Glen Burnett


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Posts by Glen

  • Have you seen the Global Innovation Exchange?

    June 24th, 2016

    Do you know about the Global Innovation Exchange? You should. The Exchange is an online platform for innovators, funders, and subject matter experts to connect and share valuable insights and resources to better address major global issues. It was just officially launched today during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016, and Practical Action is excited to see how it will grow. This is why:

    It shares Practical Action’s love of open knowledge platforms: The goal is to accelerate development innovation where it is needed the most by making information easily accessible and collaboration possible at the right stages of innovation. More than 4,200 innovations, 8,800 collaborators from around the world, and nearly $173 million in current funding opportunities can be found on the Exchange. But those numbers will grow—it also is platforms where people with ideas, or interests in funding ideas can go see what is proposed, and who is supporting what.
    It has the potential to bring innovations in the global south to the global funders around the world. Anyone can post an innovation, and there are resources for people to connect with others to develop that innovation in conjunction with others.
    It has the potential to be very participatory: The Exchange has structures built into it to allow people around the world to engage with both donors and innovators, but if it gets the appropriate types of engagement, it can also be a way that people with an idea in one country can work with partners in another country to tweak their designs according to the needs of end users, and really promote appropriate innovation. This is an area that some of us here at Practical Action are excited about, as it could result in participatory design that is so often lacking in more traditional approaches to work for the poor.

    Carpenter peru

    Where will the next innovation come from?

    It’s trying to make traditionally top down donors more systemic: Though the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID), Australian Aid, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), launched the Exchange, they are also trying to work alongside partners from across government, business, academia, and civil society who believe they can find solutions to major global issues through collaboration. Over 100 partners co-created the Exchange, providing feedback, content, and vision. Together, these groups have grown organically to share nearly $350 million in funding opportunities to date, collaborate on more than 4,200 innovations, and connect with more than 8,800 collaborators from around the world.

    In many ways, it is trying to be more democratic, allowing donors to talk to each other, innovators to have an easier way to get their voices heard, and connecting people who have good ideas with the financial and intellectual resources they need to deliver success.

    Moving forward, we hope to see the Exchange also focusing on issues of technology assessment, governance for this space, and how to address some of the barriers to scaling up innovations beyond funding gaps. It will also be really interesting to see how “open” these innovations prove to be, to allow innovators to adapt and build on existing ideas.

    We are hoping to see more democracy brought to the process of connecting users and innovators focused on important social issues around the world with funders who can help test and develop long lasting solutions. We plan to engage with the Exchange further as it moves forward, and wish it the best on its official launch.

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  • How can health centers benefit from energy access? Thoughts from our recent Energy Engagement Series

    June 13th, 2016

    Health centers don’t need massive amounts of energy to do basic things, but energy can mean the arrival of refrigerated vaccines and light for newborn deliveries in communities that live beyond the grid. In this way, the energy-health nexus links up with many of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, bringing energy to these places can often be a challenge, and energy providers still haven’t cracked the nut on how to develop sustainable model. This was the theme of discussion at this week’s Energy Engagement Series in Washington, DC, where we teamed up with the Tech Salon to discuss the realties in this space. Sonali Rohatgi, Technical Advisor at FHI 360 and Jem Porcaro, Senior Director, Energy and Climate at United Nations Foundation were there as lead discussants, but the conversation went around the table.

    One challenge is a basic lack of data around energy needs in health centers. To really understand Policy challenges at the health and energy ministerial level, this data would need to be present, but it isn’t often tracked, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t often even tracked on a health center by health center level. For that matter, energy consumption is often not budgeted, so it becomes something that would be seen as a further cost, and not as a space for potential savings. Beyond the micro level, there needs to be a place to aggregate this data as well. At one point, USAID was actually a resource for this, under the global Powering Health project. But that wasn’t permanent. Groups like the UN Foundation are looking for a global place where this might be housed.

    If health centers don’t know how much they are spending on energy, and you have women bringing candles for their own childbirth, health centers won’t know the benefit of the savings they might otherwise bring in. In this way, the lack of data isn’t just a policy issue, it becomes a challenge for businesses trying to show value to health centers that don’t understand why they might save money.

    Another major issue is sustainability. Energy products have evolved to the point where there often isn’t a lot of maintenance for smaller systems. But in either case sustainability eventually becomes an issue. If the system is a small system, it is built to run until it is disposed of and replaced. Larger systems need maintenance from time to time, but that maintenance is often not budgeted for. From a donor perspective there is sometimes not a budget allocation for maintenance either.

    The UN Foundation has been working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to try to tackle the data issue. They just did an energy needs assessment around what the expenditures are, focusing on primary care doing maternal and child health. They were targeting off grid facilities, and found that, in fact, many did have solar pv systems, sometimes as many as 4-5 discrete systems. But of those, 50 percent are not working. Typically, at least 1 is for the vaccine refrigerator, and others will be for other services. One major takeaway that they have found is that facility wide systems would be a better focus, but often, this is also connected to funds from multiple donors that target smaller specific needs.

