Following the constitutional changes in Kenya in 2010, The project developers of SONG (SOlar NanoGrids - https://www.lcedn.com/song) began to appreciate directly through the new solar project the ways in which “African governments have moved increasingly towards decentralized budgets, giving local authorities increased powers and budgets” (READ - Renewable Energy and Decentralization - https://www.lcedn.com/read). This decentralization movement applies to new energy initiatives in many different countries, particularly in remote rural areas; nonetheless, local authorities and formal and informal leadership groups frequently lack resources, personnel and finance to move energy provision in particular outside centralized, grid system ways of thinking.
At the current rate of progress, hundreds of millions of Africans will remain without electricity by 2030 (Ulsrud, 2020) and a substantial portion of them are in areas where centralized grid access will not reach. Rural populations are notoriously hard to supply with electricity through standard commercial models, given low consumption of electricity and erratic patterns of earning. Above all, can ‘mere’ access to electricity be translated into a more holistic understanding of energy use for low-income households, provided in a way that supports standards of living, gives new opportunities for small business and keeps ownership of energy use provision as a community-owned business?
To give an energy project the best chance of success, design and implementation have to be useful to a community, using cultural specificity to add locally-relevant, commercially-applicable democratic elements – technology itself is often the least important issue. The information-gathering, consultation and implementation attached to projects should be multi-layered, triangulated and inclusive and need to build in consultation and control mechanisms through which project communities continue to have a say in development as the initiative grows.
Multi-layered means a process comparing the information gathered in each stage of the research process with that from the previous ones; triangulated means different kinds of information gathered in the research process from different sources, and inclusive means information gathered about project stakeholders, given by project stakeholders, with the
active help and full understanding of project stakeholders. All of these aspects rest on a continuing process of community consultation:
Community consultation on solar nanogrid design, Nakuru County, Kenya
In the design phase, a range of participatory activities such as focus group discussions (FGDs) in the community have a range of different purposes, representing a cross-section of population - village leaders, men, women and young adults, household heads, business owners, religious and political figures. FGDs help to identify needs, aspirations and systemic barriers affecting the material culture of the community, barriers that affect changing energy practices and barriers that affect changing cognitive norms.
FGDs can also be supported by stakeholder mapping processes (SMPs) which identify national, regional and local energy actors likely to have an impact on local energy initiatives. SMPS can identify a range of legal, policy and market conditions affecting energy access and aspirations. On a local basis, SMPs can help to understand ‘structures of energy agency’ which can either help or restrict a community energy project – how much agency will a particular community have to determine its energy future?
Another layer to developing the project is semi-structured interviewing, loose and flexible enough to pick up on themes/areas specific to a particular country/region/locality. Questions could relate to experiences in energy projects/governance, understanding of energy and different energy possibilities, the social value of energy, key drivers behind energy sources, supply and distribution, main economic/social activities regionally and locally and future possibilities. Questions about aspirations are important – what do individuals, groups and communities see as possible futures for households and families?
Each of these community interventions should be followed by a presentation of the information gained to the community – feedback is an important part of participation and ownership. How a community project develops is an iterative process in which information is requested, collated, presented and critiqued, so that a constant process of deriving, discussing and editing information takes place.
Information feedback session to community representatives, Nakuru county, Kenya
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING A VILLAGE ENERGY COMMITTEE (VEC)
The VEC plays a critical role in the functioning of the energy project; the long-term sustainability of the project depends on how well the VEC works. The VEC has a number of important roles to play:
1) It represents the community to the NGO/Partner
2) It represents the community to the community
3) It makes important decisions about the running and the day-to-day operation of the energy project
4) It helps the community to make important decisions about the future development of the community
It is vital that the VEC has representation from all the relevant groups in the community (women, youth, elders, religions, ethnicities, tribes, etc.) and the number of people on the VEC should be determined by who needs representing – GVEP recommends a minimum of 11 people, at least 30% of whom should be women. The VEC will function best when it takes advantage of existing formal/informal governance structures (elders, chiefs, religious figures, etc.) but also uses the presence of a counter-balancing NGO/Partner re existing power dynamics, a role which requires considerable skill in and knowledge of negotiating with communities.
