Archive for February, 2014

Energy Knowledge Sharing Initiative

Friday, February 28th, 2014 by

Practical Answers is looking to build up its partnerships with a focus sharing knowledge on energy development.  We want to establish an information service focused on small-scale energy delivered built on organisational collaboration.

Its objective is to bring together like-minded organisations working in energy for development with an emphasis on knowledge sharing for practical implementation of small-scale technologies for energy delivery. It is different to some existing networks in that it does not focus on policy and that its focus is on developing countries rather than more industrialised countries.

The advantage of bringing organisations together in respect the knowledge means that a better service can be provided for those in search of information to help implement energy delivery and that leaning can be shared between organisations.

The Perspective from Practical Answers18110

Practical Answers is in the process of changing its structure, developing more services on the ground where it can have a real impact on those in poverty but it is also important to retain the global perspective. This global perspective allows Practical Action and other organisations to learn from each other and for that learning to take place across geographical boundaries.  Practical Answers sees this as developing, as the petals of a flower, individual technological sectors, which most organisations will find familiar such as Water, Health, Agriculture and Energy to name a few.  Each petal will group together those organisations that are interested and active in that particular sector. For Practical Action that would be a number of sectors.

For example; WASH Knowledge Point is a collaboration between WaterAid, IRC, REDR, EngineerAid and Practical Action which aims to pool the expertise of all the organisations in order to bring better information to enquiries and provide a better question and answer service in the area of WASH and humanitarian response.

Practical Action is now interested in developing a similar collaboration in the energy sector and wants to hear from any organisation that is active in sharing technical know-how and managing requests for information from others who may need guidance.

Objectives / What will it do?

  • Combined question and answer capabilities of organisations bringing together a pool of expertise that would not be possible form one orgainsation on its own
  • Introduce mechanisms for information exchange between organisations of existing knowledge materials and resources to make it more accessible (Open Data)
  • Enable organsiations to work together to develop new knowledge materials that are of a very high standard through cross working. (peer production)
  • coordinate efforts in promoting the issue of energy delivery for development
  • leverage funding opportunities for energy projects

In 2014 Practical Action will hold a meeting of organisations (possible a virtual meeting or a series of meetings depending on the geographical and logistical considerations) which will bring the organisations together to work out what the potential for collaboration is.

Contact me if you are interested and have something to offer.

Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?

Friday, February 28th, 2014 by

Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.

It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education.  Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.

On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published.  He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.

Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’.  There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.

We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough.  Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.

22626So in terms of approaches to development – and although I’m seeped in Practical Action I must caveat with these are personal views

  • We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
  • Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
  • We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
  • Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
  • Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?

Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973

‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘

40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.

But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)

‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’

The Final Problem


Small Business Fights Poverty?

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by

There is very little argument these days about whether businesses are critical in development processes. Not surprising when you consider that their combined activity eclipses both aid and government spending. But there seems to be less consensus on what approaches with business will achieve poverty outcomes. How should we shape policy and practice to ensure that when things are better for business they are better for those living in poverty? Bond’s private sector group has been looking at this question and suggests that the focus should be on the processes of change that engages and empowers small-scale business and farmers, especially women, and builds market systems to achieve lasting poverty reduction.

The problem with this suggestion is that it could reinforce the perception that NGOs are fixated on the small and the local, unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture. And it is not unreasonable to challenge whether this focus will achieve the much-needed increase in jobs and opportunities for those in poverty. Will it deliver the economic development that donors and governments want to see?

To start this blog series we offer some thoughts on three areas we think are important if we want to achieve more ‘inclusive growth’.

Firstly the actual situation of the enterprises in sectors that are important to those in poverty, like agriculture, energy, water and sanitation, should be taken into account.   In these sectors there are networks of numerous micro and small enterprises operating at the so called ‘Base of the Pyramid’.  Whether it’s food for rapidly urbanising populations or energy solutions  for 1.3 bn people without electricity there are small businesses responding with goods and services. Often they operate at the margins, informal ‘start ups’ looking for opportunities, with the benefit of flexibility, local knowledge and connections.   Creating better enabling business environments so these small players can more effectively and efficiently fulfil their roles could make the difference between the type of growth which helps people to step up and out of poverty and growth that leaves people behind.

