Kazizila Village, Malawi, Africa
Kazizila Village, Malawi, Africa

Meeting the Future of Energy Access in Malawi

Map of Malawi, AficaWhen the sun sets in Malawi each day, most rural Malawians use candles, torchlights and kerosene lamps to light their homes. From sunset to sunrise, between roughly 6 p.m. and 5 a.m., they socialize, do household chores and study in near-total darkness because they are living without access to electricity. 

Malawi is one of the world’s least-developed nations, with 70% of its population living on less than $2.15 USD a day, according to the World Bank. Most Malawians experience energy poverty, meaning they lack access to sustainable and affordable modern energy services and products. Approximately 85% of Malawi’s population of more than 20 million people have no access to electricity. Only 3% of Malawi’s population have access to a clean fuel for household cooking. 

“The depth of energy poverty for people living in Malawi cannot be overstated,” says University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Professor Pam Jagger, a political economist who focuses on the dynamics of poverty and the environment in low-income countries. 

For the past decade, Jagger has been collaborating with Professors Charles Jumbe and Thabbie Chilongo, development economists at the Center for Agricultural Research and Development at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi. They have worked together on several studies focused on energy access. 

The team has been supported by a five-year, $4.79 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program. This multi-institutional, multi-country project has enabled Jagger and her collaborators to study the effectiveness of different interventions designed to improve energy access. Most recently, they completed data collection for a study in rural Malawi exploring what types of households are early adopters of solar technologies, what types of technologies they are using and the benefits they derive from them.

Solar technologies provide a source of electricity for small businesses in trading centers. This entrepreneur uses solar panels and batteries to power his haircutting and phone charging business in rural lilongwe district.
Solar technologies provide a source of electricity for small businesses in trading centers. This entrepreneur uses solar panels and batteries to power his haircutting and phone charging business in rural Lilongwe district.

Solar power—which includes standalone solar panels and solar home systems or kits consisting of a solar panel, rechargeable battery/inverter, and light bulbs—is touted by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments and the private sector as an affordable electricity solution for people living in places where there is no access to grid electricity now or in the foreseeable future. 

From left: Longtime collaborators Professors Thabbie Chilongo (LUANAR), Pam Jagger (U-M) and Charles Jumbe (LUANAR).

“There is a very interesting trend happening throughout Africa where we’re seeing rapid take-up of solar technologies that are used for cell phone charging, lighting, and powering TVs, radios and stereo systems,” says Jagger, who leads the Forest Use, Energy and Livelihoods (FUEL) Lab at SEAS. 

Solar device ownership in Malawi increased from less than 1% in 2010 to 12% in 2020, with slightly higher usage of solar technologies among rural households than urban households, according to research by SEAS graduate Charlie Lindsey (MS/MPP ’22), who worked with Jagger and wrote his master’s thesis on the uptake of solar technologies in Malawi. “We learned from analyzing national household survey data that even though about 20% of rural households had solar technology, not all households were using solar energy for lighting,” Jagger says. “We wanted to know more about the primary energy services solar technologies provide, and what uses they have other than lighting.”

We learned from analyzing national household survey data that even though about 20% of rural households had solar technology, not all households were using solar energy for lighting.”

The solar technology study involves a partnership with a social enterprise called VITALITE Malawi, a pay-as-you-go solar company that offers prepackaged solar home systems. In Summer 2022, Jagger and the LUANAR team conducted a baseline survey of 1,279 households in the Lilongwe District in central Malawi. The survey involved interviewing people in three groups: current users of VITALITE solar home systems; prospective users of VITALITE solar home systems; and control households (e.g., households with no solar technologies and no expectation of short-term adoption of solar technologies). 

A representative of VITALITE, a social enterprise selling solar products, shows off solar home systems for sale on a pay-as-you-go basis in Lilongwe, Malawi. There are approximately 20 social enterprises selling similar systems in Malawi.
A representative of VITALITE, a social enterprise selling solar products, shows off solar home systems for sale on a pay-as-you-go basis in Lilongwe, Malawi. There are approximately 20 social enterprises selling similar systems in Malawi.

So far, Jagger and her team have analyzed the baseline data to see what energy services people are using solar energy for. With households that had solar lighting, they looked at how increased lighting from the solar technologies affects the households’ time and quality of life, and if those additional hours of lighting were used for productive or leisure activities. Productive activities include household tasks, studying, childcare, cooking, community meetings, and other work or services, while leisure activities involve watching television, listening to the radio, worship/prayer, rest, exercise, socializing and personal hygiene.