The VEC should be selected using a fair and open process that the whole community agrees to; it may be the case that the community trusts the NGO/Partner to run such a process more than existing power structures. However, it may also be that the VEC sees the NGO/partner as a rival (something the SONG project experienced) and the politics of VEC-NGO interaction are an invaluable lesson into how local project politics function.
As the project is being set up, It is also appropriate to set up a temporary consultative group before the energy equipment is set up and to help implementation and information feedback – or, it may be that the community decide to go straight to the election of a VEC. This is a joint decision for the project implementers, the NGO/Partner and the community.
As the project management systems are being set up, there are multiple means by which communications can be maintained, as well as acting as participatory means through which the community gains confidence in the way the project is being set up and run:
1) Meetings – the regular physical presence of the NGO/Partner assures the community that they have not simply been left with equipment to fend for themselves. Meetings should be at least once monthly and the NGO/Partner needs to establish that it has the staffing available to commit to this; if the community is less remote more regular visits (‘drop-ins’) should be made.
2) Mobile phones – the use of mobile phones is spreading rapidly and even in the more remote rural areas of many African countries (for example) the technology is widespread. The NGO/Partner should take on board that, where there are high levels of poverty in the beneficiary community, it may be appropriate for the NGO to provide community representatives with a mobile to offset the cost to individuals.
3) Social media – although internet access is limited in many countries the NGO/Partner should look to see if anyone in the community has a Facebook or twitter account, or if not, is there the possibility of setting one of these up. Using social media sets up a triangle of communications between the community, NGO/partner and the project implementers which gives a far better sense to everyone of what is going on.
VEC in 2nd SONG community in Nakuru County, Kenya
ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE VEC
VECs can be variously established to own, operate, maintain and/or manage the energy production and distribution facilities. Specific roles for the VEC which the project team need to consider and tailor to suit their community are the following:
1. Needs assessment: How the VEC helps in assessing the energy needs of the community.
2. Supply management: What role the VEC is to have in relation to the supply of electricity from the installed electricity generating equipment and in particular its day-to-day management and repair and maintenance.
3. Financing: Responsibility for maintaining a bank account, for streamlining operational and revenue-related transactions, consumer records and accounts for any revenue collection plus a record of materials, tools, work performance and money spent on the work establishment; how the VEC will develop a budget for each financial year based on expenditures, income sources and other grants available.
4. Community Fund: How and when the VEC will decide to make the best use of any community savings created by the energy project.
5. Convergence: Of the energy project with any other developmental activities being undertaken by other government/NGO/civil society agencies in the community.
6. Capacity-building and consumer education: Relating to all aspects of the project plant and also to developing community understanding of the social and economic potential of their power supply.
7. Monitoring and Evaluation: What part will the VEC play in assisting with necessary aspects of M&E for the project team.
8. Other governance roles: What role (if any) the VEC will play
TRAINING AND CAPACITY-BUILDING
An inclusive community energy project needs to map the skills of individual community members, to determine what skills exist already in the community and what training is needed where there are gaps. Building inclusion and participation through ancillary employment is another important, but often-neglected, component of democracy – if an energy project includes the possibility of training paid labour as well as individual business opportunities then that is another inclusion mechanism:
Community technicians Duncan and Peter testing household batteries for SONG
Consultation with the community allows the project team to understand what capacity/expertise there is within the community to help run the project as members of the energy committee, helping to repair and maintain equipment relating to the project, preparing project accounts, administration and so forth. Once the outline of the project is developed, the team therefore needs to establish what (if any) would be the minimum training requirements of community members to achieve project sustainability.
Community technicians Peter and Laban installing household lighting for SONG
DEMOCRACY THROUGH COMMUNITY FUNDS (CF)
There are different ways through which a community energy project can build participation into the development of a community through the provision of community funding (IIED, 2016). In communities dependent on low and erratic income streams, in which people are already paying substantially for different forms of over-priced energy, renewable provision through a hub-based project can be used to set aside initially small but growing funds for communal purposes in the community, using (for instance) part of the payments households make for hub electricity.