    There is a lack of clear definition of what the business proposition is when working with health centers. One major challenge is that there is no internal rate of return for most firms on these projects, so they would need to be grants and concessional activities, if they were to be funded.
    The business proposition becomes important if people will be expected to supply the energy services and repair systems over time. This requires a review of how to improve the business model. Management, maintenance, and budget are all considerations that shift depending on how the energy system gets delivered. In terms of personnel, and distribution systems, building entrepreneurs could mean building technicians as well. That is also still not known.

    In terms of what types of systems are used, there is real difference in what level you work from. For example, pico-systems are usually seen as throw away, but there is much to be learned from Pay As You Go systems. In those cases, working capitals and call centers are the biggest constraints to new PAYG groups. For health centers, service based models might work better because it addresses the issue of how to pay for regular upkeep.

    Other groups have looked at models where health centers are used as charging stations—along with getting health services provided, people could get their phones charged as well. Although there might be health benefits for setting this up (for example, it might create a regular habit that brings people in for anti-retroviral treatment), it still does not create enough of a demand to support a business model that would pay for maintenance over time.

    Sometimes in the energy space, we talk about anchor firms, and this came up as well. However, health centers don’t serve as a great anchor because they don’t offset community needs during the evening. Even when coupled with schools in a community, they just don’t take that much of a charge. After the official event, we had some discussion around this notion, and discussed that part of this may be that energy services for health centers are often seen as a refrigerator and a lightbulb, but if health centers provided services that demanded more power, that charge might go up.

    So who should do repair? Don’t expect the health staff themselves to repair it—they are often overworked as it is, and won’t go through the training that is necessary to know how to do it. The best systems that seem to be emerging are ones that train somone locally to repair it. Often, they take a note from solar home system providers, who will have someone nearby and can fix the product. One model that might be interesting to look at is one that shifts from thinking of it as a product in need of repair, to one that is a service with a monthly payment. But, once again, this is where that data comes in—health centers don’t track the costs for this, and usually are not thinking of having to pay a monthly fee to keep their vaccines refrigerated.

    One bright spot for this is remote monitoring and maintenance is becoming a very constant thing for many providers. The internet of things has reached the energy space as well, and sensors can be used to know when minor changes need to be made, such as cleaning off a solar panel, or tilting it 5 degrees to get better sunlight.

    Ultimately though, as one participant put it, these are health projects, not energy projects. The main impacts come from health services provided, and they usually get paid for by the Ministries of Health. In addition, Health and Energy Ministries aren’t talking to each other about their needs and what they want to accomplish. The Ministries of Energy usually see this as a supply issue, but don’t get much more involved than that. Another challenge is policy. For example, health facilities don’t have bank accounts, which creates further payment issues.

    Managed services and pay as you go models are usually not interesting to energy service providers, because they don’t really have a client in these cases—the government is often not seen as a good reliable customer, and the Ministries of Health would need to prioritize this access if it were to become more compelling. In the public health sphere this many times deals with institutional issues of policy, not tech, and that often comes down to needing to have a way to recoup costs somehow.

    One participant pointed out that Kenya recently extended their grids to electrify all schools and clinics, using grid extension for electrification. They started with clinics, then connected to secondary schools, then to primary schools. This does have shades of potential for energy access advocates, as the grid extension could provide a way to get rural access extended quickly. It is a case by case issue though—in Nigeria, for example, the grid is already overburdened, and could not handle the additional charge.

    The Energy Engagement Series is a salon-style event that takes place in Washington, DC. If you would like to attend a future event, please contact Glen Burnett at We’d like to extend thanks to WRI and FHI 360 this month, and to the Tech Salon which helped us promote the event.

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  • Integrated Resource Planning and the April Energy Engagement Series

    April 14th, 2016

    What happens when we approach energy access from a perspective of how to provide energy services instead of simply focusing on expanding the supply of kilowatt hours? Underserved populations require consideration of latent demand as well as supply options, but to do this, planners often have to change how they approach these issues.

    At Practical Action and WRI’s most recent Energy Engagement Series event in Washington, DC,  Gilberto Jannuzzi talked about his work in Brazil delivering energy efficiency programs for low income urban households in Brazil. He’s a champion of Integrated Resource Planning (IRP), an energy planning tool which is able to evaluate both demand side and supply side resources to best meet future energy requirements of a region. What follows is a summary of our group discussion, though, if you’d like to see some of the handouts used for talking points, you might like to read those here.

    IRP looks at the developmental needs of a country, the potential for energy supply that energy service providers can deliver, and the other resources available.  Integrated Resources Planning (IRP) is one tool that can help include these opportunities in an energy planning process.