Secondly we need approaches that can encompass the complexity of big, small and everything in between.  Either/or is unhelpful. It should be both/and. A good understanding of the specific systems that are important to the poor helps in better policy and programming.  Some of the challenges may be common across systems but outcomes are highly variable. Instead what is needed is investment in processes that enable key private and public actors, large, medium, small and micro, powerful and marginalised, to identify and address blockages and work together to exploit opportunities. Market system development approaches need specific attention on building the capacities of smaller players to engage as suppliers, service providers or consumers. Empowerment is important not just because of their role as economic actors but also because of the role MSEs can play in helping people in poverty build resilience and cope with shocks.

Thirdly small enterprises need targeted policies and interventions. This attention is justified if we consider their significant contribution to jobs and GDP, up to 60% in some developing countries like Tanzania. Economies like the UK realise this too. The UK’s Federation of Small Businesses, sees that generic policies do not work for small businesses and governments can stimulate growth by enabling the smallest firms to flourish  which means more than cutting red tape.  Getting that environment right for the millions of mini ‘power houses’ of growth, innovation and jobs is vital yet complex which is why it needs to move right up political and development agendas. Unfortunately this tends not to be the case. The Investing in the Business of Development report last year argued that most bilateral donor approaches were concerned with macro and meso levels but left out the micro-level which “may have a much larger redistributive impact for poor and marginalised populations”.

One reason for this lack of appropriate investment could be that in spite of decades of trying to find what works with small business it’s still a difficult one to crack. We want sustainable development solutions that reach more people but many efforts with micro and small business in the past have done neither particularly well.  We know ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches are rare when it comes to the complex, dynamic systems people in poverty rely on.

It’s generally accepted that leaving economic development processes to take their own course will not result in growth that is good for those in poverty. This, as the IMF’s Christine Lagarde said at LSE recently, is a ‘big ticket item’. The Bond’s Private Sector group want to explore with others what a more equal, ‘inclusive’ growth looks like. We think it may need a better balance, towards the small. Do you?

*This blog first appeared on the Business Fights Poverty website.

Hat to Hat!

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by

How great it is to see Ravelina in Innocent’s video!


I met her last September when taking a group of Practical Action donors to visit some of our projects in Peru and Bolivia. She was rightly very proud of what had been achieved on the Allimpaq (‘to be well’) project where she has been trained in animal care and insisted that I wear her wide-brimmed hat (the same that she has on in the video!) whilst being shown around so as to avoid the sun.

We were delighted to have her as our dinner guest and (with her self-possession, sparkling eyes and teasing sense of humour) she was one of the most memorable people that we met on our trip.

As we were saying goodbye, she presented me with a ball of alpaca wool that she herself had spun and my wife is now busy knitting this into a hat. I will ‘model’ the outcome!

Save our soil

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014 by

Last week I went to a talk at my local history society by a local (Warwickshire) farmer, Graham Robson who recently retired after 80 years in the business.  Both his film and the subsequent discussions were very thought-provoking. He took us through the dramatic changes in farming methods, crop selection, machinery and financing that had taken place in his time. It became clear to me that many of the changes he experienced also affected the small scale farmers that Practical Action works with in the developing world.

He stressed the importance of the soil – it’s a farmer’s basic raw material and maintenance of its structure and quality is essential. Many modern farming methods combined with more severe weather conditions pose a threat to the food security of the UK and the rest of the world as Robert Palmer shows in his paper in ‘Soil use and management’.

When Graham Robson learned to farm, he ploughed with two shire horses.  Today, even a small tractor has 50 horsepower and the weight of this machinery on the earth compacts the soil, making is less permeable to rain.  So water runs off more quickly making flooding more likely.  Coincidentally, just that morning I’d read George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian  voicing similar concerns.  And this image clearly showed just how much of our precious soil is being washed away to sea.

