Fifteen years ago, when it was getting dark in Yobe Nkosi, a remote village in northern Malawi, the children were doing their homework by candlelight: there was no electricity.
But that changed in 2006 when the villager Colrerd Nkosi in Mzimba, 40 kilometers away, finished secondary school and returned home – and found that he could no longer live without electricity.
The then 23-year-old Nkosi soon discovered that a stream rushing past his house had just enough strength to pedal his bike.
He created a makeshift dynamo that brought power to his home.
The news quickly spread through the cluster of brick houses and neighbors began paying regular visits to recharge their cell phones.
“I got requests for electricity (and) decided to upgrade,” said Nkosi, now 38, and sawing through the machines on his porch in blue overalls.
With no prior knowledge, he turned an old refrigerator compressor into a water-powered turbine and placed it in a nearby river to generate electricity for six households.
Today the village is powered by a larger turbine built from the engine of a disused corn husk – a machine that skims corn kernels from the cob.
The device was set up on the outskirts. The energy is transmitted via metal cables that are strung from a two-kilometer line of tree trunks with wooden planks.
Users do not pay a fee for the electricity, but they give Nkosi some money for maintenance – a little more than USD 1.00 per household per month.
“The electricity is basically free,” said Nkosi in the local Chichewa.
He admitted that the maintenance income was too low to cover the repair costs, which he financed mainly out of his own pocket.
Despite the challenges, he is determined to expand his mini-grid to the surrounding areas.
“As soon as villages and schools have electricity again … people will no longer cut trees (for) charcoal,” he said.
Students “will have a lot more time to study,” he said.
‘Changed my life’
As dusk falls over the Kasangazi Primary School, perched on an adjacent hill, chatty groups of learners crowd into a classroom for a nightly study session.
“Before we had electricity here, we used to use candles to study,” says Student Gift Mfune, sorting a pile of textbooks on his desk.
“Well … we all have no excuse but to pass our exams,” he exclaimed.
Courtesy of Nkosi, the building is the only school with electricity from 17 others serving the area.
Only about 11 percent of Malawi’s 19 million inhabitants have access to electricity, which makes it one of the least electrified countries in the world, according to Sustainable Energy for All, a UN-backed campaign group.
Only four percent of the rural population of the South African country are connected to the electricity grid, compared to 42 percent in the cities.
City councilor Victor Muva pointed out that none of the more than 18,000 residents of the constituency was connected to the national electricity grid.
He has lobbied the government to help Nkosi expand his work.
The Department of Energy has promised to “develop a system that will produce enough electricity” and “build safe and reliable power lines,” he said.
Across the valley, loud laughter breaks out from a house where Nkosi’s cousin Satiel and several relatives are watching a Zambian comedy show on a small TV.
Young and old crowd around the screen, teenagers flinch at embarrassing comments from their elders.
“I cannot explain in words how that changed my life,” said Satiel. “I am able to do so many things now.”