    The process for Integrated Resource Planning

    The process for Integrated Resource Planning

    At the top of this, you see the national plans set out by a government. Inside of this discussion a major part of IRP depends on setting parameters around what resources you are considering who you want to work with, etc. Our group discussed how this is often an area where the most advocacy needs to be done for disempowered groups, and it is also the area where planners really need to make sure that all voices are being heard. Once parameters are set, there is an attempt to connect the efforts of energy planners (listed along the left side inside this parameter box), and the developmental targets. Energy planning is pretty quantitative, and is within the comfort zone of the planners who are usually involved, but developmental targets are a more complex space, because they require stakeholder consultations, and inputs that come from outside the energy space. These two components are used to analyse how to use resources for given aims. In this way IRP shifts the conversation from one about how to increase kilowatt hours to how to better use existing resources.

    IRP can be used to figure out how consumers will use energy, but how you determine the consumer patterns you want to have depends a lot on who is doing the IRP in the first place.

    Another useful application of IRP is deciding pricing. It’s an issue for customers and utilities. Even though people may be connected they aren’t able to afford it. In addition, some of the subsidy schemes in Brazil mean that energy companies supply lighting and refrigerators as part of a required subsidy. But since they often supply high energy consuming products, their customers can’t pay for it, and stop using it a year after it is given through the subsidy. Energy efficiency really helps here, and IRP can be used to weigh the benefits of that. For example, a focus on rooftop solar pv could be used to sell energy back to the grid in poorer environments, which can then offset the cost of the service when it is used in the home, and can also help eliminate subsidies or tariffs over time.

    A great example of this from Brazil was two separate utilities that looked at IRP holistically, considering resources including recyclable products. Because IRP was also looking at trash collection services, as one of the resources to consider, they realized that poor customers could pay their energy bill by recycling goods for cash in conjunction with the energy utility. As a result, more goods are recycled than would have been, and energy bills get paid. Interestingly, the price for recycled products is set on the energy content, and it is all done using the mobile phone.

    Our group discussed how you might do this in other countries. For example, REDD+ programs for deforestation in Sierra Leone have an uncertain future due to a loss in funding. Our group discussed how to change accounting so it could use trees as a resource that could then pay for energy use.

    One major question is who owns the IRP process.  In Brazil it should go to the National Energy Commission. But this depends on the players in the energy system. For example, in some energy markets the private sector utilities might be best positioned to champion IRP, if government has issues with corruption or inefficiency.

    IRP is ultimately conceptual. It won’t fit everything but it is a good approach for initial mapping, and it changes the focus from one that only talks about technology to a focus that also considers the influences around a given energy technology, helping eliminate technology bias that is sometimes common in government evaluations.

    IRP has challenges getting data, and dealing with trends. From the planning perspective there is  have a power balance issue, for example, in Brazil, there are serious influences for the supply side, as the hydropower sector is very powerful.

    One question is who makes the call for the mix of energy use versus resource recovery. Starting with the right criteria is needed from the beginning, and it often times requires feedback from many different stakeholders. This takes time. Multi-criteria decision making assigns weights that the regulator then chooses to prioritize one effort over another.  For more equity, you have to have civil society absolutely engaged, as they can better represent the needs of energy customers with less social capital. For example, In South Africa, NGOs get trained to do IRP. If you target groups that can serve as multipliers, that can be a good strategy.

    But it also sheds a light on a different part of this discussion: TVs and refrigerators are often times the first things that populations want when they get energy access. But perhaps there is a time when a call should be made to prioritize one energy approach over another.

    The IRP approach sometimes brings out the need for soft support, for example, teaching people on usage, changing values etc. One example of this was a solar and diesel plant in the Amazon which ran well, but then users began to use refrigerators, which pushed the need for diesel power. To overcome this, they looked at replacing refrigerators and build an ice factory that could use solar power instead, but the challenge was that refrigerators had such a strong cultural link, which would require more of the soft side of engagement.

    At the same time, IRP is only as good as those that use it. For example, South Africa, by law, is supposed to use IRP, but in our meeting people stated that in practice, the result is that the choice comes down to bringing on whatever ESCOM the utility wants. IRP may still help with thinking that through, so even in this case, South Africa has made some decisions that show its influence.

    One issue that was also found in Brazil is that planners are not always interested in overall savings. They don’t do planning to provide for undeserved people. IRP is a different way to consider supply, thinking about how to alter where resources go, using the same energy supply and giving it to different groups. But the concept is still tough to grasp, because planners are often thinking about how to get more kilowatts into an energy system, not how to use what they have more efficiently.

    In addition to being a fellow at WRI, Jannuzzi is also the Executive Director of the International Energy Initiative , a Southern-conceived, Southern-led and Southern-located South-South-North partnership.