Martha's early crop suffered from heat stress

Martha’s early crop suffered from heat stress

Such problems are not confined to the UK.  Small scale farmers around the world face suffer from soil erosion. In Zimbabwe Practical Action’s food and agriculture programme has developed some successful conservation farming techniques. These include planting in stations to enable targeted feeding and watering of crops and  inter-cropping with ground cover plants such as pumpkins and melons to protect the soil from the heat, reduce run-off and increase infiltration.

Martha Sibanda from Gwanda in Matabeleland participated in training in these techniques and was delighted with the improvement in  her crop yields:

“Crop cover is important for moisture conservation and reducing soil loss. What I want to do is to use a combination of practices which is why I have a dead-level contour, use basins and inter-cropping to try and maximize moisture conservation,” she said.

Martha's crop after using planting holes

Martha’s crop after using planting holes

The innovative use of podcasting has enabled these agricultural techniques to be communicated more widely by extension workers

For farmers in the UK a tractor with caterpillar tracks is available which does less damage to the soil surface.  Currently, only very large models are available but soon, Graham hoped, a similar one would be developed to suit small scale farmers.

The UN’s food and agriculture organization have designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.   Small scale farmers around the world face similar problems, so it’s important that we work together to share information on some of the solutions.  

DFID Minister Lynne Featherstone visits Practical Action

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by

Today Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) visited Practical Action to say ‘thank you’ for our campaign for safer cities.  The public’s response has been brilliant raising twice as much money as anticipated. What’s more every £ given to the campaign is matched £ for £ by DFID!

UK International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone MP and Practical Action CEO Simon Trace

UK International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone MP and Practical Action CEO Simon Trace

Why is it important to create safer cities?

For the first time in history, more people live in towns and cities in the developing world than in rural areas.  People migrate to cities hoping for more opportunity or driven from the countryside by hunger, lack of water, no way to make a living, war or violence.

One billion people now live in slums.

Cities can be places of opportunity for people with power, money, and education.  But for poor people, especially women and girls, cities are often places of fear and inescapable poverty. There is huge inequality.  For example a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre in 2002 found in Nairobi, Kenya, that for every child who died in the best area of the city 20 children died in the worst.

Alongside this massive inequality are issues of dignity and voice – Slum dwellers are viewed as a problem, something to be sorted or made invisible. I remember talking with Kanchi in Nepal. As a young girl she had worked as a waste picker, and when I asked her what was the worst thing, she didn’t say the filth or the long hours– she talked about people calling her names and abusing her. Slum dwellers are not recognised for the enormous contribution they make to the life of a city – as waste pickers, water vendors, small entrepreneurs, etc.

Access to services in slums and attitudes to slum dwellers both need to change.

The matched funding from the DFID in response to the public’s fantastic generosity to our Safer Cities appeal will support our work with people living in slums in Bangladesh and Nepal who typically lack access to basic services, decent employment and secure homes – things we take for granted in the developed world.  They also face economic, political and social exclusion, making them difficult to reach.

It was great to have DFID say thank you for our work. It was also great to hear Lynne Featherstone talk about her commitment to working with women and girls and how together we can begin to explore how to help even more people escape poverty.

What is social justice and how can we achieve it?

Thursday, February 20th, 2014 by

It’s World Day of Social Justice; I’d like to tell you more about it and how it translates to our work.

“The gap between the poorest and the wealthiest around the world is wide and growing. … We must do more to empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalised are heard.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Set up by the United Nations, the aim of World Day of Social Justice is to focus attention on efforts to eradicate poverty and make the world a fairer place.

Did you know that the wealth of the top 1% of the global population equals that of the poorest 3.5 billion people?! 

So what is social justice?

It’s quite hard to define social justice. The wikipedia social justice definition is ‘the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live’In essence, it is concerned with equal justice, not just in the courts, but in all aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even playing field.

It’s such a wide ranging concept and the immediate question that springs to mind is how can we achieve social justice? 

The answer lies in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

These goals are to:

millennium development goals

I read a fantastic document recently by Naila Kabeer from the Institute of Development Studies: Can the MDGS provide a pathway to social justice? The challenge of intersecting inequalities which details what needs to be prioritised to accelerate progress in achieving social justice.

