Raymond Rakotondrasoa surveyed 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 said. “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,” said Rakotondrasoa, who lost all his worldly possessions in minutes that terrible day in August.
Only 15 percent of the country’s 26 million inhabitants have access to electricity.
Everyone else, like Rakotondrasoa, relies on candles, oil and kerosene lamps.
“I can’t stand the smell and the fumes given off by kerosene, so I use candles and an oil lamp,” Rakotondrasoa said.
His neighbor Louise Rasoahelinivo prefers kerosene because it is cheaper.
“I use two candles a day, whereas a liter of kerosene lasts more than a month,” the 70-year-old seamstress said.
Candles cost US$0.06 to US$0.13 each in the island nation off of southeastern Africa, compared with US$0.55 for 1 liter 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 — 20km north of the capital, Antananarivo — requested access to the power grid nearly 20 years ago, he said.
However, the village is still waiting to hear back from state-owned power company Jiro Sy Rano Malagasy (Jirama).
Ambohimasindray’s application was “too old” to warrant comment, Jirama said.
Madagascar’s energy situation is “catastrophic,” Madagascar Ministry of Energy Director-General Andry Ramaroson said.
“The rate of access stands at 15 percent and it has not moved in eight years,” he added.
Madagascar ranks 184th out of 190 countries in terms of access to electric power, the World Bank said.
One solution would be to replace the crumbling hydropower plants built during the French colonial era, which ended in 1960.
However, the country’s presidents have been reluctant to take on lengthy and costly construction projects likely to drag on beyond their five-year mandates.
Jirama is indebted to the tune of US$441 million and is operating at a loss of US$83 million, according to the World Bank.
The utility 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 France, has only 400km of high-voltage lines and 1,000km of medium-voltage lines to distribute the 417 megawatts generated per year.
Jirama has little economic incentive to provide power to tiny villages, such as 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 might never be able to watch the TV she was given by her children in 1989.
“Electricity remains a luxury product only city dwellers can afford,” she said.
Some, such as Rasoahelinivo’s neighbor Isabelle Ramiadanary have turned to solar power instead.
However, her flimsy panel gave out after eight months and 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 about 2,800 hours of sunlight annually.
The Madagascar government is counting on this potential to reach its goal of providing energy to 70 percent of households by 2030, the World Bank said.
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, 40km 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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