Providing sustainable energy isn’t just about gadgets and dollars

World Environment Day 2016 in Nairobi celebrated under solar-powered floodlights. EPA/Daniel Irungu

Around the world, 1.1 billion people have no electricity and 2.9 billion can’t cook with “clean” energy. The international community has big aspirations to tackle this challenge, and its focus is on sustainable energy.

This involves providing poor women and men with affordable access to electricity for modern energy services like lighting and communications. The needs also extend to clean cooking options to mitigate the negative health effects of cooking with wood, charcoal, coal or animal waste. Many of these people live in remote locations with no access to electricity grids, or live within reach of the grid but cannot afford to connect. This has led to a focus on the potential of off-grid, renewable energy options.

A UN scheme – called the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative – has set itself the goal of ensuring that everyone in the world has access to sustainable energy for all by 2030. This is a big ambition. Yet the international community still doesn’t understand enough about how to overcome the problem of energy access, and what’s needed to deliver it for everyone.

Two dimensions have dominated the debate: hardware and finance. We need technological hardware (for instance solar PV or wind turbines) and we need finance to pay for it. Much of the research on the problem has come from engineers and economists, informing policy agendas that respond to their concerns.

But there are three other dimensions that have been largely ignored in research and policy. These are culture, politics, and innovation. Looking at past successes in sustainable energy shows why they are crucial, and why ignoring them could lead to disappointment or failure.

Behind Kenya’s incredible success story

A key “transformational” example often referred to by international policy makers and researchers is the incredible success of the off-grid solar PV market in Kenya. This includes solar home systems, for which Kenya is estimated to have one of the largest per capita markets in the world. There’s also a rapidly expanding market for solar portable lanterns. It also includes the rapidly emerging phenomenon of pay as you go, mobile-enabled solar PV.

In our recent book, we have constructed the most detailed account to date of the history of the off-grid solar PV market in Kenya – drawing on a decade of empirical research, including over 100 hours of interviews and workshops in the country.

This market is often described – wrongly – as an “unsubsidised”, “free market success story” Supposedly, as the technological hardware emerged, it became cheap and reliable enough and, thanks to a lack of any government meddling, private sector entrepreneurs grew the market to what it is today.

Our research reveals a very different story, dating back several decades. Back then, a few early champions saw the opportunities for solar PV to provide energy access in Kenya.

Besides some shrewd political manoeuvring, these pioneers also had to understand the social and cultural reasons behind the ways that households, schools and hospitals consumed and paid for energy services. They also had to use the right language to persuade donors, obsessed with ‘fixing’ market failures, to support long-term capacity building.

This included market research, training for local technicians, installing demonstration solar home systems, helping vendors to understand systems and how to support customers.

The result was a thriving innovation system around solar PV. The early pioneers, who understood the importance not just of tech and finance, but also politics, culture and innovation, used these insights to build the foundations for the private sector growth we see today in Kenya. Lighting Africa, a later initiative, seems to have taken these political, social and cultural aspects seriously too, which has been material to its success in Kenya.

Now, another new form of energy access has built on these foundations: mobile payments for solar PV. This “pay as you go” model for solar electricity relies on the combination of two technologies: cheap Chinese solar PV and mobile banking. It has been held up as a transformational new technology and, on the surface, it looks like a mainly technical achievement.

Why culture and politics too

But when you dig down deeper, a better understanding begins to emerge of the early development of pay as you go solar PV models. You learn how much time these early innovators spent understanding the socio-cultural dimension of this issue.

People who are now CEOs of booming pay as you go solar companies spent years living with local people and developing in-depth knowledge of how culture, and even gender, affected how people paid for and consumed energy. To be successful at meeting people’s needs, they had to think through and experiment with how to structure these payments.

There are also clear political dimensions to the pay as you go solar PV phenomenon. For example, the UK’s Department for International Development was only able to help develop the M-Pesa mobile banking system in Kenya because of political relationships and the government’s willingness to work with donors around a “private sector entrepreneurship” agenda. But if mobile payments for solar PV began to look like a serious challenge to the central government’s investments, the Kenyan story might look very different.

Understanding these deeper aspects of innovation could help donors who are now looking to support Sustainable Energy for All. Of course, technology and finance are crucial to making it happen. But so are culture, politics and the broader sense in which innovation happens.