As a doctoral researcher exploring the social and political dimensions of rural electrification systems, there is a principal alignment between my own research intentions and the “Energy Democracy and the Politics of Energy Transition in African Countries” (Energy Democracy) project. This is captured in an acknowledgement of the value placed on local community inclusion in overarching energy policy and institutional frameworks. Where my research undertaking explores how certain mini-grid systems may uniquely facilitate the electrification of rural communities, the Energy Democracy project ultimately seeks to provide a pro-poor or pro-marginalised approach linking stakeholders of the energy sector at all levels, separately within the countries of Zambia, Nigeria, and Lesotho. Here, I seek to provide reflections from my endeavours in the former that convey two important elements in pursuing energy considerations for rural communities.
The writing process is a cathartic one. As I now embark on the final leg of my PhD journey, delving into the throes of thesis writing and reflection, I have a newfound acknowledgement and sense of purpose for the research that I have undertaken over the last four years. Energy access is and remains an important driver for economic and social development. The 7th Sustainable Development Goal epitomises this concept and access is at the heart of its tagline. However, the reality of universal energy access for all remains sombre for many residing in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). When it comes to electrification rates, the picture is as above:
1)approximately 1.1 billion people globally are without electricity access;
2)55% of that global statistic reside in SSA, and of that, only 28% of rural areas are electrified.
This translates to over 455 million rural residents in SSA with electricity, and thus a very real need for a concerted and determined drive to advance efforts to get to universal access by 2030.
Part of this need is addressing the financing infrastructure gap that exists for renewable energy projects, where rural electrification projects – that typically deter commercial capital – can benefit from increased private sector involvement and investment. This has resulted in the emergence of the Anchor-Business-Consumer (ABC) model – illustrated in Figure 1 below, where a large energy-consuming entity located in a rural area can help promulgate private-led commercially viable projects that can affordably electrify surrounding rural communities. How might profit-oriented projects then lend themselves to aptly fulfilling the interests of local community dwellers with respect to their electricity needs?
The main objective of my doctoral research has been to understand how anchor-based mini-grid systems may uniquely facilitate the electrification of largely marginalized communities that are in remote rural areas – over and above other mini-grid business models. Part of that has been to understand the outcomes that occur, processes and dynamics that take place, and perceptions that exist within anchor-based systems, by examining two such systems in situ. Through my observations and encounters with community members and other system stakeholders, I have come to appreciate more definitively the following points:
Context really matters – Qualitative research is highly contextual; this is well understood, but empirical undertakings continuously provide new insights into how we seek to understand how things work (our methodology and methods), and to our expectations of what outcomes will materialize from current and new development interventions. No matter how much preparation is done beforehand, interactions with people and objects within their social, political, and technical environment provides nuance to the research process and iterations to our determinations – theoretical or otherwise – of what we seek to discover on the ground.
The value of local voices – Probably better than anyone else, local rural community members are well positioned to express their energy needs and aspirations. They are also inherently central to how effective rural mini-grid interventions can be. Input from local residents nonetheless does not always directly contribute or “trickle up” to project development, management, and governance processes that preside over rural access. The gamut of knowledge and expertise in such local stakeholders can and should valuably lend themselves to the aforementioned processes.
Through my own research study, I’ve been able to personally observe the proclivity of local communities to not only have their interests heard but to also actively partake and have representation in such matters that directly impact them. It is my hope that my present but growing recognition of and stance in this outlook – through my research and through the Energy Democracy project – can help translate it into practical action for a more holistic approach to energy governance and provision.
Author: Nandi Mbazima