    If you’d like to join us at a future Energy Engagement Series event in the US, join our mailing list by clicking here. Next month’s event will be on how health centers and schools can be used to bring energy into communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access.

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  • Energy Engagement Series Recap: “How can accelerating on-grid solutions help developing countries leapfrog to better electricity access?”

    July 27th, 2015


    Sarah MartinPractical Action and the World Resources Institute (WRI) regularly host a Washington, DC based “Energy Engagement Series”. Our last event was hosted by WRI’s Joshua Ryor and Sarah Martin and asked our attendees to discuss how accelerating on-grid solutions help developing countries leapfrog to better electricity access?”  Josh’s summary of the event begins below, written by Josh and Sarah.

    The increase of variable renewable energy and other factors are causing changes worldwide in the centralized electricity grid. These changes are wide-ranging and include technology, system operation, business models, policy and regulation, and ultimately how we think about the grid itself. While many of these changes are occurring rapidly in developed countries, developing economies are experiencing these changes as well. In Brazil and India, trends towards consumer production of electricity (‘prosumers’) and changes in markets and regulations, for example, have increased the number of generating entities involved with the grid, causing new complexities in grid operation. Such changes are occurring simultaneously with other equally, if not more important, challenges such as meeting an increasingly growing supply-demand gap and quickly rising urban electricity demand.

    June’s installment of the Energy Engagement Series focused on the implications of these changes on energy access, specifically the issues of supply quality, quantity, and reliability. The discussants sought to inform four key questions on the future of the centralized grid:

    •  How can system reliability be ensured and service quality improved under much higher renewable scenarios?
    • How will tariffs need to be redesigned to compensate for increased self-generation?
    • How should institutional capacities be improved as the grid becomes much more distributed?
    • How can sector governance be strengthened to properly oversee the transition to a more complex and distributed grid?

    Discussants widely noted that changes to the electricity sector and the questions being asked about the future are the same in developed and developing economies, but with unique contexts in each country. The conversation was broadly framed around the following buckets:

    Technical: In many cases, transmission and distribution grid upgrades and expansions are needed to more efficiently and effectively integrate large-scale variable renewable energy (VRE). However, this isn’t necessarily always the case if distributed generation (DG) and energy efficiency measures are put in place. These measures can often help with VRE integration, as well as help improve service quantity and quality. This is also true for bringing renewable energy to those that lack any electricity – while a DG or centralized approach may be preferred in one instance; they don’t have to be at odds and can complement each other depending on the circumstance.

    Utility Models: Simply put, utility business and service models need to change, especially in developing economies. Africa provides a slew of examples in ineffective utility business models and India’s distribution utilities are chronically insolvent. These issues are also being looked at in the US and Germany by utilities and regulators, with major changes occurring. Changes to utility business and service models have implications for tariffs, require new institutional capacities, and governance structures. A key question is whether governments allow utilities to evolve on their own or whether they should help push them through policy and regulation.

    Institutional Capacities: The need to develop institutional capacities (technical, managerial, process, etc.) for both utilities and regulators is critical to enabling successful changes that both increase renewable energy generation and increase access. These capacities will help these institutions to think carefully about these changes, make proactive decisions, and flexibly adapt to new circumstances.

    Key Question: What is the value we derive from the grid, specifically the services above energy and demand that it provides? Understanding this value better will improve planning, policy, and regulation for the grid of the future.

    We are taking a break for the month of August, but hope to be back in September. In the meantime, if you would be interested in joining our invitation list please click here


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  • 7 steps for developing feedback loops on a shoestring

    July 7th, 2015

    It depends where you work. Which sector. If you are in the private sector, they sometimes call it voice of customer feedback. If you are in international development, or government, you might hear of feedback looping mechanisms. Ultimately, for most of the sectors I often think of, the important thing is this: people are realizing they do better work when they have participatory engagement with the people they are trying to serve.

    It’s not enough to say you interviewed people and found out what they were thinking. We need to shift how we get things done. Instead of working on a logframe waterfall project management approach where we target key performance indicators that will show we are delivering on targets established at project start up, we need to be able to adapt.  (Just so you know, I got jargon-nauseous just writing that last sentence).

    Adapt means we listen to who we work with–for the social enterprise they might be customers, for the NGO, they are maybe beneficiaries, for governments, they are constituents–let’s just call the participants.  This isn’t just listening to record results–this is another tool in the continuous improvement design toolkit. No matter what we build, we can always make it better. We only know what to change when we hear from participants on what isn’t working.

    Market Bangladesh private sector community-based adaptation

    Sources of feedback are rarely scarce. Credit: Mehrab ul Goni

    The approaches companies often take to do this can be expensive. But in the developing world, many of the innovators in this space are not funded like an Amazon or a Barclays. With that said, here are some relatively cheap ways to gather qualitative information that can help operations on a shoe string listen more. (I pulled a lot of this from this simple but effective summary).

