Transforming energy access: a conversation with Kandeh Yumkella

What will it take to deliver modern energy services to the poor – particularly those in rural Africa who need decentralised energy? What are the barriers to transformative change and what opportunities should be seized today?

Emma Wilson's picture
Insight by 
Emma Wilson
Emma Wilson is a principal researcher in IIED's Sustainable Markets research group and the leader of the energy team
31 July 2014
Solar phone charging on a Ugandan island shows even isolated areas in Africa are getting connected by mobile phones and creating demand for energy (Photo:

Solar phone charging on a Ugandan island shows even isolated areas in Africa are getting connected by mobile phones and creating demand for energy (Photo:

These were the questions discussed at a meeting on 21 July that IIED, Chatham House, the Royal African Society and others held with Dr Kandeh Yumkella, the UN Special Representative on Sustainable Energy for All.

This was an opportunity for experts from organisations concerned about energy access, sustainable development and poverty reduction to discuss their interests and concerns with a leading figure in that space. This blog post reflects the discussions round the table (using the Chatham House Rule).

Sustainable Energy for All

The UN's Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL) was launched in 2012, and the decade of SE4ALL began in 2014. SE4ALL has three targets for 2030:

  1. To ensure universal access to modern energy services;
  2. To double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and
  3. To double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

SE4ALL also seeks to influence debates on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So far energy remains on the table as one of the proposed SDGs

A key achievement of SE4ALL is establishing a narrative that a range of stakeholders can buy in to, including big business, small-scale enterprise, governments and civil society. Nexus thinking is also increasing – as part of the process of SDG negotiation, SE4ALL identified four nexus targets (health, water, food and women), as a way to bring other interest groups around the table.

SE4ALL supports transformation of energy systems, reform of energy policy, deployment of more renewables, as well as large-scale hydro and gas projects. Energy transformation needs to be seen in the context of 'Africa's new energy bonanza', as Yumkella has called it – the rapid increase in oil and gas development taking place in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. A third of new oil and gas discoveries in the past five years have been made in Africa.

Looking towards renewables

But how are these new resource economies going to use their revenues? Will they invest in fossil fuel-based energy systems or cleaner, more sustainable energy systems, based on renewables and strategic use of gas – e.g. domestic gas-to-power and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking?

The International Energy Agency suggests that over half of new investment in electricity will need to go into decentralised solutions to deliver universal access, and technologies such as renewable-energy powered mini-grids (PDF) will be needed to meet this goal.

SE4ALL also seeks to promote innovative financing mechanisms for 'base-of-the-pyramid' business models and small-scale energy enterprises. Organisations such as Ashden and Christian Aid have noted the lack of seed capital for such enterprises, while local banks don't have enough knowledge about how these models work and are unwilling to lend them money.

Distribution remains a key challenge for outlying rural areas. Renewable energy can be critical in responding to humanitarian crisis, providing flexible, mobile lighting, reducing dependency on expensive diesel; use of efficient cook stoves can reduce deforestation around refugee camps. Yet best practices in renewable energy technology are not being used in humanitarian relief situations. This is something that Chatham House, the Department for International Development (DfID) and Energy 4 Impact, formerly known as GVEP International, are looking at.

The role of the private sector, public sector and civil society

Private sector innovation is happening. Husk Power in India demonstrates how small-scale businesses can bundle together portfolios to spread risk and attract commercial investment. The cost of solar technology is falling dramatically. Mobile phone technology in developing countries is creating demand for power and making payment easier and more reliable. Yet many private sector solutions for the poor only deliver to the household level.

People are aspirational and want to progress to better energy services (up the so-called 'energy escalator'). Investing in productive uses of energy is key to improving livelihoods. Capacity building is essential, to ensure maintenance of systems, to increase the trust that the banks place in enterprises, to increase local awareness of different energy options. 

Public sector involvement needs to be targeted carefully. Strategic subsidies for decentralised energy access can be effective; fossil fuel subsidies need to be tackled, though it has proven difficult to phase them out quickly. The role of aid remains critical for capacity building and to get entrepreneurs up and running. Inclusion of an energy SDG will make it easier to channel aid funds to energy access.

The role of civil society is vital, globally and in-country. National dialogues on SE4ALL need to involve civil society, and the dialogue should extend to local areas where people rarely have access to information or a chance to have their voices heard. 'Top-down' decentralisation may not benefit the most vulnerable, so it is important to seek approaches to energy access that are both 'decentralised' and 'bottom up', as IIED and CAFOD are seeking to do.

An integrated approach

Integrated thinking and acting are critical – something that the Overseas Development Institute has been grappling with (PDF). Integrating large-scale and small-scale, centralised and decentralised; integrating climate change concerns into energy access debates and stimulating low-carbon innovation; bringing together players in the nexus areas of water, food, women and health.

Public and private sectors need to work together – there is a role for commercial investment, public private partnerships, social protection and humanitarian aid. SE4ALL can be a platform for promoting integrated thinking and best practice, for building political will and for bringing civil society voices into debates.

SE4ALL recognises that nothing can be done without political will. Yumkella has proposed the creation of an African Energy Leaders Group to act as champions promoting transformative investment in energy access, starting with a regional group in West Africa. These champions also need to understand the transformative potential of attracting investment in decentralised energy access.

The meeting was a valuable opportunity to hear about SE4ALL from someone who is at the centre of things, and the questions and discussion among the experts round the table demonstrated the depth and range of interest in promoting energy access for the poor.

Kandeh Yumkella is an inspiring speaker with an open mind and a straightforward manner; it feels as if he understands the full range of challenges and opportunities in delivering sustainable energy for all. The big challenge that he faces today, along with the progressive energy community at large, is to balance the aspirations of different stakeholder groups and continue to keep energy access for the poor as a major priority in global policy.

About the author

Emma Wilson is a principal researcher in IIED's Sustainable Markets research group and the leader of the energy team.

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