Here comes the sun: solar power for #MyMalawiID

Maurice Mayo cleans solar panels from dust at registration centre.
Maurice Mayo cleans solar panels from dust at registration centre.

Karl Bostic, August 2017. Like all registration officers in Malawi’s national identity card registration exercise, Maurice Moyo thinks about the weather as never before. Each day, roughly 130,000 Malawians appear at hundreds of registration centres in selected districts, to have their personal attributes entered as bio-metric data into BRKs (bio-metric registration kits). The data will be embedded on a chip that then becomes the basis of their own ID card. The 2000 suitcase-sized kits that have become portable work stations in these centres, are in constant need of power. Sunny days are more than a good omen for registration officers at the centres. They also set the pace for registration. 

Though the centres are set up mostly in schools, as well as community halls, trading centres, and even a fishery, power at these locations is scarce and mostly non-existent. Using solar panels to harness energy from the sun as power for the kits, has almost become reflexive for the registration officers as they are seen as part of the solution for keeping the registration on course. 

Usually Maurice checks his WhatsApp group used by registration officers at other centres to share updates on conditions, especially the weather. But in Chilinjilo village, in Dedza district, there is no network nor electricity. So he goes outside. 

You wake up and of course you see the sky, the way it is, you see the distribution of the clouds, you can tell today’s going to be a sunny day, and what amount of sun are we going to have, if you wake up early in the morning and find it is just crowded, so of course you check your BRK. You check the battery percentages, you decide how long it can take you, maybe until around 10, it lasts and then stops. You are now deciding whether you are going to open the centre, or for how long you’re going to open. And some days, it’s completely cloudy or showering.” 

The progress so far has led to participation levels of more than 90 percent in all districts that have completed registration, an outcome that owes a lot to solar power. The use of solar power has effectively prevented Malawi’s registration from going dark. Adriaan Boysen, the project manager for Laxton, the maker of the BRKs, is frank about its impact, “Without the solar panels, this project could never have worked. It’s as simple as that.” At least 80 percent of the registration efforts so far have been a result of solar energy as the source of power for the BRKs, Boysen adds.  

SOLAR ENERGY – A NATURAL CHOICE FOR A NATURAL MODEL 

Combining state-of-the-art technology with a cheap source of energy was the logical choice for the makers of the BRK kits, who seized on this in response to Malawi’s acute energy needs. Malawi struggles to deliver the most basic of services, especially electricity. The latest data from ESCOM, the country’s national utility, shows only 10 percent of the country is connected to the national grid for electricity. That is, 90 percent of the country is dark, and without electricity. This is especially so in rural areas, like Dedza. More than 80 percent of Malawi’s population lives rurally, while access to electricity is concentrated in urban areas, which only account for about 15 percent of the population. 

In urban areas, the BRK kits can be powered by household or AC currents, which can be intermittent, but still considered a primary source. But in rural areas this is unlikely, if not impossible. While a BRK kit can derive power from multiple sources – the laptop, a power bank, household AC current, even a car or truck, these sources drain to depletion and need charging. Solar energy though, is renewable, and is cheap, clean, and abundant. Boysen makes the case for why harnessing solar energy is a natural fit for Malawi. 

“If you removed the solar panels from this project, it wouldn’t have worked. How would you have done it? The fact is you need power to power the equipment. The only alternative would’ve been the generator and that means you would’ve supplied 2200 generators, 200 of them as spares, and you would need fuel to run 2000 generators for six months. So you run 2000 generators for six months and see how much fuel you need, how much oil, sparkplugs, and you have the risk of theft. Imagine the cost.” 

SOLAR PANELS – POWER FOR STATE-OF-THE-ART BRKs 

The BRK kits now being used were customised to withstand the harsh conditions in Malawi and the needs for mass registration. The laptop itself has enough capacity to store biometric data of more than 1000 people, and when fully charged can operate without power for more than 12 hours. Because of the scarcity of electricity, solar power is the primary source for the kit. 

After experimenting with solar panels made out of glass in a trial phase last year, the BRK makers in fact, developed a smaller, cheaper, more durable model, that could be folded and fits into a backpack. The original panels did meet the requirements for the exercise, harnessing enough solar energy to supply 300 watt hours. But their size at 1.5 x 2 metres, weight at 25 kgs, and fragility, combined to make it impractical to be used over a six-month period. 

The result, a lighter, smaller solar panel, weighing about 3 kgs, that can supply 80 watt hours for the BRK, and still be effective. The solar panels at a peak level of energy can fully charge a BRK kit with a reserve amount still left. 

Boysen explains,If its sunny days, the panel provides 20 percent extra power of what the kit needs. The kit can run forever if it’s good sunny weather.” And he adds with a caution, “That’s only true if they keep to eight hours a day.”

As the registration officers move from district to district over difficult terrain, the BRK kits are subject to rough handling and are exposed to dusty conditions. Boysen is pleased with the durability of the solar panels and the ability to repair damaged ones. 

We have around 2200 solar panels on this project. Let’s say we’ve fixed as many as 100. That’s still a very low percentage failure rate, and the equipment is taking a beating in the field, and you have to understand is unfolded and folded every day. So far, we’re repairing solar panels with a 95 percent success rate, so there’s only 1, 2, 3 panels we can’t repair.”