    1. Listen and document. Do you, or your employees, regularly engage with participants? Think about what the most important part of those interactions are–the interactions that will define success or failure for you–and ask participants about it. Ideally you want to write or record the participant (or employee), so you can tell the rest of your organization in your participant’s own words what they are telling you. You want to really identify this on an emotional level, looking for what makes them happiest, most frustrated, and most fearful. If you are doing this in a developing world context, it is also important to apply tested techniques to get your participant, who often is coming from a very different perspective than you are. Check here for more on how to empower marginalized actors.
    2. Distill the comments. After you are done collecting the comments, get out a big sheet of paper. Try to write quick summaries of the comments, and document them all on the sheet of paper. You are looking for the heart of the issue. This is good to keep in mind when you are talking to participants from the beginning, as it may help to ask follow up questions a few times around to really dig into why they think something is important.
    3. Collate. Look for patterns in what is being said. If one person mentions something, it might be an interesting point, but if 20 people bring it up, it becomes a theme. Both are important, though individual comments should be mined more for innovative ideas, and themes should be considered for areas that really need improvement.
    4. Ideate. Wow, this word is popular these days. Identify “low hanging fruit” and “must wins”. Participants usually do a good job suggesting what their concerns are, but they don’t often know what needs to change. From these collated ideas though, there should be some areas where impact could be created, if we put on our design and innovation hats. Focus on the low hanging fruit when necessary, but prioritize the must wins. You have limited resources, so select where the most impact will make a difference.
    5. Develop the business case.  No matter who you are or where you work, you live in world with limited resources. When you look at these ideas you have come up with, how can you justify the value for money or return on investment required? In other words, what is the business case for the approach?
      • How will you define your intervention? Is it a product, a service, a shift in how you engage?  What are the feelings and emotions you want that intervention to generate for the participant?
      • How does the participant play into all of this? What is addressed by this approach, and how does the approach improve the interactions you have with the participant to increase the performance of what you are trying to accomplish as an organization?
      • As I often think of triple bottom lines, what is the social impact that is delivered through the proposed shift in operations? How does it affect the participants, and how does it impact the people participants engage with?
      • Finally, how will this be structured to be sustainable, and scalable to a level that will have impact? How much will it cost? How will you pay for it?
    6. Deploy. Ok, you now have a change you want to make, and you have consulted the appropriate people to get it authorized. As you roll out the change, be sure to establish listening posts with the participants you plan to engage. There are many ways this can be done, but some might be having employees who are made responsible for asking specific questions together further feedback. Or perhaps you build that feedback into all engagement you have with participants. But it is important that as you make shifts in activities, you are asking participants about what they think of those shifts,
    7. Iterate. Another great buzzword. Who can disagree with taking something that is being done, and trying to fix it further? After you have rolled out a change, you can start this process again. Ideally, this is not an activity that has a start and end, but rather a process of continous improvement. We need to listen to our participants on an ongoing basis, and use that discussion to identify ways we can do our jobs better.

    And there you go. This is a process that can involve great monitoring tools, like devices that parse data on complaint lines, and automate the first parts of this process, or it can be done by a shopowner at the harvest as she tries to better understand how to better provide services. In the ICT4D space, you can find plenty of great M&E tools that help record results, or crowdsourcing products that use feature phones for changes, but what is most important, is that we are doing this in a participatory manner, making use of that extremely valuable resource that is sitting right there–our participant.

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  • RECAP: The Energy-Agriculture Nexus

    June 24th, 2015

    This is a guest post from WRI’s Lily Odarno about the joint Energy Engagement Series Practical Action hosts with WRI each month in Washington, DC. This event is meant to be a discussion that brings together leaders in the energy access  space. This summary is from an event we held in May discussing the Energy-Agriculture nexus. 

    Lily Odarno from WRI

    Lily Odarno from WRI

    Discussions on the role of energy in development are becoming increasingly focused on the nexus between energy and other aspects of development. The energy-agriculture nexus centers on the interlinkages between energy, water and food. Water is a key requirement in energy production. At the same time the production of water is dependent on the availability of sufficient quantities of energy. Food production, processing and storage are all dependent on the availability of water and energy resources. The May installment of the Energy Engagement Series focused on the energy-agriculture nexus. It specifically focused on some of the big questions about the nexus and how the most can be made out of it.

    Here are the three key takeaways from the discussions:

    1. There is the need for an approach to addressing nexus issues which integrates the bottom-up with the top-down. Seen exclusively from the top-down, the challenge of maximizing the energy-water-food nexus may be seen as a solely technical one. Such a perspective may translate into purely technical solutions such as making solar water pumps and other technologies available to agricultural communities. Whereas this may be of some benefit in itself, it fails to address underlying political and social inequalities which may impede access to water resources for poor farmers in periods of drought, even though they may be equipped with appropriate technology.


