How the e-GUIDE Initiative is flipping the switch on electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa

For most people living in the developed world, everyday life would be impossible without access to reliable electricity. But in rural areas of many developing countries, an estimated 770 million people still do not have access to electricity.  

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that the number of people without access to electricity grew in 2021 for the first time since 2015. Yet, despite this bump, the trend over the past twenty years has seen electrification gain significant ground worldwide. For example, just over 4 percent of people in Cambodia had electric power in 2000 compared to nearly 75 percent in 2019.

Until recently, connecting rural populations to power has been costly to both companies and governments. Conventional utilities companies have an aversion to investing in grid-extension projects they don’t think they’ll see a return on, while governments are reluctant to offer open-ended subsidies. However, over the past decade, the advent of lightweight, versatile distributed energy systems—like mini-grids—has allowed communities isolated from conventional centralized grids to electrify.

Build it and they will come? 

Rural electrification in practice sometimes ends up following a simplistic technical formula: The more connections that are built, the more people will use electricity. Then everything else will take care of itself.  

“Connections aren’t enough. We need to think about how those connections get used.”
– Nathan Williams, RIT Assistant Professor

But this is a mistake, says Nathan Williams, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS). “Connections aren’t enough. We need to think about how those connections get used,” he has observed.

For Williams, who studies electricity access and development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), electrification is intertwined with many different levers of human well-being. His work aims to map out where electricity and development intersect, honing in on the points where electricity access improves delivery of essential services like healthcare, education, and transport.

Overall, electrification across the 46 countries that make up SSA has only minimally increased from 33 to 48 percent since 2010. Not only has creation of infrastructure for delivering electricity slowed in rural areas of the region, but the people who do have access tend to use very little power. For example, the average monthly demand for consumers in rural Kenya who were connected in 2009 stayed at 30–35 kiloWatt hours (kWh)—about 3.8 percent of what most U.S. households use each month.

Such low consumer demand for electric power has made funding rural electrification unsustainable in much of SSA. Mini-grid developers are especially affected by this, since most are small businesses or startups that don’t receive the subsidies from government agencies that conventional grid utilities do.  

Williams worries that this lag in electrification has a broader impact on social and economic development in SSA, ultimately halting much-needed efforts to address poverty there.   

The e-GUIDE Initiative

Williams is the executive director of the Electricity Growth and Use in Developing Economies (e-GUIDE) Initiative, a five-university partnership that conducts research to transform how electricity infrastructure is planned and operated in the developing world. Through e-GUIDE, Williams has participated in a number of studies to help researchers, policymakers, and businesses gain a more expanded, dynamic view of the most important factors driving—or hindering—electricity use in rural areas of SSA.

Over the past five years, Williams has led a series of studies through e-GUIDE that were designed to shed light on electricity use in rural SSA from multiple angles. Whether by introducing new data or challenging long-held assumptions about how consumers in the region behave, this growing body of research has widened the lens that government and business planners can use when making decisions about electricity infrastructure.

“Currently, there is no viable business model of electrifying the rural population of SSA.”
– Fhazhil Wamalwa, GIS Doctoral Student

“Currently, there is no viable business model of electrifying the rural population of SSA due to low residential electricity demand,” said Fhazhil Wamalwa, a doctoral student at GIS who contributes to e-GUIDE’s research.   

More appliances, more Watts? 

Williams contributed to a study that asked whether the reason rural mini-grid users in Kenya and Tanzania use little electricity comes down to electrical appliances—or the lack thereof.

Most rural Kenyan and Tanzanian consumers live on a fixed income and so often cannot afford many of the plug-in appliances that are commonplace in homes in more developed towns and cities. Williams and a team of colleagues from e-GUIDE (June Lukuyu and Jay Taneja) and the Energy Access Project at Duke University (Rob Fetter and P.P. Krishnapriya) wanted to learn why rural Kenyans and Tanzanians used so little power. Did they simply have no interest in using electricity or was there a financial barrier keeping them from doing so?  

To find out, the researchers worked with the Mini-Grid Innovation Lab and five mini-grid developers to design an appliance financing program. Customers in 27 Kenyan and Tanzanian villages were invited to apply for credit to purchase one electrical appliance or more. Five-hundred and forty-four appliances were distributed to 378 customers. In the end, most participants chose televisions—211—but others chose speakers, blenders, electric irons, power tools, and other common home goods.

Hourly electricity use was measured using smart meters that mini-grid developers had already installed at each participant’s residence. Loan repayments were tracked to see if the appliances were financially feasible to participants. A control group was also set up where each participant was matched with a non-participant to compare differences in electricity use.

Did the financing program work? Yes and no, according to Williams.

It was successful in that it showed that rural customers in SSA are receptive to using more appliances in their households. However, after an initial spike in electricity use once participants received their new appliances, the average demand eventually dropped back to baseline levels. The study also suggested that most participants were not financially prepared to take on credit for appliances: Just 24 percent repaid their loans on time.

Even if the results were not conclusive about appliance use generally, the study did introduce valuable knowledge that would inform subsequent eGUIDE research.

