19 Feb

Émilie Étienne is a PhD student in sociology and economics in the PACTE and GAEL research centres at the University of Grenoble-Alpes. Her thesis, funded by Schneider Electric company and the French government, focuses on the sustainability of solar mini-grids for rural electrification in Kenya and Senegal. Her research findings are based on over 140 interviews and participant observation at eight mini-grid sites, four in Senegal and four in Kenya, as well as at various (inter)national webinars, meetings and conferences. Most materials were collected between June 2021 and May 2022. This blog draws from several articles already published in scientific journals and a book (Chamarande et al., 2024; Etienne, 2022; Etienne & Robert, In press; Trompette et al., 2022).

Decentralized solar mini-grids, not connected to the main electricity grid, have burgeoned since the 1990s in the Global South. A network of actors made up of major international institutions including the World Bank and other multi-lateral and bi-lateral cooperation programmes, have been financing these infrastructures for populations previously deprived of electricity. Beyond financing, the commitment of these major players is reflected in the promotion of regulatory frameworks, notably through the creation of national rural electrification agencies from the late 1990s. However, the sustainability of access to electricity through solar mini-grids is questionable. These systems are technically designed to last at least ten years, or even twenty if the most fragile components are replaced. However, their effective lifespan rarely reaches ten years (André-Bataille et al., 2020; Berthélemy & Maurel, 2021; Okechukwu et al., 2023; Semis, 2020a). While solar mini-grids benefit from political and financial overinvestment, how can the lack of attention to their monitoring and sustainability be explained? In what ways do stakeholders address questions related to the reliability of this electrical service, from a practical, regulatory and political point of view? To answer these questions, two African countries are studied, Kenya and Senegal. Senegal is a pioneer in solar technologies, with experiments dating back to the 1960s (Caille & Badji, 2018; Gecit, 2020). Senegal received large international funding (Mawhood & Gross, 2014) and has the largest number of mini-grids in Africa, estimated at between 190 and 272 (ESMAP, 2019; Power Africa, 2019). Decentralized technologies were incorporated into regulatory frameworks in the early 2000s. Regarding Kenya, the country was at the forefront of Solar Home Systems since the 1980s (Byrne et al., 2018). Regulations around mini-grids were drafted in 2021. These two countries thus offer a depth of experience, players and regulations around mini-grids.

1. The sustainability of mini-grids: an approach based on relationships between actors at different scales

1.1 The concept of accountability: going beyond the notion of mini-grids as bounded systems

The sustainability of mini-grids is widely addressed in the literature through their technical, economic, institutional and socio-cultural characteristics (Chamarande et al., 2024; Fajardo et al., 2023; Feron, 2016; Ilskog, 2008). Sustainability is considered mainly from a local perspective, envisioning mini-grids as autonomous socio-technical system (Etienne & Robert, In press). This system includes the infrastructure, its users, and those directly responsible for maintenance. For example, the sizing and repairability of mini-grids are mainly linked to the infrastructure itself (Bukari et al., 2023). Governance, participation and training of residents are concentrated on the village scale. At the economic level, the notion of “cost-reflective tariffs” implicitly assumes that payments from mini-grid customers will cover operational costs. Such a notion runs contrary to the national electricity tariff: in public mini-grids, users pay the same tariff as grid-connected users thanks to cross-subsidies, without trying to balance costs and expenses at the mini-grid level. Research looking at the sustainability of mini-grids from a macro perspective is less common (Etienne, 2022). An example is the study by Derks and Romijn (2019) in Indonesia, which shows that national authorities and donors have little interest in the reliability of off-grid electricity service, due to competing objectives and lack of pressures. Incorporating a political dimension thus reveals structural issues around the sustainability of mini-grids. The need to report (account for), the creation of monitoring and accounting instruments for public policies to provide accountability (accounting, be accountable), enable us to approach maintenance issues from the viewpoint of actors linked together by responsibilities, sanctions and incentives. Accountability, through its semantic and scientific richness, thus offers a fruitful framework for describing actor relationships. Mark Bovens (2007) proposes the following definition: “a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement, and the actor may face consequences.” After a brief description of the actors and authorities at play, three hypotheses are considered to understand the maintenance difficulties of mini-grids: i) a lack of information, ii) a lack of sanctions and incentives for those involved in maintenance, and iii) a lack of sanctions and incentives for the “forums” that supervise maintenance.

