Can decentralised energy governance shape socio-economic and behavioural outcomes of off-grid electricity interventions? Musings from Balaka

5 March 2018

We are delighted to feature the second blog that Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa (pictured below) has written, providing an overview of the research that she is completing during her three month placement on defining social and economic ‘indicators of impact’ that can be monitored and analysed before, during and after the introduction of decentralised energy governance, with Community Energy Malawi and the University of Strathclyde. 


In the last decade, the electrification rate in Africa has grown from 26.5 to 37.5 percent. However, in the same time, annual population growth on the continent has consistently increased by 2.4 to 2.7 percent, meaning that the electrification rate has not matched the needs of the population. As a result, the IEA projects that around 607.5 million people on the continent will remain without access to electricity in 2030. Mini-grids and off-grid energy technologies have been proposed as a possible path to accelerate energy access across the continent. It is believed these are better solutions to meet rural end-user energy demand. This is because while grid extension projects are electorally alluring, however, they are techno-fiscally costly solutions for low-density areas which make up the bulk of the un-electrified strata in Africa. The potential for decentralised grid system is high in this context, as it is projected that about 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will be connected to about 100,000 to 200,000 mini-grids by 2040. This has led to further campaign for the deployment of mini-grid and off-grid solutions for economic development in Africa. Specifically, it is expected that the deployment of decentralised grid systems would systematically reconfigure the socio-economic status of rural communities across Africa – more strategically, catalysing them towards sustainable development. Despite the immense potential of these systems, poor governing/regulations would likely result in poor functionality and unreliable service delivery system. While all forms of grid systems present governance challenges, the governance of rural electrification projects seem to be the trickiest. This is because such projects are grounds where politics, institutions, socio-cultural norms, development finance and technologies converge.

In light of these issues an essential question becomes: can the decentralised energy systems deliver on its socio-economic and cultural promises? If so, how is this path negotiated at the community level and what role does governance play in shaping such socio-economic and behavioural outcomes? Recent evidence on the socio-economic impacts of decentralised energy systems in Africa have been limited and fuzzy making it hard to answer these questions. While scientific literature has provided evidence on how electrification for productive use has created a shift in income generating activities, there is also a cautionary tale, which espouses the role of other supporting factors in creating the said shift. What is really missing in these analyses is how governance as a mechanism introduced during electricity interventions redirects the scope and scale of individual and community entrepreneurship (their drive for delving into income generating activities), or how these shape social desires for development (literacy, mortality and empowerment). Seeking to answers these questions, I recently conducted an ethnographic evaluation of the trial governance structure deployed within the Malawi district of Balaka. I was mostly interested in understanding how local energy governance structures (District Energy Officer role) formed during an intervention has shaped socio-economic and behavioural outcomes within this rural setting. Although, I found evidence supporting that the deployed decentralised energy systems indeed led to the development of new income generating activities, I was more interested in the socio-behavioural changes which occurred with the new governance intervention.

There are numerous lessons from this experience in Balaka, but there are a couple of overarching point. First, there are significant efforts put into ensuring that there is no free-riding among communities of intervention and the new governance structures opened a Pandora box of knowledge. Communities which were initially averse to energy as a right, became more energy literate. I was stunned when people referred to as “illiterate”, proved to be energy literate, discussing statistics related to energy’s role in supporting educational literacy. This new position is quite contradictory to the community baseline knowledge spectrum, where members did not even see the need for electricity intervention. There was also a yearning for community training on energy. I found it even more exciting to observe a level of coordination for more self-generated energy projects at the community level- accompanied by numerous cooperatives for micro-energy projects. Second, Balaka showed that when supporting governance structures are not in place there is a likelihood that communities would miss out on the opportunities to self-design or co-design deployed energy systems. This was reflected in the criticism by community members on the need for the deployment of a supporting bottom-up structure for the office of the DEO. Community members were themselves able to identify the gaps in the new governance structure while providing concrete measures to deal with this “perceived” problem.

Reflecting on these findings amongst others, I believe that Balaka has a few things to teach us as energy practitioners. This case shows that ignoring energy governance at the community level will be at our peril as global energy stakeholders with an access for all agenda. Also, energy democracy and polycentrism at the community level might be the harbinger required to break the typical African rural community out of its vicious cycle of underdevelopment.



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