Renewables in East Africa: Changing Lives with Sustainable Energy

In Europe and North America, the debate on renewables is often conducted in the context of achieving the right energy mix – reducing dependence on fossil fuels and planning for energy conservation and efficiency. But what role can sustainable, renewable energy play in those areas of the world where having more than one energy source would be an unimaginable luxury, and where energy supply means cutting down a tree or foraging for firewood?

At the European Court of Auditors, we recently conducted an audit of funding for renewable energy programs in East Africa. In the rural and peri‑urban areas of Africa, households’ priority electricity needs are generally lighting, charging mobile phones, a radio set or a television, air circulation and, when and where possible, a refrigerator, air conditioning or other appliances. At village level, supplying electricity to medical centers is usually the top priority, followed by administrative facilities, schools and, where needed, water pumping. The arrival of electricity is a game-changer: it makes possible activities such as grain milling, rice husking, sawmilling, food and drink refrigeration, tailoring or communication centers.

But where does that electricity come from? The poor in rural and peri-rural areas often have no access at all to modern energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass. So European Union development policy promotes access to renewables and supports a wide variety of projects from off-grid, small-scale production to capacity building and energy for cooking. The problems encountered can vary widely: small biomass units need proper daily maintenance by a member of the household to run properly, while on a larger scale a region or a country need reliable wind maps to maximize the use of wind as a sustainable energy source.

Against this background, development policy makers must assess a country’s energy mix and long-term energy policy on a continuing basis. National policies both in developed and developing countries tend to neglect the importance of renewable energies once natural resources, such as oil or gas fields, are discovered and their exploitation is about to be launched. Balancing the different interests at stake is not easy. But the use of renewable energy must be further increased, not least to tackle global warming. The effect of climate change can be seen everywhere and may have direct consequences for the use of renewable energy; for instance, hydraulic power may no longer be feasible in an area where a dam was built 20 years ago.

Policy must also ensure proper project design. Baselines must be accurate and targets well-thought out. We found that shortcomings in the assessment process regularly materialized during implementation. However, the majority of projects we saw were well-designed and delivered the expected results.

Take, for example, a charcoal-replacement project in Kenya. Switching away from charcoal eases the burden of the women and girls who have to gather the wood, as well as helping protect forests and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. One project aimed to recover methane gas from slurry digesters on small farms with three to 10 dairy cows. The biogas replaces charcoal as the cooking fuel for the farm households. For the project, 765 digesters were installed against a target of 460.

Another project in Mozambique aimed to help 4,000 families access sustainable small‑scale solar power in two rural districts. Solar-charged lanterns are used as a substitute for burning wood or kerosene for lighting. They are made available for a modest daily fee from small‑scale businesses run by local entrepreneurs, half of whom are women. Currently, 82 percent of the target population have economic, clean-energy lighting. Solar charging stations are also used to recharge cell phones, radios and even hair clippers.

In Madagascar, European Union development funds contributed to constructing small hydro-electricity production units in a hilly region. The sustainability of high‑altitude streams requires sound management of the natural flora and agriculture in the feeding basin to allow rainwater to continuously infiltrate the subsoil. So the project included training and subsidies for peasant farmers to adapt their farming methods, notably to avoid further deforestation by slash-and-burn or by logging for charcoal. The money for the subsidies came from a levy on the electricity sold to a town in the valley.

Our audit highlighted the need for continuous monitoring to ensure that public money is not only granted but also used effectively and efficiently. Where implementation problems are observed, the European Union has to tackle these problems together with its partners. As a last resort, contracts for projects that are not performing may have to be cancelled, but this might compromise investments already made and ultimately have negative consequences for local populations. Hard choices have to be made.

It also became very clear that local communities must participate pro-actively in the run-up, implementation and maintenance of projects. Several projects we visited in Tanzania clearly demonstrated the importance of involving the local population. But very often the providers of development aid need additional help on the spot. This usually comes from non-governmental organisations, and their dedicated work can provide the final extra effort that makes a project successful.

Rural electrification projects had a positive effect in improving the day-to-day life of rural communities – electrification triggers new economic activities and encourages personnel, such as teachers or doctors, to stay in remote places. Even more importantly, these results had good sustainability prospects and some projects also raised awareness of environmental issues and provided training on starting micro-businesses.

All this assistance was channelled via the ACP-EU Energy Facility, a European Union fund supporting access to renewable energy in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Since 2006, the European Commission has directed more than 100 million euros ($108.3 million) to projects in East Africa, where less than 20 percent of the population has access to electricity. The European Commission has said that it will build on our audit findings and adjust its future programs accordingly.

Lead image: African woman carrying a load of wood. Credit: Shutterstock.