In the dark: Electricity a 'luxury' in poor Madagascar

Power cables. (Gallo Images)
Power cables. (Gallo Images)

Raymond Rakotondrasoa surveys the charred remains of his mud and thatched-roofed house in Madagascar.

"I left a candle burning on my bedside table," the 70-year-old says. "It fell and set fire to my clothes before spreading."

The retired construction worker is lucky to be alive.

"If it had happened during the night I could have died," says Rakotondrasoa, who lost all his worldly possessions in minutes that terrible day in August.

Only 15% of the country's 26 million inhabitants have access to electricity.

Everyone else, like Rakotondrasoa, relies on candles, oil and kerosene lamps.

Says Rakotondrasoa: "I can't stand the smell and the fumes given off by kerosene, so I use candles and an oil lamp."

His neighbour Louise Rasoahelinivo prefers kerosene because it is cheaper.

"I use two candles a day, whereas one litre of kerosene lasts more than a month," says the 70-year-old seamstress.

Candles cost between 6 and 12 euros cents (13 US cents) each in the island nation off of southeastern Africa, compared with 50 cents for a litre of kerosene.

The difference is significant in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.


Rakotondrasoa's village of Ambohimasindray, just 20km north of the capital Antananarivo, requested access to the power grid nearly 20 years ago, he says.

But the village is still waiting to hear back from Jirama, the troubled state-owned power company.

Jirama told AFP that Ambohimasindray's application was "too old" to warrant comment.

Madagascar's energy situation is "catastrophic", said the director general of the energy ministry, Andry Ramaroson.

"The rate of access sits at 15% and it has not moved in eight years," he told AFP.

According to the World Bank, Madagascar ranks 184th out of 190 countries in terms of access to electric power.

One solution would be to replace the crumbling hydropower plants built during French colonial rule, which ended in 1960.

But Ramaroson said presidents are reluctant to take on lengthy and costly construction projects likely to drag on beyond their five-year mandates.

Meanwhile, Jirama is indebted to the tune of 400m euros ($438m) and is operating at a loss of 75m euros, according to the World Bank.

It has long been accused of mismanagement, selling power at a loss and buying kilowatt hours from private suppliers at twice the price it charges consumers.

Madagascar's distribution network has not been expanded in four decades.

The country about the size of mainland France has only 400km of high-voltage lines and 1 000km of medium-voltage lines to distribute the 417 megawatts generated per year.

What about solar?

Jirama has little economic incentive to provide power to tiny villages like Ambohimasindray, which would require a major investment with little return.

"Jirama is an operator that reasons in terms of costs and losses," Ramaroson said.

Rasoahelinivo may never be able to watch the television she was given by her children in 1989.

"Electricity remains a luxury product only city dwellers can afford," she says.

Some, like Rasoahelinivo's neighbour Isabelle Ramiadanary, have turned to solar power instead.

But her flimsy panel gave out after eight months and now has only enough power to charge mobile phones, so she is back to using candles and kerosene.

Indeed, solar power is an obvious alternative in a country that enjoys some 2 800 hours of sunlight annually.

The government is counting on this potential to reach its goal of providing energy to 70% of households by 2030, according to the World Bank.

Private sector steps in

Meanwhile, the private sector has stepped in with a major hydroelectric power project.

This month, French engineering firm Colas, Norway-based SN Power, local company Jovena and the Africa50 investment platform signed an agreement to develop a hydropower plant on Madagascar's Ivondro river, 40 kilometres from the eastern city of Toamasina.

The 120-megawatt plant, to be commissioned by 2023, is so far the largest private-sector investment in the electricity sector.

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