But this is not just a business arrangement – consulting the community on the purposes for which this funding should be used also gives community members a further say in the successful outcome of the energy initiative. The NGO/Partner should receive income from the various service charges and then consult with the community on what the funds are spent on, in order of priority for the community.
The duties of the VEC include establishing the periodicity of meetings at which uses for the CF are decided and disbursals made. Is the CF to be used for small/large projects for the benefit of the community as a whole? (Well-digging, public buildings, etc.); will these projects be used for income/employment generation? Could CF funds be used to provide loans to community members/entrepreneurs on a rotating fund basis? The VEC and community decide a list of CF purposes in (for instance) a community meeting in which those purposes are decided by the community as a whole.
All proceedings related to the CF should be as open and transparent as possible; every time an account statement is received it too should be posted on the board. Every time a CF meeting is held and decisions made re the disbursal of money, a summary of the decisions and disbursements should also be posted. Every time there is a VEC proper meeting these should be an item for discussion, and every time there is a meeting of the community as a whole CF decisions and disbursements should also be an item for discussion.
Across a range of low-income countries in the Global South, statistically there is either no direct evidence of a link between supply of electricity and economic growth or a confusion of results (Wolde-Rufael, 2006; Bah and Alam, 2017; Best and Burke, 2018). In a mass of small, precarious low-income communities with either no or very limited access to modern fuels, much more consideration has to be given to the appropriate ways to assisting with access to electricity supplies which are either indifferent to or likely to worsen the living conditions of communities.
An inclusive, properly researched and well-implemented energy project should be able to answer the following questions comprehensively:
➢ Why is the technology needed?
➢ Who will benefit and how?
➢ Will such benefits be equitable?
➢ Will there be any burdens?
➢ In whose interest is the project being undertaken?
➢ Were other innovation options with potential social value given due consideration and support?
➢ Is the proposed technology affordable and appropriate?
➢ Do the expectations and priorities of researchers, designers, promoters and those of users correspond?
➢ Are supply chains adequate?
➢ What are the social development needs and aspirations of the community?
➢ What are the matters of concern to the community in the context of their everyday lives?
➢ What are the ‘levers’ for change needed to improve energy access and meet the energy as well as social development needs and aspirations of the community?
Low-income communities cling with their finger-tips to precarious existences caught between their lack of communal power, minimal financial abilities to afford improvements in qualities of life, precarious sources of income and being far more vulnerable to the dangers of climate change. No project that subsists merely on providing electricity will do more than cherry-pick the ‘less-poor poor’ – unless more comprehensive mechanisms can be built into that project to enhance the power of households and communities, mechanisms that allow far more community control and ownership over the ways energy can be used to enhance living standards for the community as a whole.
Best, R. and Burke, P.J., 2018. Electricity availability: A precondition for faster economic growth?. Energy Economics, 74, pp.321-329.
Muhammad Maladoh Bah, Muhammad Azam (2017) Investigating the relationship between electricity consumption and economic growth: Evidence from South Africa, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 80, Pages 531-537
IIED (2016) Money where it matters Financing the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement through local finance. Event report, 7–8 December 2016 London. Accessed 18/6/21 at https://pubs.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/migrate/17419IIED.pdf.
Kirsten Ulsrud (2020) Access to electricity for all and the role of decentralized solar power in sub-Saharan Africa, Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift - Norwegian Journal of Geography, 74:1, 54-63
Daniel Schnitzer, Deepa Shinde Lounsbury, Juan Pablo Carvallo, Ranjit Deshmukh, Jay Apt, and Daniel M. Kammen (2014) Microgrids for Rural Electrification: A critical review of best practices based on seven case studies
Yemane Wolde-Rufael (2006) Electricity consumption and economic growth: a time series experience for 17 African countries. Energy Policy, Volume 34, Issue 10, Pages 1106-1114,