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Tackling energy poverty in Sub Saharan Africa

July 04, 2022
tags:#clean energy, #solar energy, #NGO, #Sub-Saharan Africa, #innovation
by:Bob Koigi
What would it take to make energy-efficient, off-grid appliances accessible to the communities that need them most?

Over 600 million people in Sub Saharan Africa are not connected to the national grid. And despite the region's abundance of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, these resources have not been fully tapped to bridge a yawning energy gap that is  attributed to cost and access hiccups. 

Efficiency for Access is a coalition working to address this issue by accelerating energy access through appliances.  

The Coalition - which is coordinated by CLASP, a global appliance energy efficiency and market development NGO, and Energy Saving Trust, which works on energy efficiency product verification, data insight and research - targets various sectors, including agriculture and healthcare, among others. 

FairPlanet spoke to Yasemin Erboy Ruff, James Wakaba and Mike Maina from CLASP about addressing energy poverty in Sub Saharan Africa, the nexus between energy and agriculture at a time when demand for food is growing due to sharp rise in population and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the off-grid appliances sector.  

FairPlanet: Briefly highlight for us the interventions you've undertaken in accelerating clean energy access in agriculture through the #EfficiencyforAgTech campaign.

CLASP:  At CLASP, We have been working with Energy Saving Trust, which specialises in energy efficiency product verification, data and insight, advice and research to co-manage the low energy inclusive appliances programme, a five-year research and innovation initiative that focuses on off grid appropriate appliances.

The programme seeks to double the efficiency and halve the cost of appliances. 

We have been keen on promoting efficiency and affordability to encourage uptake with a view to supporting SDG Goal 7 on energy access. Our approach has been to not only give people a light bulb, but also a livelihood, and to touch on the other SDGS, including getting people out of poverty and reducing hunger.

A lot of the work we are involved in is in research and innovation. We work with test labs, we try to gauge the quality of various appliances and their performances, make recommendations and support innovations in the sector through R&D grants.

Other programmes under the Efficiency for Access Coalition and CLASP include campaigns to create awareness on some of the appliances that we promote. We have a goal to cover as many appliances as possible, but our main focus has been on solar water pumps, solar powered refrigerators, TVs, fans and [...] recently, electric pressure cookers.

In agriculture, we have looked at the water, energy and food nexus. We have worked with companies to promote the sale of efficient solar water pumps, focusing on smallholder farmers. We have developed test methods for solar water pumps. We invite manufacturers to develop highly efficient appliances that consume less power and are affordable.

What are typically the reach and impact of your interventions?

Through our interventions, the quality of life has improved and farming costs reduced, among other impacts.

In Kenya, for example, we have promoted the sale of more than 2,000 solar water pumps and worked with 11 companies; this has been crucial for the companies to reach markets that wouldn’t primarily be reached.

The fact that these appliances are sold using the Pay as You Go system helps the companies, because they have to bear all the costs.

We have also moved into consumer awareness in order to understand what the consumers want. This also helps in connecting manufacturers with consumers. 

We have learnt that subsidising appliances for end-users is not a sustainable option. We endeavour to have more players in the market and also work with government to ensure that the policy environment is enabling to attract manufacturers of different appliances.

Together with our partners we have tried to support governments in adoption of standards by drafting the standards and helping companies to have their products certified.

The market is shifting towards the west of Africa. For example, there are big projects running in Nigeria and companies are moving there due to demand and because it is an attractive market.

Explain to us the nexus between agriculture, food security and energy, and why your interventions have predominantly focused on agriculture.

We have been running multi-month campaigns, for example on COVID recovery, cooling and refrigeration, agriculture and gender, among others. They have been either thematic or technology-specific.

One of the first campaigns under Efficiency for Access that we ran in 2017 was on agricultural technologies. Five years later, we are revisiting this topic and now we have a richer story to tell on new technologies, larger infrastructure and impressive adoption.

While we also focus on other sectors like health and humanitarian relief, the energy, agriculture nexus is the one that has proven to be the most promising in terms of the potential that it unlocks.

Mike Maina: In Sub Saharan Africa, 60 to 70 percent of the population is involved in agricultural livelihoods with the least mechanisation in the world. This is a region where using renewable energy can have a big impact, especially on low income populations. 

We follow where the research leads us and where we can make the most impact as an organisation and as part of a wider community of energy access practitioners. 

For example, we have done research in the East African region on the productive use of energy appliances. That research started with an open mind. We wanted to know where are we likely to make the biggest impact based on 12 different criteria, such as where the biggest need is. 

We looked at commercial applications that could make the greatest impacts for people. We noticed that out of these sectors, the place to make the most impact is agriculture from solar irrigation, milling, drying and handling farm produce. 

Poor countries experience high levels of energy poverty. In Sub Saharan Africa, for example, more than 600 million people are not connected to the grid. Yet, alternative and clean sources of energy like solar are readily available to be harnessed. Where exactly is the disconnect and, as an industry player, how would you recommend tackling it?

Energy poverty is real and remains a significant problem in Sub Saharan Africa. There have been solutions fronted to address the problem, for example by extending the national grid to those people who do not have access. In some countries, this has been quite successful, while in others it is still very low.

Depending on the geography and the economics, there is a certain population that can be reached by extending the national grid in the current set up in an economically viable manner.

Beyond that, there is another parts of population that may not be accessed through grid extension but can be accessed through mini-grids. There is also another group that can only be accessed through off-grid solutions, and trying to address its energy problems through on-grid or mini-grid solutions is not economically viable.

The first thing to do is to identify which group will be accessed by what means. The first group of grid extension is addressed through government electrification programmes.

The mini-grid and off-grid space is the area where the private sector and donor community have come in in the recent past. In African countries, the governments have not been able to get there until recently due to challenges around affordability, getting the right products to the people at the right level and quality of products.

There is also the question of parity. Is someone accessing the grid doing so at the same cost as someone accessing energy off-grid? Evidence currently indicates that the people who are in mini-grid and off-grid areas pay more for energy access than those who are on-grid, because most grids are subsidised by the government.

What is needed to tackle this bottleneck are parity type interventions by governments that allow everyone to access electricity at the same rate per unit regardless of whether they are on or off-grid.

This can only happen if governments work with the private sector to ensure renewable energy products are affordable, of good quality and readily available through tax incentives, rebates and interventions at the customer’s level. 

Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Farmer standing next to a solar water pump.
© Efficiency for Access
Farmer standing next to a solar water pump.
Woman using a solar rice mill.
© Efficiency for Access
Woman using a solar rice mill.
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