22 Feb

Photo: SIGMA team, advisory board members, and guest speakers

The SIGMA team held its Final Dissemination event on 16 February 2024. SIGMA Principal Investigator Prof Subhes Bhattacharyya from the University of Surrey gave an overview of the project, and representatives from each of the country teams – Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Keyna – presented results. Team representatives then discussed key cross-cutting issues in a high-level panel, and guest speakers presented on the role of energy democracy and politics in African country energy transitions and the technical, economic, and social aspects of solar mini-grid infrastructures. The conference attendees, including those joining online, were engaged in three thematic discussions: productive uses, inclusivity and leaving no one behind, and beyond mini-grids. Some key takeaways, along with conference presentations and posters, are summarized below.

Key Takeaways from the Nigeria Overview presentation (Dr Temilade Sesan, University of Ibadan)

Dr Sesan’s presentation on the SIGMA work in Nigeria focused on the dimensions of sustainability of mini-grids in the country and evidence on productive uses of energy and the success of these programmes, as well as situating mini-grids in the wider rural electrification context of Nigeria. The agriculture-energy nexus in particular has been touted as a route to greater productive use and demand stimulation, but current evidence shows interventions earlier in the agricultural value chain are needed to enhance profitability. Sustainability and inclusiveness need to be promoted in concert. Dr Sesan’s recommendations are for harmonisation of the regulatory environment to match the capabilities of small and medium developers alongside the larger electricity distribution companies, review regulatory provisions to unlock latent rural electrification subsidies for mini-grids, situate the role of mini-grids within broader rural electrification policy, and learn from the promising approaches currently in use by private sector developers in Nigeria.

Key Takeaways from the Senegal Overview presentation (Dr Lucy Baker, Open University)

Dr Baker’s overview situated mini-grids in the Senegal context, including the institutional structures of electricity governance, trends in the rural electrification model and developments in energy access strategy and policy arenas. Mini grids are set to play a small role in the national operational plan for universal electricity access by 2025; there is a greater focus on electricity grid expansion and solar home systems. The universal access target is unlikely to be met. The future of mini-grids is likely tied to how projects are defined under the successor to L’Electrification Rurale d’Initiative Locale (ERIL), the Decentralized Rural Electrification, or d'Electrification Rurale Décentralisée (ERD) framework. Challenges remain, including with accountability related to the significant influence of development finance institutions, contradictions between the ROI expectations of private investors and the unprofitability of reaching low-income often dispersed electricity consumers, and the ambiguity of some parts of the government towards mini-grid development.

Key Takeaways from the Tanzania Overview presentation (Eng. Maneno Katyega, Estomih Sawe, Shukuru Meena, Mtendo Butije, TaTEDO)

SIGMA Tanzania team representatives Eng. Maneno Katyega, Estomih Sawe and Shukuru Meena shared insights from their work focused on the Tanzanian context, framing the background, status of mini-grids in the country, and current challenges based on interaction with stakeholders, site visits, and other field work conducted throughout the study. The work produced a number of conclusions. Tanzania’s comprehensive small power project regulatory framework has been key to the accelerated deployment of mini-grids in the country; however, political factors, high tariffs, along with limited knowledge and access to financing still hinder mini-grid development reaching its full potential. Effective business models, such as mini-grids anchored by commercial customers, are key to financial sustainability whereas very small power producer (VSPP) models do not appear to be sustainable. Their recommendations are that regulators should undertake monitoring and evaluation of the supply quality and tariff rates of VSPPs, consider direct subsidies of electricity services from VSPPs to make services more socially equitable (as women and children benefit most from access), and ensure metering systems are convenient to both suppliers and customers (e.g., via smart metering).

Key Takeaways from the Kenya Overview presentation (Dr. Elsie Onsongo, ICFI)

Dr Onsongo from the International Centre for Frugal Innovation (ICFI) shared insights from their work in the Kenyan context. The Kenyan National Electrification Strategy is prioritising mini-grids and solar home systems through the Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project (KOSAP): 34,000 connections are projected through 121 new solar mini-grids in the country. The Kenyan SIGMA team have conducted extensive fieldwork in eight separate counties in Kenya, visiting 15 current mini-grid projects. SIGMA team research in Kenya has identified a number of challenges with current models of provision: regulatory transparency, the policy-level exclusion of remote communities and coordination issues between national and local governments hinder mini-grid growth at a policy level. Economically, the sector is still reliant on external financing, and developers often focus on anchor consumers to break even on domestic supply. Underutilisation of electricity keeps costs high for consumers in Kenyan mini-grids. Innovative financing models and patient capital are required to keep tariffs affordable for poorer, rural consumers. Socially, inclusiveness is often a challenge, and the benefits of electricity access are often realised more by men than women. Men and wealthier community members have higher levels of participation in mini-grid projects, and inclusive co-development of projects is costly for government and developers, without a clear value proposition for these organisations. Continuous stakeholder engagement is needed to understand regulations and, where possible, find a solution for ongoing challenges.