Here’s an example of how Practical Action is working for social justice:

In Kathmandu, Nepal, dire poverty forces thousands of men, women and children to make a living from picking through rubbish. These waste pickers sell materials such as plastic, metal, cloth and paper that they’ve collected from rubbish dumps, bins and from along roadsides. Despite their contribution to society by removing and recycling large quantities of waste, waste pickers in Nepal are seen as the lowest of the low, treated like rubbish because they work with rubbish. They’re exploited socially and economically. They are shouted at in the street, they are not allowed on public transport, they don’t have access to healthcare, education, clean water, sanitation or decent housing.

Dilmaya wastepicking 3

With your help, Practical Action has: 

  • launched media campaigns to raise awareness of the role of waste workers, changed people’s attitudes and gained their respect and recognition for the work they do.
  • set up social protection schemes to provide income security, saving and credit schemes to help waste workers become self-sufficient. Waste workers are also receiving support to set up their own businesses, including training and having access to the technology needed to make their businesses work.
  • provided first aid boxes and training on how to use them; provided water and sanitation; trained people on handwashing and handling hazardous waste; provided safety equipment like boots, gloves, masks, coats, trousers and hats and set up health care schemes in collaboration with community hospitals.
  • helped waste picker children get access to education and provided them with school uniforms, bags, books and stationery that their parents can’t afford. We’ve also helped adults get access to education so they can get better jobs or set up their own businesses.

Within the scope of the MDGs, we’re addressing extreme poverty in the area, ensuring environmental sustainability by providing clean water and sanitation, giving children access to education and helping empower women by giving them the skills and tools to set up their own businesses.

Find out more about our work with urban waste pickers in Nepal.

In all the work we do, partnerships are crucial.  It’s absolutely vital we include all members of the community, regardless of age or gender. If we didn’t then any project would, in time, simply collapse. We also work with a range of organisations worldwide. We share information at all levels, from people at the very grassroots of society to government institutions.

How can I work for social justice?

Each of us can play our role in contributing to the creation of a more just world.

  • Share what you have learned about social justice with your social groups and networks – raise awareness of development issues and inspire others to take action
  • Support organisations that support social justice
  • Engage in and help influence political and policy decisions

Why not sign up to our newsletter to find out more about our work and join our community?

Global Dimension Case Studies

Thursday, February 20th, 2014 by

I recently was involved in an Engineers Without Borders workshop held at the Design School of Loughborough University. For me this was a chance to introduce the Global Development in Engineering Education (GDEE) to academics in the United Kingdom.ATD 30.01.2014 photo 1 group work

The initial session was designed to provide participants with an introduction to the complexities and contradictions of engineering in a development context. After which some more experienced academics talked about their experience of engineering in developing countries, as well as ideas for increasing the impact of engineering research in international development

For example: Professor  Robert M Kalin  from the University of Strathclyde described how they manage their projects with a vertically integrated project approach developed with their work on Integrated Water Resources Management

While at Loughborough University we took the opportunity to visit the Water Engineering Development Centre (WEDC)   which has a huge amount of specialist information on water and sanitation topics for developing countries. He talked a little bit about issues related to trans-boundary aquifers as well as technologies used from mapping water points.ATD 30.01.2014 photo 2 brian reed speaking to group

After the discussions on the EWB Challenge  event there was an opportunity to introduce the Global Development in Engineering Education (GDEE)   initiative which allowed academic staff to outline what their needs are for case studies and there were some useful insights into what is going to be required.

Some of the case studies that have so far been put forward include:

  • The ecological toilet  – Nicaragua – ONGAWA
  • Sustainable sanitation in the village of Ambalamanga, Mahajanga, Madagascar – TCIC
  • UASB anaerobic technology for wastewater treatment in the city of Mahajanga, Madagascar – TCIC

The one that we specifically looked at in detail was the micro-hydro project from Practical Action in Malawi. The technical details of a real case study were appreciated and it was thought that academic staff would be happiest using the basic information and pulling out the relevant elements to meet their own objectives whether that was a short discussion within a lecture or a much longer exercise for multiple students over a period of some weeks. So the case studies need to be easily edited by those using them.ATD 30.01.2014 photo 3 gdee case studies feedback session

I was also fortunate enough to be part of the filming of a video that is going to be an introduction to the Global Dimension in Engineering Education project and its international development courses for academics wanting to integrate the global dimension to engineering and other technical subjects. The video will shortly be on the GDEE website for you to have a look at.