The study team returned to the same communities and households in Summer 2023 after VITALITE had spent the year marketing solar home systems to the prospective-users group. Andrea Mahieu (MS ’24), a SEAS master’s student, joined the team as they revisited each household to complete an endline survey. In addition to learning who adopted new solar technologies between the baseline and endline surveys and what types of solar products they obtained, they asked additional questions about the households’ preferences related to solar energy use that were not included in the baseline survey, as well as more-detailed questions about their leisure time during hours of lighting in the household.

Andrea in Malawi
SEAS master's student Andrea Mahieu, left, works with a field team of locally recruited staff to administer a survey about the adoption and impacts of solar technologies in Kazizila Village, Malawi.

“We went back to observe any additional take-up of solar technologies, including solar home systems or kits, and to understand their impact and what people are doing with those additional hours of lighting,” Jagger explains. “Are their kids studying more, are people doing things related to their businesses or other economic activity? Or are people just enjoying having a source of lighting in their household?”

Their key findings from the baseline data collected in 2022 have been compiled into a report for VITALITE to share with the broader household energy community. 

Jagger and her team found that households that own VITALITE solar home systems or kits have higher incomes, expenditures and more assets than the general population. They spend approximately $2.45 USD per month on solar and $7.85 USD per month on household energy compared to non-solar home systems owners who spend approximately $1.81 USD per month on household energy.

“The top income quartile of Malawians are purchasing solar home systems or kits, which isn’t a surprise,” says Jagger. “However, it illustrates the need to develop an alternative to purely market-based strategies for reaching households with lower incomes.” 

Rural Malawi dirt road
People in rural Malawi often travel more than an hour to get to a trading center or shop to charge their cell phone.

Because solar home systems or kits offer greater availability of lighting, households that used the VITALITE solar home systems reported an extra three hours of light per night, according to the study. “Most of the people who adopt these systems go from no lighting to some lighting,” Jagger notes. The study also found that those same households also experienced an increased sense of security. While there is little crime in Lilongwe District, Jagger says, the households with solar-powered lighting reported feeling safer in their homes as a benefit of having the additional lighting.

Another notable finding is that households with solar home systems spend less time traveling to cell phone charging stations. People in rural Malawi often walk more than an hour to get to a trading center or shop where a cell phone can be left to charge for a small fee. Cell phones, Jagger says, are essential for life in Malawi. More than 90% of households have a cell phone they rely on for financial transactions, business communication, and keeping in touch with friends and family. The time and money saved by having the ability to charge phones at home is a huge benefit to households, she adds. 

Perhaps the biggest finding, though, is that households were using the increased lighting for leisure rather than productive activities, Jagger says. While the donor community and social enterprises such as VITALITE tout the potential for this type of energy solution as “having far-reaching impacts on education, health and productivity,” Jagger’s team found that their data didn’t support that claim. “It’s an important finding,” says Jagger, “because it shows there isn’t a lot of evidence to support the economic and human-capital benefits of solar technologies.” 

Digging more into this observation will be a major focus of analysis of the endline data where even more households have solar technologies, according to Jagger.

“There is a lot of hope and expectation by NGOs and donor communities that when people adopt solar technologies in places where they’ve had no electricity access, they will instantly translate that time into starting new businesses or that children will be studying more,” says Jagger. “It’s a very economic way of thinking and, as it turns out, what we’re finding is that people are using that extra time for socializing or relaxing. Maybe they are just happy that they’re not sitting in the dark, which isn’t a benefit you can easily quantify in monetary terms. But it matters so much for quality of life, which more holistic measures of well-being consider.” 

Solar technologies in Malawi, Africa
Solar technologies are the only option for delivering high-quality lighting to homes in most of rural Malawi. Companies like VITALITE sell solar home systems that include solar panels, batteries, wiring and light bulbs.

Collaboration and Trust

Jagger and her LUANAR partners Jumbe and Chilongo began working together in 2004 as part of an international collaboration on forests and poverty led by the Center for International Forestry Research. They kept in touch over the years. Before joining U-M, Jagger was a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 when a fellowship opportunity became available to spend a year in Malawi studying how reliance on biomass for household energy impacts human health and well-being.

With her family in tow, Jagger spent a year living in Malawi, where she, Jumbe and Chilongo conducted two new studies: one focused on demand for fuel-saving cooking technologies in areas with high rates of deforestation, and a second on the relationship between exposure to smoke from cooking with fuelwood and charcoal and pulmonary tuberculosis. They also started research that combined remote sensing and national household survey data to understand the role that harvesting fuelwood and charcoal plays in deforestation and forest degradation patterns in Malawi. When Jagger returned to North Carolina, she was enthusiastic about continuing her partnership with Jumbe and Chilongo.