    1. A careful consideration of nexus issues is crucial to designing effective development projects. A development project which focuses exclusively on introducing water pumps for rural agriculture and fails to consider what will be done with the produce from the now more productive agricultural sector could potentially fail in reaching its overall objectives. Here, a focus on the energy-water-nexus will enable provisions for the storage of agricultural produce to be anticipated and planned for early in the development initiative.


    1. We also discussed the need for a greater focus on promoting decentralized energy options where they can plan a role in filling the energy gap in the nexus. Participants agreed that in many cases, the focus on centralized large-scale energy options tends to crowd out the potential role decentralized options could play in addressing nexus challenges. There is an obvious need to build an evidence base for the role of decentralized options and garner the support of governments and other development actors for their implementation, where they can play a role. Likewise, a strong focus on community engagement could facilitate the effective adoption of these decentralized options in agricultural communities.

    The Energy Engagement Series is a monthly event held in Washington, DC. If you would like to be invited to future events, please click here.

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  • Guest post: Energy engagement series — April 2015 RECAP

    April 30th, 2015

    The following is a guest post from Lily Ordano, an Associate with the Energy Program and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Practical Action is working in conjunction with WRI to produce a monthly Energy Engagement Series in Washington, DC, which focuses on energy access issues around the world.

    Lily Odarno from WRI

    Lily Odarno from WRI

    The anchor-tenant approach in mini-grid development is considered a promising method for promoting the financial viability of mini-grids in expanding energy access. The approach focuses on securing a ‘reliable load’ for energy service companies to provide electricity to populations without access. In rural communities with very limited demand anchor loads, like cell phone towers, may provide the scale of demand needed to make mini-grid operations financially viable for energy service companies.

    In this month’s Energy Engagement Series, we discussed the challenges and opportunities that come with this approach in the latest edition of the Energy Engagement Series – a monthly, salon-style discussion focused on energy access issues hosted by the World Resources Institute and Practical Action. This month’s event featured panelist Clare Boland, Associate Director and VP for Innovation and Strategy for the Rockefeller Foundation, who shared the Foundation’s experience implementing this method in India. Experts from both policy and practice arenas also gathered to share ideas and experiences in this growing area of mini-grid development.

    The key takeaway from the event is that much remains to be learned about the anchor-tenant approach and there is an obvious need for knowledge sharing amongst actors implementing this method in mini-grid development.

    Here are some more outcomes from the discussion:

    1. The anchor tenant and consistent demand: Mobile phone towers have been seen as attractive candidates for this approach primarily because they represent consistent demand.  The amount of power needed by a cell phone tower is predetermined and comes with no seasonal variations. An anchor tenant such as an agro industry, on the other hand, is associated with a great deal of uncertainty owing to the seasonal nature of agriculture. This makes the agro-industry an unattractive anchor tenant to some participants.
    1. The anchor load approach comes with much operational complexity. Satisfying the needs of an anchor customer could be challenging given the anchor tenant’s demand for quality and consistent power. For mobile phone towers, down times below 99.5% could mean a potential loss of market for entrepreneurs. Energy service companies must have the capacity to provide anchor tenants with the highest quality services required to ensure their continued patronage.
    1. Experiences with the anchor tenant approach indicate that anchor tenants are often disinterested in providing electricity to communities without access beyond CSR commitments (in India, for example, companies are required to invest in CSR-corporate social responsibility). The major driver for mobile phone tower operators who buy into this idea is high diesel costs. The need to have an assured alternative supply of electricity at a reasonable cost is the major determinant of an anchor tenant’s decision to participate in this approach. That an energy source is from renewables or satisfies community energy needs does not in itself serve as sufficient reason for an anchor customer to buy into the approach.
    1. In this discussion there was a general recognition of the critical role that community engagement plays in ensuring the sustainability of mini-grids over time. Willingness to pay for electricity services is critical and community engagement is necessary for obtaining the needed willingness to pay information.
    1. Even though the anchor tenant approach is seen as a promising approach with the potential of ensuring the financial viability of mini-grids, it is itself laced with some uncertainties. Questions remain about the impact of potential changes in demand resulting for instance, from the adoption of more efficient technologies by the anchor tenant. How well positioned are energy service companies to meet the necessary potential growth in demand as household and productive use loads in local communities grow?
    1. Balancing anchor tenant needs and the needs of the energy poor. Even though some participants saw the anchor tenant approach as key to providing the critical demand that ensures the financial viability of energy service companies it’s important to keep in mind that the approach runs the risk of prioritizing anchor customer needs over community energy needs. To this end, we discussed how anchor loads could be linked to other development efforts. For example, a computer center providing social/educational benefits could serve as an anchor load. In this case, the anchor load itself may provide direct development benefits for the recipient communities.
    1. Discussions on energy access should ensure a sustained focus on energy efficiency as a critical input for driving down the overall potential demand that will have to be met. The role of super-efficient appliances in driving down demand especially in energy constrained areas with significant energy access challenges needs further exploration.

