CAFOD/IIED show context is key to sustainable energy for all

Universal energy access is a laudable aim, but attempts to achieve it must take on board local contexts and sensitivities, say Sarah Wykes and Ben Garside.

Sarah Wykes's picture Ben Garside's picture
Insight by 
Sarah Wykes
Ben Garside
16 September 2013
Collecting water from a solar-based purification system supplied by CAFOD. Chila Union, Mongla District, Bangladesh. Photo: Photo: Paula Nyunt / CAFOD

Collecting water from a solar-based purification system supplied by CAFOD. Chila Union, Mongla District, Bangladesh. Photo: Photo: Paula Nyunt / CAFOD

There is now a remarkable consensus that modern, safe, secure and affordable energy services are vital to helping people out of poverty. At least 1.3 billion people still have no electricity, while 2.7 billion cook over open fires. 95 per cent of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Nailing its flag to the goal of universal access to modern energy by 2030 is the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All). SE4All also recognises the challenge of powering the world while preventing dangerous climate change, with goals on doubling energy efficiency and renewable energy globally — also by 2030. More than 70 countries are now signed up.

Some have argued that a shift to clean and more efficient energy cannot wait until 2030 if we are to limit global warming to below 2 degrees. 2 decades is also a long time for poor people waiting to heat and light their homes, schools and clinics, and power farms and businesses. Another key question is whether new approaches are needed to tackle energy poverty and if donors like the UK put up funds to back them.

Getting off the Grid

The good news is that meeting the SE4All access goal could be a ’win-win’ for poor people and environmentalists alike. To reach the UN goal, the International Energy Agency — not known for its tree-hugging — says that 55 per cent of new electricity must come from decentralised, off-grid sources — 90 per cent of it renewable.

So off-grid is the way to go. But for every successful project, there are numerous broken solar water pumps littering sub-Saharan Africa. In many cases, this is down to an incoherent business model, e.g. not factoring in maintenance costs and training so the project will last over time.

But getting the finance right is only part of the problem. Many so-called 'base of the pyramid' approaches take one product targeted at ’the poor‘ and scale it up for a mass market without considering the diverse nature of poor men and women living in different contexts.

SE4All knows that a top-down, one-size-fits-all model will not help the poorest and is developing a 'bottom-up' strategy for energy access. But it has been slow to give people living in energy poverty and citizens groups a seat at the table to discuss what kind of 'bottom up' approaches could work.

Research by the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED) and others like Practical Action shows that understanding local, socio-cultural preferences for particular products and services is crucial - people won’t use a cook stove, however efficient, if the food has an unusual flavour. Ditto for different technologies: in Nigeria, people have a negative image of solar due to past failures – so ‘creating a new market’ requires more than importing useful products. Attitudes to models of ownership also count - a culture of dependency on state provision may mean private ownership models work better.

These preferences are just as important as formal factors that receive more attention, like availability of affordable credit and enforcement of contracts, and understanding them requires more than a quick survey. They point to the need to adapt the overall business model to designing energy services for different local contexts and really build it from the ‘bottom-up’.

Designing energy services from the bottom up

So what types of bottom-up approaches might work? The right starting point is a holistic understanding of what people living in a particular socio-cultural context need and want energy for, in relation to their broader development needs

CAFOD and IIED have used this insight to develop an approach to designing delivery of energy services for people living in energy poverty, and begun to test it out with partners and practitioners in Central America and South East Asia.

Our approach uses multi-stakeholder participation and some innovative tools to understand the potential users' needs and the local context in which a potential service will operate – including socio-cultural factors as well as the formal enabling environment. Crucially, this involves a Collecting water from a solar-based purification system supplied by CAFOD. Chila Union, Mongla District, Bangladesh. Photo: Photo: Paula Nyunt / CAFOD

shared understanding of what value the energy service can deliver and what it cannot. For instance, where people want evening education classes, delivering lighting to the school without providing extra teachers and books is unlikely to work.

As financial sustainability is key, maintenance costs and revenue streams are built into the design (including any tariffs/subsidies and payment schemes). Social and environmental costs and benefits are equally important if a ‘delivery model’ is to be truly sustainable, so these are also explicitly accounted for.  Overall, by ‘designing-in’ these factors, the resulting energy services should bring clear development benefits, while minimizing problems and costs down the line.

The bottom line is that any approach must respond, and be adaptable, to the needs of different people in different places, rather than merely replicating models.  Meeting the SE4All goal with the limited financial resources currently on offer without thinking about end users' needs and preferences is unlikely to deliver sustainable and cost-effective services. Ensuring every house has an electric light bulb or a modern cook stove will not cut it. We hope our approach can help inform SE4All and other efforts, so they truly deliver for people on the ground.


Sarah Wykes is lead analyst on environment and climate change for Cafod; Ben Garside is a researcher for the International Institute for Environment and Development. This article was first published by The Guardian's Poverty Matters blog on 16 September 2013.

Download the report: An approach to designing energy delivery models that work for people living in poverty or the Spanish translation.