Let’s Talk Toilets

Thursday, February 20th, 2014 by

As part of the University of Edinburgh’s International Development Week I was asked to take part in a Development Academy Loo Event which aimed to bring together students from architecture, engineering, and international development in a multi-disciplinary  workshop where they were challenged to come up with a sanitation solution to three different scenarios; a rural setting in arid farmland, an urban setting with densely crowded housing and a location where houses were built up on stilts above water.

The Practical Action technical brief Types of Toilet and Their Suitability that outlines some of the options available in low-cost toilet design was taken as a starting point and I highlighted a few issues that related to these designs and how they are implemented in practice, some of which is repeated here.

Stepped Improvement






The basic approach of Practical Action is to take people from a situation where we there is no sanitation to one where there is a stepped improvement on what has gone before. This goes hand in hand with improvements in terms of behaviour and in terms of facilities for washing as well as the catering for the waste management issues that part of improved toilet facilities.

Poor Quality Toilets

Although is some locations toilets exist they are in such a poor condition that they do not provide any health benefit. The examples shown below are all from Kenya. And you can see that the waste from the toilet flows into an open channel. This means that there are no benefit.


This is a poorly constructed corrugated toilet block with an open sewage channel in Kibara, an informal settlement (slum) in Nairobi, Kenya. It occupies about a square mile and is home to something like 700,000 people. Drainage consists of “natural” drainage channels formed in the paths and roads, which render the roads impassable during the rainy season; sanitation facilities are insufficient and waste disposal services do not exist. Sanitation is a huge problem.

Rural Toilets The situation for people in rural areas can be quite different to those in more urban areas and the issues faced when it comes to sanitation are particular to the location. The population will be low and dispersed over a greater area.  People can be in very remote locations a long way from any urban centre, possibly in a mountainous area   which makes transportation of materials and goods difficult.

Remote-ToiletThis photograph of a compost toilet in Peru highlights the remoteness of some homes. This project was managed by Practical Action Latin America (Soluciones Prácticas).

Types of Toilets

In rural areas basic toilets, variations on pit latrines, are common. Beyond open defecation, possibly the simplest approach, is the Arbour Loo (see Toilets That Make Compost by Peter Morgan or download at This is a shallow hole which is filled relatively quickly, once it is full the toilet superstructure (the part above ground) is move to a newly dug hole. The old hole with its composting waste is used to cultivate a tree, hence the name of arbour loo.

Conventional pit latrines (See are common and are generally dug a little bit deeper. Ventilation Improved Pit Latrines have additional features which mean that flies are trapped within the toilet vent thus reducing the spread of disease.


This school in Kenya (left)  has installed ventilation improved toilets which have additional benefits in improved hygiene as flies become tripped within the toilet and die.

Compost-toilet-in-NepalThis compost toilet (right) is another of Practical Action’s projects. It is built in rural Nepal. Practical Acton has focused on constructing the chambers that are underground while the superstructure is built by the farmer from local materials.


Urban Toilets

Urban-mapUrban sanitation where there is no sewage systems such as the Kaptembwa and Rhonda estates in Nekuru, Kenya shown below have very densely packed housing which very few toilets. The main issue where the toilets do exist, most probably pit latrines, is that the waste has to be removed. In some places specialist equipment  might be used but too often it a full pit latrine has to emptied by hand


Types of Toilets

Bio-sanitationThere are a range of ways in which this is approached. The PeePoo is an approach where you use a single use bag. This then can be passed to a collection point. More conventional in some respects is a regular collection of waste from the home every day or every two or three days, the collection is made by workers who take the waste to a disposal centre. One example of this is the Clean Team Ghana. These approaches get round the problem of waste building up on site which can be an advantage in confined spaces. More common is intermittent emptying such as pit latrines but these need to be emptied in, sometimes this is done by hand when there is no alternative but there are designs for small scale machines such as a vacutug that are capable of getting into small spaces to extract the waste  (see Pit Emptying Systems). Pour flush toilets such as Aqua-privy and sceptic tanks also have their own advantages.