    So, what do you think? Are anchor tenants the key to supplying energy to the world? Or is it one of many tools in a toolkit that we need to consider as we try to expand energy access? Let us know in the comments below, or, better yet join us for our next event!


    The Energy Engagement Series is a monthly event in Washington DC hosted by WRI and Practical Action. We are very excited for next month’s event on May 12, which will focus on the nexus of agriculture and energy. Practical Action’s own Aaron Leopold will be one of our featured speakers for the event. If you’d like to sign up to join us, click here.

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  • Why Urban Resilience Matters

    April 17th, 2015

    One of my colleagues here at Practical Action was recently prodded to talk about the work he does on WASH (short for water, sanitation, and hygiene), and he began to talk about the importance of urban resilience. Instead of letting this discussion float in my inbox, I thought I might add it here.

    urban water kisumuJust over half the world’s population (3.6 billion people) live in urban centres, and by 2030 numbers are expected to rise to 5 billion. “Virtually all of the expected growth in the world population will be concentrated in the urban areas of the less developed regions” (UN DESA 2012:3-4). Most of the world’s children of the world will be born into low-income urban contexts in the 21st century

    Rapid urbanisation means that ensuring a equitable start for the future generations is becoming predominantly a challenge of eliminating the “urban penalty” brought about by this urbanisation. Furthermore, as climate change continues to grow, these communities will need to be prepared for its impacts, including longer periods without rainfall – and thus water scarcity, while at the same time also potentially dealing with heavier, more sudden, unexpected rains – and thus flash floods.

    Practical Action focuses our technical expertise on issues of Urban WASH both for poor women and men, their organisations and their partners in the public and private sector environmental sanitation. Water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management all combine to become a leading contributor to ill-health and stunting of under-fives leading to a life-long disadvantage.

    The urban penalty is a predominant, generational challenge. We realise that eradicating this penalty requires systems change and Practical Action’s efforts are focused on:

    Totality: If some people have toilets, water, and good hygiene practices, but people next door don’t, then health issues aren’t resolved. We need to work on total coverage.

    End-to-end (From access to safe disposal): Even if people are not defecating in the open, when waste is not safely disposed this is the equivalent of “institutional open defecation”. This requires a focus on the whole value chain, from toilets, to the conveyance of waste, to treatment, until the final, safe disposal.

    City Scale: the political, institutional, and economic factors that determine whether a system is sustainable depends on city-level processes (public agencies and private companies work citywide), so sustainable WASH in slums almost always need to be part of a city-wide approach

    Integrated: we can’t deal just with water, sanitation, or solid waste to get health benefits. They all need to be addressed in an integrated manner.

    Multiple, diverse actors: Household sanitation is seen as a private good, and people are willing to pay for this on their plot, and get the waste off their plot. But after that it’s seen as a public good, and the responsibility of the public sector. There are some ways of making money, so the private sector can play a role, but there’s typically not enough money from what people are willing to pay to get waste off their plot, and from value you can get from recycling and reuse, to make a fully free market of private actors to maintain a fully effective, scaled system. So the city government will need to take a lead and budget for it

    This focus prepares communities for shocks that come from growing climate change, addresses health issues that lead to child stunting, and establishes sustainable networks that can be run on a city wide level, and scaled if necessary.

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  • Levels of Engagement for Technology Justice

    February 25th, 2015

    Technology justice really is a big idea. We approach it from many different angles at Practical Action, and each person may have their own personal way of interpreting it. When I talk about technology justice, I like to think of different potential areas it plays out in practice.

    When you think of technology and how it is used, who do you think of? Most people start by thinking of their own interactions with technology. In the world of development, we may think about how it gets used in a community for improving people’s lives. Technology certainly impacts people, but it also relates to a much more complex environment. In this way, when we talk about technology justice, we aren’t just talking about how we use technology to support the extreme poor or disadvantaged; we also have to consider how technology justice is affected and defined by much more global forces. In reality, this is a complex environment. But from an engagement perspective, there are several levels where technology justice plays out.

    Technology justice starts small (small is beautiful, after all!). It starts with the needs of the individual. The most effective products and services are designed with the user at the center of the design process. Different people have different needs and developing solutions for those people works best when we design in conjunction with them. That’s partially why technologies designed for the developed world do not often meet the needs of the poor in the developing world. Many of the biggest failures in development can be traced back to a design process that did not include the end user participants in this design.