“Charles, Thabbie and I worked closely together for the period of a year and forged a lot of trust with each other,” Jagger says. “This has been a very rich and fruitful collaboration, and none of this work would be possible without the strong partnership we’ve built over the past 10 years, which I really value. We are lucky to have been generously supported by both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for more than a decade.” 

That relationship, along with the opportunity to continue to explore the connection between poverty and the environment, is why Jagger is compelled to return to Malawi—“the warm heart of Africa”—year after year. 

LUANAR partners
SEAS Professor Pam Jagger with the study team from LUANAR and U.S.-based graduate students.

Energy-saving Stoves for Household Cooking

Energy-saving Stoves for Household Cooking
A villager prepares a traditional Malawian dish called Nsima, a thick porridge prepared with maize flour and water.

Between 2016 and 2022, Jagger, Jumbe and Chilongo conducted a study on a Government of Malawi program to improve energy access for ultra-poor households, an official designation used by the Government of Malawi as a threshold for providing government support. These households typically receive cash transfers as a form of social assistance.

Malawi is further behind other African countries in the energy transition, Jagger notes, and most Malawians rely on fuelwood or charcoal for their daily cooking needs. Because Malawi’s population is growing, especially in the southern region, there is an increased demand for fuelwood, which contributes to forest degradation and deforestation. “Southern Malawi is one of the most population-dense places in Africa,” says Jagger, “and it has had significant issues with deforestation and forest degradation, particularly over the past 20 to 30 years, largely due to the clearing of forests to provide land for agricultural production.”

High rates of deforestation make it more challenging for households to devote time and energy to collecting fuelwood for cooking, Jagger adds. This is especially true for ultra-poor households. In an effort to address energy access for these households, the Malawian government, with support from United Purpose, implemented a program to distribute free energy-saving stoves to ultra-poor households in eight districts in Southern Malawi. 

Close to 90% of households that were offered the free stove accepted it.”

Jagger, Jumbe and Chilongo designed a multi-year evaluation to understand the adoption, impacts and spillover effects of the program, which rolled out to over 100,000 households in 2017. The study involved data collection in three districts and involved repeated visits to 900 ultra-poor households in 16 communities and thousands of non-poor households in the same communities.

Jagger says they observed high rates of take-up with this program. “Close to 90% of households that were offered the free stove accepted it,” she says. “Leveraging the targeting of social cash transfer programs seems to be a highly effective way to get goods and services to ultra-poor households who generally do not have money to spend on improved energy technologies.” 

Another interesting finding is that people cooked more when they had access to fuel-saving stoves, Jagger notes, which suggests that there is a food-security benefit associated with getting fuel-saving stoves to this particular population.

Something else they sought to understand was whether or not the adoption of improved cookstoves by ultra-poor households would encourage other households in the village to use them. “We measured what we called a spillover effect from this program, and found that the average spillover rate was 12%,” says Jagger. “This means that an additional 12% of households within a village decided they would purchase a fuel-saving stove because they observed that it had potential benefits connected to it.”

Jagger says the study was slated to be wrapped up in 2019, but thanks to additional funding the project was extended for another year, though the pandemic put a halt on further data collection until 2022. That year, the research team revisited the same households for one last round of data collection, which provides an important longer-term perspective on the impacts of the program. The initial finding from the analysis of the 2022 data is that the food-security benefit remains over time and that a replacement plan needs to be built into the program because the stoves break after three to five years of use.

Several major cyclones have hit Southern Malawi in recent years
Several major cyclones have hit Southern Malawi in recent years. They bring heavy rainfall, flooding and strong winds. The most recent, Tropical Cyclone Freddy, hit Malawi in March 2023, causing major damage to homes and crops and loss of livestock. Many people who have lost their homes do not have the resources to rebuild.

Future Research

With the energy access projects focused on solar and clean cooking technologies wrapping up, Jagger is looking ahead to her next collaboration with Jumbe and Chilongo, which will address the linkages between poverty, health and environmental dynamics after extreme-weather events. 

In March 2023, Tropical Cyclone Freddy struck Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, resulting in heavy rainfall, strong winds, flooding and massive infrastructure damage. In Malawi alone, more than 650,000 persons were displaced by the cyclone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Cyclones are major disasters that have dire consequences for rural populations,” says Jagger, who saw the devastation caused by Cyclone Freddy during her recent trip to Malawi. “As a result of damage to water and sanitation infrastructure, health care service disruptions, human displacement and persistent flooding, Malawi is experiencing the largest cholera epidemic in recorded history.” 

Jagger is seeking funding from the NSF’s Human-Environment and Geographical Sciences Program to study the types of environmental shocks that Malawians experience as a result of cyclones and other extreme weather events, and the coping mechanisms they’ve adopted for dealing with those shocks.