Dr Jon Cloke writes on the decentralization argument for energy access, implementation challenges, and justice in energy transitions in Sub-Saharan Africa
The global energy crisis between 2019-2021 has worsened energy access in Africa – it has been estimated that the population of SSA without electricity will increase by 11% to 2030 (Butu et al, 2021). Additionally, the socio-economic problems caused by COVID-19 mean that 30 million African people were unable to afford electricity.
The World Bank (2022) had reported improvement in access to electricity from 26% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa to 47% between 2000 and 2019. Even in areas covered by grids however, reliability of electricity supply is a severe problem – “fewer than half (43%) of Africans enjoy a supply of electricity that works “most” or “all” of the time” (Afrobarometer, 2022)”.
Figure 1: Reliability of access to electric grid
Source: Afrobarometer, 2022
Meanwhile, research indicates that current and future energy issues in sub-Saharan Africa could be resolved through energy decentralization to the smallest, off-grid subsets (Ikejemba et al, 2017). At a time when demand for functional, sustainable decentralized electricity supplies has never been greater therefore, how can implementers develop local energy socio-economic mechanisms that link technology and finance to enhanced sustainability?
Rural mini-grids represent one optimistic opportunity for providing energy across remote rural areas of Africa on the one hand, even ‘under the grid’, areas covered by the grid but where numbers of households are still unsupplied. But they represent a substantial failure operationally on the other – “At present no model for the sustainable management of rural mini-grids exists (Gollwitzer et al, 2018)”. Nonetheless, the IEA points out that 80% of electricity-deprived Africans live in areas where “mini-grids and stand-alone systems, mostly solar based, are the most viable solutions.”
Figure 2: Mini-grids and stand-alone systems as cost-effective solutions
Current public and commercial RET systems experience a range of issues – cost, reliability, system quality, low load, maintenance, institutional structure and supervision problems, as well as inappropriate financial/business models (Ambole et al, 2021; Numminen et al, 2021; Shrestha et al, 2021). New socio-economic mechanisms have to be developed, therefore, which overcome previous shortcomings and get to grips with the complexity of energy poverties, using local knowledges of communities in co-research, co-planning and co-design.
The ENR Demos project project starts from the premise, that the lives of members of low-income households are complex – poverty itself is complex  and low-income households throughout the world exist on various patterns of precautionary behaviour. One aspect of precautionary behaviour is that household fuels are not just different forms of energy in the way that developed-economy business models perceive it: the choice of fuel has a major impact on the survival capabilities of the household.
A global characteristic of low-income households that supports this contention is fuel stacking, changes between various fuel types and use of multiple fuel types as required. It has been suggested that fuel stacking has three underlying traits: “high cost of modern energy sources; cultural preferences, including familiarity with existing fuel; and to avoid total dependence on one fuel that may be a manifestation of price and supply vulnerability (Yadav et al., 2021).” The critical drivers here are vulnerability and resilience; how households fit energy demands to their survival requirements, capacity to pay in the longer term and local conditions.
The initiation of solar mini-grids or any kind of decentralized community-scale RET project has to fit into this precautionary behavioural pattern. In order to both counter the lack of an operational model mentioned at the beginning and reduce vulnerability and increase resilience, energy project initiators have to develop methodologies that engage with the “decentralization and local governance of energy supplies, consider established good practices and look to build routes forward with wider stakeholder communities.”
Addressing practical energy provision from the bottom up amalgamates effective participation, energy democracy and energy justice, rather than seeing them as distinct issues. Literature on the need for increased durability and sustainability for local RET projects continues to insist on the need for more effective participation – many of the subsequent problems of management, operations and maintenance and political hierarchy derive from this basis of ineffective participation. Effective participation and ownership necessarily imply greater democratic input; the co-research, co-design and co-implementation necessary to build effective partnership, management and hierarchical structure necessarily involve a more just approach to community energy.
Dr Jon Cloke
Ambole, A.; Koranteng, K.; Njoroge, P.; Luhangala, D.L. A (2021) Review of Energy Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa as a Transition Pathway to Energy Democracy. Sustainability 2021, 13, 2128. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13042128
Butu, Hemen Mark, Benyoh Emmanuel Kigha Nsafon, Sang Wook Park, and Jeung Soo Huh. “Leveraging community based organizations and fintech to improve small-scale renewable energy financing in sub-Saharan Africa.” Energy Research & Social Science 73 (2021): 101949
IEA (2022), Africa Energy Outlook 2022, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/africa-energy-outlook-2022
Eugene C.X. Ikejemba, Peter B. Mpuan, Peter C. Schuur, Jos Van Hillegersberg (2017) The empirical reality & sustainable management failures of renewable energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (part 1 of 2), Renewable Energy, Volume 102, Part A.
Hee Eun Lee, Woo Young Kim, Hyo Kang and Kangwook Han (2022) Still lacking reliable electricity from the grid, many Africans turn to other sources Dispatch No. 514 | 8 April 2022
Numminen, S., Bandi, V.S. and Sahrakorpi, T. (2021) Reliability assessment of smart off-grid infrastructure for the Global South: A case study of Solar2Go in India
World Bank. (2022). Access to electricity (% of population). World Bank Electrification Database.
Prabhakar Yadav, Peter J. Davies, Samuel Asumadu-Sarkodie (2021) Fuel choice and tradition: Why fuel stacking and the energy ladder are out of step?, Solar Energy, Volume 214.
Shrestha, A., Bishwokarma, R., Chapagain, A., Banjara, S., Aryal, S., Mali, B., Thapa, R., Bista, D., Hayes, B.P., Papadakis, A. and Korba, P., 2019. Peer-to-peer energy trading in micro/mini-grids for local energy communities: A review and case study of Nepal. IEEE Access, 7, pp.131911-131928).
 UKCDR (2022) Uncovering poverty’s complexities, accessed https://www.ukcdr.org.uk/case-study/uncovering-povertys-complexities/ on 15/12/22