The power supplied by the solar panel to the BRK kit is actually distributed into an assembly of components inside the kit which are used for capturing a person’s unique attributes. The laptop is the main component and is outfitted with at least 12 USB ports for precision instruments that include a web camera, finger-print scanner, bar code reader, card reader, LED light, and a relay controlled by the software – all of which require power. The laptop itself is a source of power but must first be charged—in most cases by the solar panels. 

Boysen is proud of an assembly that has been customised for Malawi. “We’re running a kit, and at the heart there’s a laptop, and all our components are plugged into the laptop and run from the laptop so if I would unplug the solar panel or unplug the power bank or take away the main power and it’s only the laptop with the components it would still run for a certain amount of time, because the laptop supplies power to all the components.” 

The operation of the BRK and its state-of-the-art components is unique as high performance levels can still be achieved in difficult, remote places when relying only on solar power. 

“Think about that, you’re running sophisticated software with a very high-quality web- cam with an industry leading camera light because we’ve captured pictures in darkness, in minimal ambient light! The camera is able to detect the face efficiently. They’re not struggling to take the picture,” exclaims Boysen.

Similarly he notes the unique features of the finger-print scanner. “Because we have two fingerprint readers, you’re saving time. As the operator is typing in the name on the screen the applicant can actually check in real time that the name is spelled correctly. There are two screens.”

He recounts how even the gas station attendant who was servicing his car and had earlier registered that day, was still marveling over the BRK and its features. “He said the guy (the registration officer) actually mis-spelled his name and he could see as the guy was typing his name and the guy made a mistake, and he instantly corrected it, and the guy was very impressed.” For Boysen, this was a validation of how well the BRK works. 

SOLAR PANELS AT WORK – THE CROWD FACTOR 

Not only are Maurice and his fellow registration officers now skilled at operating the BRK kit, they have learnt to monitor and to decide the energy needs of the kit based on the battery levels. To use the solar panel as a source, they know how to correctly position a solar panel to allow it to absorb enough sunlight to reach 80 watts full capacity, so that power is then supplied to the BRKs. The setup can take less than 10 minutes at any registration centre. But the panels then need the luxury of time, to harness energy from the sunlight, for a few hours each morning, before registration should begin. 

This is not always the case for registration officers though, who must then wrestle with tough choices. Pressure from crowds to open early, as they may have waited hours outside, is a reality requiring its own training for managing. Any decision to allow registration to start early before the solar panels are fully charged carries a risk for the registration officers later in the day. 

“In order for the solars to charge, there must be sunlight, and if at 6 or 7 in the morning and the solar panel cannot charge, then we have to wait until 10, when the panel is charged. That is the statement we’re supposed to make. But the people don’t understand,”explains Maurice. 

“But if you start early in the morning maybe around 7, the thing is, the machine will just keep going on and off. On and off, maybe you can register a certain number of people, maybe 10, and then the thing (BRK)  has drained, it’s off. And then you have to wait for it again, maybe for some time, but then it won’t be a lot of power, maybe 20 percent. It will be an on and off thing. That’s why it’s better to at least charge it until its maybe 80, 90, 100 percent, and then you start registering, hoping and knowing that at least you’re going to work maybe until you finish.” 

MALAWI – A LABORATORY AT WORK AS A REVOLUTION 

Fortunately, the registration officers can finish their work at the centres, without worry for lack of power, since solar energy as a renewable source, guarantees the BRK kits will always have a supply. The performance and durability of these kinds of BRK kits, together with the reliability of the solar panels may be a breakthrough development for mass registrations. This is now drawing attention to Malawi as a working laboratory for other countries in Africa. 

“It’s a very good model for other countries to follow and other countries are following this. It’s definitely revolutionary,” says Boysen. “It’s size, it’s super compact, it’s battery lasts for 12 hours plus, and the entire kit is contained in an easy to carry small suitcase, 12 kgs for the suitcase and the backpack is 8 kgs. So, you’re talking about a 20 kgs kit. It’s unusual.”

Boysen adds, “You have over 12 USB components that’s plugged in to the laptop. It’s a laboratory to design. It’s a very good environment with all the required factors to design a new product. The project that will directly benefit from this is Zimbabwe.”  Zimbabwe is now preparing for new elections and will be deploying BRK kits modelled after those in Malawi.

Malawi should also be able to enjoy a country-wide job satisfaction of solar panels and the BRKs for all its people, as it’s set to meet its aim of registering more than nine million people by the end of the year. As the exercise continues to race towards this goal, it will increasingly have to rely on solar energy for a successful outcome.

The output for electricity in Malawi, whose capacity of 326 megawatts is already amongst the lowest in southern Africa, is about to get worse. ESCOM recently announced rationing of its electricity supply for the country—by withholding nearly one-fourth of its capacity, 79 megawatts over the next several months because of low water levels. But the registration exercise, should not be affected as much, since it is based on a marriage of high-technology with clean energy. A union that may represent the kinds of creative solutions needed for #MyMalawiID and the country’s advancement.

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