1.2 The fragmentation of actors around mini-grids in Senegal and Kenya

 Kenya and Senegal, like other African countries, went through reforms driven by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1990s, modifying the national institutional landscapes of electricity. The objective was then to break the monopoly of national electricity companies and to privatize them (Senelec in Senegal, KPLC in Kenya), while creating agencies specifically dedicated to rural electrification (ASER in Senegal, current REREC in Kenya). In both countries, independent commissions were also set up to regulate the electricity sector (currently CRSE in Senegal and EPRA in Kenya). Reforms did not occur smoothly and only succeeded through international financial pressures, an illustration of what is sometimes described as “disciplinary neoliberalism” (Byrne et al., 2018; Gill, 1995; Newell & Phillips, 2016). While both countries have sought to attract private investment and recognize the relevance of off-grid solutions, the main difference between them lies in the level of institutional refinement and the weight of the various state institutions. Senegal developed a complex framework which divided the country into distribution concessions as well as promoting bottom-up governance (ERIL programme – Local Initiative for Rural Electrification). This has led to a multiplication of actors, whether private (large concessionary companies, small Senegalese companies) or public, with conflicts linked to the overlap of responsibility between geographical areas and their governing institutions (Trompette et al., 2022). In Kenya meanwhile, the main institutional innovations have been the creation of regulations specific to mini-grids and the devolution of energy responsibilities to counties. Furthermore, private actors are not supervised by the rural electrification agency as in Senegal, but respond directly to the regulator (EPRA) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Main actors in rural electrification in Kenya and Senegal and hierarchical relationships. PREMs represent projects for productive uses of electricity. Source: authors’ own

The table below summarizes the actors involved in the financing, development, operation, daily maintenance and monitoring of the eight mini-grids studied, showing the fragmentation of actors in these two countries and the role of international players. All the mini-grids in question are operated by private actors with one exception, located in Kenya (M. mini-grid). Findings focus primarily on those seven private mini-grids. 

Senegal (4 MASCULAR MG)Kenya (T. MG)Kenya (O. MG)Kenya (K. MG)Kenya (M. MG)
Funding agenciesInternational cooperation Senegalese SMEsInternational cooperationUK university REREC Battery company (in-kind donations)International cooperationPublic sector
DeveloperInternational cooperation Senegalese SMEsInternational cooperationUK universityInternational private companyNational electricity company
OperatorSenegalese SMEsCounty company International companyVillage cooperativeInternational private companyNational electricity company
CaretakersVillagersCounty company Sub-contracted villagerVillage cooperativeVillagersNational electricity company
MonitoringInternational cooperation Rural elect. agencyCounty company Regulatory authorityUK universityInternational private companyNational electricity company

 Figure 2. Actors involved in the different stages of the life of the eight mini-grids studied. MG stands for mini-grid, SME stands for Small and Medium Enterprise.  

2. The reliability of private mini-grids, an issue with little accountability 

2.1 Electricity reliability monitoring systems: multiple information channels 

 Considering the diversity of actors involved in mini-grids, a first hypothesis from this research is that maintenance difficulties result from a lack of information. It is possible that the actors responsible for maintaining and supervising the systems (ASER in Senegal, EPRA in Kenya) are unaware of the mini-grids breakdowns. Each project has set up an ascending information chain relating to the status of the mini-grids. In Senegal, users of ERIL mini-grids notify village technicians in case of problems, who then notify the operators, who themselves monthly report to ASER. In practice, users sometimes contact ASER directly. In Kenya, operators monitor remotely the status of installations through smart technologies. In addition, some operators frequently visit the infrastructures or use social networks (Whatsapp) with users. These mechanisms coexist with top-down flows of information, such as large studies commissioned by the Senegalese state and international cooperation agencies in 2020 and 2021 (Semis, 2020a), or through new projects in localities equipped with mini-grids. In Kenya, EPRA also plans annual visits to most mini-grids.

Figure 3. Meeting between NGOs, public institutions and villagers for a new project which would involve the rehabilitation of an existing mini-grid. Senegal, 2021. Emilie Etienne 

Even if none of these mechanisms alone provides exhaustive, reliable and regular information, the combination of channels ensures relatively complete information on maintenance needs. The delays in resolving certain breakdowns therefore do not seem to be due to a lack of information. This leads to examining the consequences of electrical failures for operators, who are directly responsible for maintenance. 