More advanced technologies such as bio-sanitation (see Bio-latrines ) can be used in certain locations if there is sufficient funds available. Here an underground biogas chamber is being constructed that will be part of the sanitation system. Then participants were set to design their best solution to a given sanitation problem. There was the dry rural setting, an urban setting and a high water setting. With Practical Action’s urban Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) work households and landlords are encourages to provide better sanitation through an approach of establishing a set of standard six toilet designs which ensures that people know what they are getting, the characteristics are well known and the costs can be accounted for by users and banks thus making is much easier to get a loan for installing a toilet. There are many other considerations that have not been covered here but should be taken into account such as high water tables, rocky conditions and other geological aspects. And then there are the considerations of design for disability which seems to be omitted in many projects

Making Toilets

Urinals-in-KenyaAs cost has to be kept to a minimum, then you need to determine what can be achieved with the available money.This example of a simple urinal is from a pilot ecosan facility in London (a suburb in Nakuru) through the ROSA (Resource Oriented Sanitation Options for Peri-urban Africa). While Practical Action has worked in partnership with ROSA (local consortium) Practical Action did not have any direct input in this facility. ROSA is managed through WASTE Netherlands and others. Transportation issues will also play a part.

 Here we see a few items being transported by rickshaw in Bangladesh.







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Investing in energy access for the poor – a lesson from history in the US?

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 by

I and two colleagues have been attending the Second High Level Meeting of the Africa – EU energy Partnership (AEEP) in the grand location of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. The AEEP partnership was set up in 2007 to help the two continents “share knowhow, connect resources and work to better coordinate their respective energy policies”.

Why’s it of interest to Practical Action? Firstly because, amongst other things, the AEEP has set targets to help 100 million people gain access to energy in Africa by 2020 and secondly because Practical Action has been working as a civil society representative to the Partnership.

Finance for energy access has been a big talking point throughout the meeting. There has been a heavy emphasis on the role private sector finance should play in meeting the growing need for energy in Africa (which is expected to grow 6 fold between now and 2040 according to one delegate). Although we don’t dispute the need for the private sector to play a role, we and other civil society actors are worried that more remote rural communities will not be commercially attractive propositions and so this approach will not be a panacea for achieving access for all. For those who are interested in such matters, our intervention on the issue in the conference was as follows:

We’re worried that we can’t track the investments being made in off grid capacity. The 2011 World Energy Outlook estimated that Sub Saharan  Africa will need to invest around $12billion a year in ‘off-grid’ energy  generation (local  generation of electricity through solar panels, micro hydro projects, wind etc.) in order to serve those communities who are  too remote to economically be linked to national grids and to ensure universal access by 2030. We know therefore that the development of off-grid power is going to be critical to the lives of a big chunk of the 570 million people without electricity in Africa today. But it’s very difficult to get a handle on what the current off-grid investment I,s as no one is monitoring the split between investment into grid extension and investment into off grid generation. The suspicion is that the majority of new money is going into the former , improving the quality of the supply to those who already have it as opposed to providing electricity to those who have none.

One of the big issues for AEEP, we believe, is where it’s going to focus its investment efforts in the future. Creating the right conditions for private sector investment is undoubtedly an important part of the strategy of achieving universal access. But it won’t be enough on its own. There will be places where market won’t deliver and we only have to look at the history of infrastructure in the developed world to see that. The US is a great example. At the beginning of the 1930’s only about 1 in 10 rural farms had access to electricity. 20 years later almost all had access and rural electrification had been completed. How was this achieved? Through one of the most successful of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes – the Rural Electrification Administration that provided subsidised finance to farmers cooperatives to build, operate and maintain powerlines on a not for profit basis in areas where private power companies would not go because of lack of profitability. Indeed that legacy continues today with over 900 cooperatives providing power to around 42 million people across 47 states and accounting for around 11% of the total kilowatt hours sold in the country.

AEEP needs to achieve a balance between the desire to lever private investments and the need to reach those, like the 42 million in the US today, who are beyond the reach of commercial operations.