    The next level out on the technology justice spectrum is organizational. Individuals engage in both formal and informal social networks and technology at the nodes of those social networks where individuals interact. Formal networks often manifest as organizations. Even if technology is used by an individual, its use impacts others in those social networks. There is also technology that is created for use by these groups. To simply focus on a cell phone or a treadle pump as technology would ignore the larger telecom network or agriculture value chain that represents the organizational technology which often reveals different levels of technology justice and injustice.

    Design can also play a part here. Whether a private sector company, a governmental body, a NGO, or a donor-run project, when an organization keeps their end users in mind, it will ultimately deliver products and services that are more effective at meeting the needs of their end users. For governments, these are their constituents. For companies, these are customers. For NGOs and donors, these are beneficiaries, or participants. Technology design starts with products and services, but it also includes the experience of how easily and effectively end users can engage with these organizations. That experience maximizes the use of those products and services.

    When we think of the extreme poor, this is an often overlooked part of technology deployment. We focus on the deployment of a technology, but not on designing the approach to deploy in a participatory way. As a result, the technology shows up in a community, sometimes without warning, and often shuts down once the organizations deploying it leave. Experience design is required for sustainability.

    I am using a broad definition of technology in this case. It could be a minigrid company setting up energy systems, but it could also be large donor project tasked with starting new businesses in a country. But in most of these cases, we design our approach based on what the organization needs, and not on the needs of the end user. We will have more success when we focus on those needs. Just as we design the handle on a thresher around user needs and constraints, we should also design the way our employees, government officials, or even program directors engage with these end users to assure maximum impact and long term sustainability. This usage can be a major determinant as to whether the program is actually successful or not. Technology justice means we take a page from how companies deploy their technologies in the developed world, and design our “customer” or participant service with an end goal in mind.

    Just as organizations are made up of individuals, organizations operate in multiple interlocking systems. Technology justice depends on systems, and is often determined by systems. People use technology inside of social organizations that are part of larger community systems, which all exist inside of global socio-economic systems, which are built on resources supplied by the global environmental system. These systems aren’t always easy to define, in fact, they can be chaotic or extremely complex. But if we are to work for technology justice we must consider the systems where those technologies are applied. This still conveys the spirit of design with the individual user in mind, it just takes into consideration the systems those users exist in. It also considers the inherent injustice that can often be found in those systems—which is often at the heart of technology justice. For example, there are many technologies that benefit the lives of those of us in the developed world at the expense of those in the developing world, and those injustices are often delivered through systemic connections.

    The easy way to deal with this often is to try to cut the cord that exists in a system. Perhaps I hear about an agribusiness firm that is using practices that are ad for the environment and their workers, so I stop buying their products. This doesn’t affect the system. Injustices still happen. Just as large organizations can wreck havoc on the people and environment in a system, they can also be turned to be used as tools for improvement. In some ways, they are too big to be ignored, and systemic change in technology justice requires shifts from actors large and small to be able to create true, long term justice.

    A way to think about where technology justice can play out

    A way to think about where technology justice can play out

    For me, technology justice will be delivered by designing technology in collaboration with individual users, deployed through well designed interactions through different organizations and social networks, and creating impact that can be seen on a systemic level.

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  • Energy Engagement Speaker Series

    October 27th, 2014

    EES Logo

    Practical Action, the World Resources Institute, and the United Nations Foundation are pleased to launch our first in a series of discussions on bringing energy access to the rest of the world. This series will focus on bringing together both policy and practice actors who focus on mini-grid, off-grid, household energy, integrated resource planning, and our other established areas of expertise. We expect this will be a great environment for a comprehensive look at different approaches to meeting energy challenges.

    Our first topic, Bringing Policy and Practice together, will focus on several issues. How does energy access for all play out in policy and practice, and how can we work together to address some of these issues? How can actors such as the private sector and civil society play innovative roles to change the conversation about how energy is generated and delivered?

    Confirmed Panelists

    Ms. Allison Archambault, EarthSpark International

    Mr. Jem Porcaro, United Nations Foundation

    Dr. Ryan Shelby, USAID

    Ms. Davida Wood, WRI

    We will take a salon style approach, where distinguished panelists are featured, but the audience size is limited in order to encourage open and active audience discussion. The first 5-15 minutes focus on the invited panelists and their expertise, but audience members are invited ask questions and provide their own insights throughout. All attendees should come expecting to participate! The goal is to get feedback from a variety of actors from different sectors. Practical Action will moderate to ensure that the discussion is inclusive, stays on topic, and finishes on time.

    Thursday, November 6, 2014
    8:30 AM-10:00 AM

    World Resources Institute
    10 G Street NE Suite 800
    Washington, DC 20002, USA
    Metro: Red Line, Union Station stop, WRI is west of Union Station.

    To RSVP for this event, CLICK HERE.

    People think big at the beginning of the day, but we know some of you may need help. Coffee and refreshments will be provided.

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