2.2 Private operators have little financial interest in maintaining their mini-grids

In the seven private mini-grids, profitability does not seem to be achieved. In Senegal, ERIL operators manage infrastructures that are undersized compared to demand, and which are rapidly deteriorating in terms of technical operation. Also in Senegal, the arrival of the centralised grid in certain villages has pushed operators to more remote areas, with higher costs, without financial compensation from the government. In Kenya, one of the private mini-grids studied suffered from theft and overconsumption. In the second, the inverter was quickly replaced following an error during installation, after which the batteries deteriorated over time, a consequence attributed above all to under-sizing. On the contrary, the third operator faces oversized mini-grids, leading to aggressive strategies to increase users' electricity consumption and balance operating costs.

Figure 4. Out-of-order batteries awaiting recycling. Kenya, 2022. Emilie Etienne

Furthermore, no sanctions are applied to the operators. Several reasons can be put forward. First of all, in Senegal, state-operator legal contracts were still on hold in 2021 due to regulatory incompleteness. In addition, the state is reluctant to sanction Senegalese operators, who are small national companies: “If they are strong companies, they will employ many more people, so the unemployment rate will decrease” (ASER representative). A certain solidarity thus emerges between the state and the operators. In Kenya, the situation is different. According to an EPRA interviewee, operators are expected to implement the recommendations of annual inspections, without the need to apply sanctions. In some cases, mini-grids are also seen as more reliable than the electricity grid. Ultimately, in both countries, dialogue is preferable to sanctions. Maintaining mini-grids in working order is therefore not a profitable investment for operators, while sanctions are not applied for legal reasons or out of solidarity. 

2.3 Competing priorities for state agencies at the expense of electric service reliability

It is then appropriate to question the importance of mini-grids’ reliability for the state agencies responsible for their supervision. In Senegal, the rehabilitation of mini-grids is discussed (Semis, 2020b), but increasing the electrification rate remains the government priority. The situation is similar in Kenya, for example with the deployment of new mini-grids in the north of the country (KOSAP project). Also in Kenya, two other factors relegate the reliability of rural electricity to the background: firstly, the process of devolution in favour of counties blurs responsibilities in infrastructure monitoring, and secondly, EPRA is also responsible for controlling illegal oil deposits, an issue considered more explosive than mini-grids. The increase in the national electrification rate then appears to be a “cogent indicator” Boussard (2001). Conversely, the reliability of mini-grids is an “inert indicator” which fails to interest stakeholders. It mobilizes fewer resources, whether symbolic, financial or media, leading to a gap or “decoupling” between official objectives and the means to achieve them (Bromley, Powell, 2012). State authorities also choose not to hold operators accountable, a situation referred to by Schillemans and Busuioc (2015) as “instance drift”. 

2.4 State Agencies Face Minor Consequences of Rural Electricity Discontinuity

The state institutions which supervise mini-grids, could also face consequences when those infrastructures no longer operate. These consequences might be twofold: a risk of withdrawal of international donors and citizen unrest. In terms of funding, both Kenya and Senegal continue to benefit from international development finance and technical assistance, thanks to their perception of being relatively politically stable countries. This permanence of funding can also be explained by the way international cooperation works. As Perros et alii (2022) show, funding is abundant for new energy projects, but not to maintain existing ones. In addition, donors seek to attract the private sector into rural electrification: direct communication about the difficulties of the sector could be counterproductive, although there are some notable exceptions such as an exhaustive and public study commissioned by the Senegalese State and cooperation agencies on the status of Senegal’s ERIL mini-grids (Semis, 2020b).

Figure 5. A mini-grid being dismantled. Senegal, 2021. Emilie Etienne 

As for users, service interruptions in a large number of rural localities do not lead to major political pressure. It is possible that the small size of the villages, their relative geographical isolation, the lack of electricity and lack of access to the media hinder massive protests. Finally, village populations that are located close to the national grid hope soon to be connected to it, rather than to a mini-grid. Mini-grids are in practice sometimes considered a second-best solution, due to their relatively high tariffs, power limitations and the technical problems experienced (Etienne, 2022).   

Conclusion: the accountability of mini-grids maintenance as a way to question the social order

 The different actors involved in mini-grid maintenance are at once accountable or recipients of accountability, creating multiple chains of accountability. The concept of accountability thus allows to move away from the vision of mini-grids as autonomous entities to question the social order, revealing the limited interest in ensuring quality electricity service in rural areas. As Henke and Sims (2020, p. 4) observe, complex sociotechnical systems are “connected to the broader structures of privilege, inequality, and justice that shape who has control and whose interests are ignored when it comes to building and repairing infrastructures.” 


Thanks to Lucy Baker for proof-reading and providing insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. 


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