and of course battery capacity is limited. This is a story of local innovation, but also one of challenges yet to overcome.

Students converting lamps - Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders
Figure 1 – Students converting lamps

Jacaranda serves nearly 400 children who live with their guardians in 12 surrounding villages. Jacaranda instills a commitment to community enrichment in its students, and its sustainability efforts range from distributing energy-efficient clay stoves to planting trees and teaching permaculture. I interviewed students, faculty, villagers, and community leaders — including elected city officials and a village chief, and learned about their environmental concerns and hopes. These conversations offered critical insights for renewable energy leaders, particularly those working in solar energy.

As we face global problems like the coronavirus, it’s important not to forget the increasing connection between epidemics and harms to ecosystems. Solar energy leaders can help bring about a healthier world by decreasing the links between energy and habitat destruction.Partnering with communities and leaders at the most local level is the key to success.

Malawi’s Energy Crisis

Malawi is grappling with an energy crisis that, together with the expansion of agriculture, leaves the nation depleted of its forests and all the advantages they bring. These benefits range from clean water to stable hillsides, more predictable weather, and healthy ecosystems. Because Malawians rely mostly on wood and charcoal fires for cooking, many also suffer health problems from smoke inhalation.

The good news is that Malawi’s national government and the United Nations identified solar energy as critical to turning this crisis around. This creates a potential leadership opportunity for solar energy companies. But there’s also a hurdle to acceptance and demand: convincing people in Malawi’s cities and villages to adopt this new technology. What form should this engagement take?

Jacaranda School students 1024x605 - Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders
Figure 2 – Jacaranda School students who’ve been raising tree seedlings for the school’s reforestation program

Ordinary Malawians Care About Their Environment—So Include Them in Crafting Solutions

The Malawians I interviewed — city politicians, village women who sell charcoal, and school children — all have something in common: they identify deforestation as their number one environmental concern. Most identify climate change as their second biggest concern because of the impact it has on agriculture. They’re also thinking about polluted watersheds and too much waste.

But when I asked the village women for their thoughts on deforestation solutions, they paused awkwardly and then one woman, speaking for the group, said, “No one’s ever asked us what we think before.” Everyone laughed.

The women offered up plenty of ideas, though. They are interested, aware, and will participate in solutions if invited. I learned that many understand the need for change. But, they need leadership: A clear vision, opportunities to participate in deciding their futures, and, critically, alternative livelihoods that they feel are real and achievable. A well-planned, inclusive transition is necessary for Malawians to be on board.

Interviews at the Jacaranda Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Program 1024x610 - Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders
Figure 3 – Interviews at the Jacaranda Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Program

Improving Ideas Collaboratively

The environmental staff for the Blantyre district government are highly knowledgeable, but Malawians need opportunities to workshop their ideas. To create a sense of co-ownership, this process should be collaborative.

For example, some local leaders discussed gas and coal as energy solutions for stopping deforestation. Unfortunately, these solutions don’t solve the problems of climate change and ecosystem destruction. Similarly, village women and students both suggested planting trees faster than they are cut down in order to replenish supplies. This solution could work to some extent, but planting trees for use won’t stabilize Malawi’s habitat and generate the healthy ecosystems necessary to human well-being.

Entrepreneurs and community leaders are more likely to arrive at solutions that will work for both people and the environment by focusing on a clearly stated, shared vision (i.e. simultaneously fostering a healthy environment while adopting reliable energy), actively listening, addressing both pros and cons, and promoting equitable exchanges of information.

Value Local Innovation and Knowledge

Starting with an inclusive process for designing renewable power can save time, money, and frustration. Otherwise, as Jacaranda’s Director, Luc Deschamps, says, “It’s sustainable energy, but ends up not being very sustainable in the end.” Translating this lesson for solar energy projects, it’s clear that durable, long lasting high-quality panels with excellent energy storage are necessary. But most people in Malawi cannot afford solar panels and unequal distribution of panels might lead to issues with theft. Therefore, once the system has been tested and refined, solar must be rolled out across the nation in a major, simultaneous build-out at no cost to the poor. The students’ solar lamps experience also teaches that engineering, design, and repairability of solar infrastructure must be accessible and affordable for the general public. Solar must intuitively fit into people’s lives.

Another lesson for solar energy revealed in both interviews and research is that solar capacity must be enough to power multiple items at once: stoves, electronic device charging, lighting, etc. Finally, solar must generate local livelihoods, particularly for those who stand to lose work (such as wood and charcoal sellers) with a successful energy transition.

Jacaranda Schools highly successful solar powered water pump - Lessons from Malawi: Solar Energy Needs Local Leaders
Figure 4 – Jacaranda School’s highly successful solar powered water pump


Solar energy has been identified as a key solution for Malawi’s energy crisis. It may decrease impacts on nature and the climate, and help increase Malawi’s biodiversity, human well-being, and climate change resilience. But in order to effectively bring wide scale solar to Malawi, solar energy entrepreneurs must take the lead in local partnerships at all levels, from city government to village chiefs to local nonprofits and village women. Through a campaign of listening, learning, inclusion, and experimenting with solutions that fit with people’s needs, solar energy can successfully turn the tide of Malawi’s environmental devastation and usher in a better future.

Author: Rosalind Helfand

Rosalind is an Environmental & Social Policy Advisor who works with government and nonprofit organizations to develop and implement progressive local, national, and global policies.


1. The Ecology of Disease: 


2. Jacaranda Foundation and School: http://www.jacarandafoundation.org

3. Malawi Sustainable Energy Investment Study, September 2019:


2. How Can Malawi Protect Its Forests?: 


3. Strengthening Resilience to Climate Change: https://www.usaid.gov/malawi/environment


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