Sustainability evaluation of community-based, solar photovoltaic projects in Malawi

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Background: A novel project sustainability framework is used to evaluate 65 off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) energy system projects in Malawi. This study addresses PV projects serving rural public facilities, a solution known to have had historical issues with poor sustainability. A recent countrywide program targeting such facilities was evaluated against existing projects to determine whether this latest iteration offered better results. Method: Sustainability is defined at the project-level with metrics justified under the main themes of technical, economic, social, and organizational. Data captured for each project is based on a custom survey and interview of key stakeholders. Projects are grouped according to age, project implementer, income level, and PV system size to compare relative results. Results: The sustainability outlook for each project is evaluated. We find sustainability for most projects to be low. Social sustainability was weak with many projects due to low local community stakeholder engagement in terms of numbers of stakeholders, meeting frequency, and community contributions. Organizational challenges included a lack of key management positions in place and extremely limited training provisions. Furthermore, the evaluation highlights the economic health of the system to be key to sustainability, with the "healthiest" projects affording only 37% of expected operations and maintenance costs. Relative to expected demand, systems were found to be undersized for both panels (53% of required) and batteries (57%). Users reported achieving only 60% of their desired consumption. Poor sizing standards related to the lack of load profiles for first-time electricity users as well as poor quality components reduced the overall technical sustainability. Conclusion: Rural public facilities with solar PV in Malawi are not well served by isolated community management. Improved sustainability requires the establishment of a robust financial framework prior to project development that includes formal local government support. This paper discusses ideal management frameworks and their ultimate implications for project developers, policy makers, and the research community.

Original languageEnglish
Article number12
Number of pages20
JournalEnergy, Sustainability and Society
Publication statusPublished - 26 Feb 2020


  • sustainability
  • solar photovoltiacs
  • community energy
  • evaluation
  • rural public facilities
  • indicator frameworks


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