Insights from “Energy Democracy and the Politics of Energy Transition in African Countries” Guest Presentation (Dr Xavier Lemaire, UCL Energy Institute)

Dr Lemaire’s presentation on the ENR-Demos project (www.enrdemosproject.net) began by describing the precursors to energy democracy. He traced its movement from a mid-20th century concept of environmental justice to the later concept of energy justice, to the modern conceptions of energy democracy, that is, a dynamic approach of participation in energy decision-making, shared knowledge and contesting the power of established stakeholders. ENR-Demos examines the implicit assumption that renewable energy technologies (RETs) are “more democratic”, as well as examining how small scale decentralised renewable energy projects are implemented, and the barriers to citizen participation that exist in status quo project development. Highlighting cases of community resistance to RET and fossil fuel developments, the project proposes informed community decisions, embedding community decision-making in the heart of project development, and moving towards policy frameworks to promote energy communities, as recommendations to address this ongoing challenge.

Insights from “Sustainability of Solar Mini-Grids in Kenya and Senegal” Guest Presentation (Emilie Etienne, University of Grenoble)

Emilie Etienne’s PhD research was the topic of our final guest presentation, focusing on solar mini-grids and their sustainability in Kenya and Senegal, specifically reliability and improving long-term outcomes. From extensive fieldwork, four major themes of reliability and accountability were identified. Reliability monitoring systems are often not working as intended, and informal communications are preferred to formal institutional channels. In addition, there are limited incentives for comprehensive maintenance provisions for mini-grids, and insufficient penalties to disincentivise energy supply failures. Increasing electrification rates often comes at the expense of creating reliable long-term solutions, and new installations are often prioritised over ensuring existing mini-grids are reliable and productive. Emilie concluded that while chains of accountability exist, they are overshadowed by systemic constraints, and responsibilities are dissolved among stakeholders.

Thematic Discussion 1 - Productive Uses of Energy for Mini-Grids & Enhancing the Mini-Grid Value Chain

The first thematic discussion in the afternoon roundtable session focused on productive uses of energy in mini-grids, and how the value chain of mini-grids can be enhanced by including productive uses. The discussion was wide-ranging, covering enhancement of domestic demand to improve revenue recovery through electric cooking or household entrepreneurship (e.g., micro-enterprises), as well as the challenges that integrating high-intensity loads from energy-intensive activities such as cooking can have on peak loads for mini-grids, and the high cost of energy storage to manage such peak loads. Demand-shifting is proposed as an alternative, should loads be available in the system that are suited to this kind of demand side management, such as electric water pumping or charging electric vehicles. Examples from SIGMA research were also brought up, such as the Nigerian case of milling machines and agricultural value chain enhancement, as well as the challenges of developers focusing on affluent user groups to enhance their cost recovery, leading to the following discussion on inclusivity.

Thematic Discussion 2 - Inclusivity and Leaving No-One Behind: Approaches for Bottom-of-Pyramid Users

The challenge of inclusive development and leaving no-one behind was the subject of our second panel. Streams of academic literature are divided on solutions to inclusive development: many articles vilify development aid interventions and top-down approaches, while the market-based approach is criticised for focusing on profit over services. Bottom-of-pyramid (people in extreme poverty) users are very heterogeneous, and there are diverse inclusivity challenges facing developers who are interested in co-producing interventions. In Kenya, for example, inclusive development can take the form of feasibility studies and community consultations, but processes may not be inclusive: the example of women in groups being less likely to speak in front of elderly men was cited, and external parties often do not know how to overcome these entrenched power relations/cultural dynamics. Political will and accountability are fundamental for enabling citizens to escape the “poverty trap”. The challenges of the donor-funded provision model were also highlighted, including the lack of community “buy-in” to donor-funded equipment distribution. Digitisation may offer a route forward in this case, through creating equitable digital platforms for consultation, but needs to be implemented in an accessible and equitable manner.

Thematic Discussion 3 - Beyond Mini-Grids: Micro-Scale Systems or Regional Integration?

Our final session focused on future developments, and the potential for recent developments in “third-generation” mini-grids, which are cross-compatible with the main grid, to address challenges with mini-grid development. Recent developments in India and Bangladesh have shown mini-grids being usurped by the main grid due to government policy on grid extension, which presents challenges to developers, particularly in the private sector where stranded assets are an issue. Standardised procurement processes and equipment installations are a potential route to reducing mini-grid installation costs, and recent World Bank modelling suggests mini-grids are a viable least-cost electrification measure. Mini-grids offer an alternative to unreliable grid provisions in some contexts, and in some SIGMA cases where mini-grids and the main grid exist in tandem, mini-grid provision is preferred as the more reliable option. Many national grids, with Kenya cited as an example, are grappling with low consumption as an issue to cost recovery, in a similar manner to mini-grids. Options exist for investigating the economies of scale of larger, distribution-scale renewable energy installations and distribution networks, providing services where the main grid has not reached, but able to be interconnected to the main grid or operate as an island in periods of main grid unreliability.

Conference Posters

Suggested Further Reading

- See SIMGA working papers, reports and journal articles.

- See our other blog posts, including 

1) Émilie Étienne's guest post, "Who is accountable for mini-grids maintenance? Navigating through stakeholders’ scales in Senegal and Kenya" 

2) SIGMA Advisory Group Member Andrew Barnett's post, "Thoughts arising from SIGMA Final Dissemination Event 16 February 2024"

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