Of all the appliances distributed, refrigerators and freezers were the only ones where use did not regress. Additionally, the customers who had these were the only ones that fully repaid their loans. One reason for this was that they weren’t used in residences, but in cafés or bar-like settings where food and drinks were kept cold to be sold.

The refrigerators and freezers were unique from the other appliances because they could be put into what energy researchers call “productive use.” That is, they were used to consume energy in a way that generated income that contributed to a community’s overall welfare. With this in mind, the researchers concluded that financing programs may be more effective when focused on productive-use goods. Such a targeted strategy would foster ongoing electricity use and other economic development.

The Minigrid Innocation Lab applied what they learned through the study to develop successful financing programs in other countries that were focused on productive-use goods.      

Powering irrigation in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda  

About 54 percent of people in SSA earn their livelihood through agriculture. Since most farming is at the subsistence level, the national productivity of most countries in the region is low, making them net importers of food.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that reducing extreme poverty is next to impossible without increases in agricultural productivity. With this in mind, Williams and fellow e-GUIDE researchers Paulina Jaramillo and Jorge Izar Tenorio set out a study to explore how electrification might improve productivity across the food value chain in SSA, from farming and harvesting to processing, distribution, and consumption. Applying a systems-level view, they saw an opportunity to address poverty while making electricity access financially sustainable for rural electricity service providers.

The study focused on the nexus between electricity and irrigation in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda.

“We explored the symbiotic benefits of co-planning off-grid electrification with small-scale irrigation farming,” said Wamalwa. “The high electricity demand for irrigation farming is used to mitigate the low electricity-demand barrier to deployment of community-level micro-grids as vehicles of rural electrification.”   

The researchers collected data on climate, soil type, crop physiology, field management, groundwater depth, and irrigation-system configuration. They then developed a model to determine the volume of water that maximum yields for different essential crops—like maize, wheat, potatoes, and onions—would need. With this information in hand, they were able to calculate the total electricity that would be required to irrigate crops in different locales and achieve maximum yields.

They sought productive-use opportunities for boosting electricity demand that would also increase incomes and build resiliency against the impacts of climate change, like drought.

A geo-spatial model—known as a “geospatial electrification tool”—was laid over the Ethiopian, Rwanda, or Ugandan topographies. Most often, this type of model is used to plan the electrification of small households. But the e-GUIDE researchers applied it differently: They sought productive-use opportunities for boosting electricity demand that would also increase incomes and build resiliency against the impacts of climate change, like drought.

“Irrigation farming will increase food production and enhance food security in the region,” said Wamalwa. “The greatest impact of our work will be felt when our model is used to deploy mini-grids in last-mile electrification of remote villages in SSA.”

Predicting business demand in Kenya

In another e-GUIDE study, Williams and researchers Jay Taneja and Bob Muhwezi wanted to better understand electricity use among small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya. They conducted an in-depth analysis of eight geospatial and temporal datasets to paint a detailed picture of Kenyan small businesses in terms of location, power demand, economic activity, and proximity to financial services.

In their analysis, they sought to identify the conditions that drive electricity demand among SMEs. With these in hand, they estimated how complementary factors, such as access to roads, markets, financial services, and much more, influenced overall electricity use.

The study found that SMEs located in rural neighborhoods that were close to complementary factors showed a 10–16 percent increase in electricity consumption. This contrasted with the two-percent increase observed in SMEs with similar proximity to complementary factors but in urban settings.

For Williams, this study stressed the role that an SME’s immediate, local environment has on its electricity use. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said about the study’s findings.

Electricity access as a human right 

e-GUIDE’s mission supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7, which aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.”

Tunmise Raji, another GIS doctoral student who works with Williams, believes e-GUIDE’s research can make it easier for finance institutions and governments in SSA to connect electrification to broader development goals.  

“Identifying clear evidence of the impact of electrification […] can help governments in SSA make better decisions on areas to invest in that will have the most impact on a community.”
– Tunmise Raji, GIS Doctoral Student

“There's significant uncertainty surrounding the impact of electricity-access interventions on developmental indicators like income, education, health, and so on,” Raji said. “Identifying clear evidence of the impact of electrification […] can help governments in SSA make better decisions on areas to invest in that will have the most impact on a community.”

Another graduate student at GIS who is part of e-GUIDE, Lefu Maqelepo, believes e-GUIDE’s research can open new opportunities for governments and utilities to “reach more customers using a multi-model paradigm that considers grid extension and off-the-grid renewable energy technologies with no need to expand the budgets.”

The initiative’s goal is to create practical data products and tools that decision-makers in the region can use to build solutions.

Notably, the 25 researchers that make up e-GUIDE are careful not to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for SSA, which is a geographical region encompassing a wide diversity of people, economies, and environmental conditions. Instead, their work is grounded in what Williams calls an “inside-out” approach to development; the initiative’s goal is to create practical data products and tools that decision-makers in the region can use to build solutions that are in sync with a given locale’s unique opportunities and challenges.

But, to do this, a systems-level perspective is paramount: “Infrastructure doesn’t exist in isolation,” noted Williams. “Keeping a systems-level view helps us see how activities like business, agriculture, financial services, and more interact.”



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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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