Energy Democracy and the Politics of Energy Transition in African Countries

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Env, Energy & Resources


Historically, electrification in developing countries has been led by efforts to provide centralised, large-scale generation, as was the case in developed countries. Latterly, policies and regulations to facilitate energy transition toward low-carbon generation of energy have on the whole been designed for industrial countries, and then transferred to major developing countries with some success in major emerging countries (for instance in South Africa). These approaches have so far achieved little impact in Least Developed and low-income countries. This is mainly due to the relative weakness of their institutions and of attendant regulatory architectures, and a lack of adequate governance structures to implement them. In the case of many African countries, moreover, planning for energy transitions is made more complicated by the competing priority of increasing access to modern energy services, as well as by the political economy competition between centralised, clientelist states and varying degrees of initiatives towards decentralization and devolution of powers towards local governance structures.

RETs production and deployment have risen substantially globally, on the back of huge industrialisation and subsequent cost reductions in the order of 80%. In many low-middle and middle-income developing countries the question is, how can the strategic political understanding of many of these countries which is dominated by grid outreach be changed to incorporate the substantial decentralized, off-grid provision that will be necessary to achieve both effective outreach and low carbon transition? If the habit of centralized monopoly can be broken in African countries with small electricity markets by the introduction of RETs, will this lead necessarily to more decentralised systems or, on the contrary, will centralised systems be perpetuated with the same limited number of players? And in the case that decentralised RETs are being implemented will this lead to a democratisation of the energy systems or to the reinforcement of non-democratic local authorities?

The research will survey current practices associated with decentralization and local governance of energy supplies, consider established good practice and look to build routes forward with wider stakeholder communities. It will consider also the evolution of social imaginaries linked to energy transition in African countries, from national governments down to local communities. How can policy-makers in the energy sector integrate RETs in their way of thinking? Do they perceive differences with conventional energy technologies - not just technical differences but also differences in terms of social implications, and do they understand the implications for local governance through formal and informal structures, and any existing political decentralization initiatives? How might perspectives best be changed to enable both RET deployment and enhanced energy access? Are grass roots organisations capable of proposing, developing, operating and maintaining an alternative vision? Do they perceive RETs as having the potential to empower local communities, or as 'second-hand electricity'? What are the needs of communities not just in terms of energy, but also in terms of the role they can take in meeting those needs and in working with providers to enable access which meets those needs most effectively? What financing models would best enable this? What other elements of regulation can help to enable all of this? What is required to happen amongst governance organisations to enable a shift from the centralised to a decentralised model?

Planned Impact

Impacts of this research are threefold: 1) This research will increase awareness about innovative inclusive policies and regulation that has a potential to impact on energy transition and energy democracy. 2) This research will inform stakeholders on issues surrounding poverty, structural inequalities, unemployment and multi-level responses to manage and care about energy democracy when implementing clean energy transition. 3) Experienced researchers will collaborate with starting or in mid-career researchers which will help to have impacts through the training and career development of these young scientists. The research project will also establish a long-term partnership among researchers in the UK and in African countries and a post-funding collaboration will be set up to strengthen and foster research uptake activities and knowledge exchange

The study will impact and benefit the following persons/institutions: Local communities will obtain relevant information about how to influence decision-processes and make their point of view know to policy-makers when it comes to energy projects. Focus groups organised on-site at the beginning of the project will help to reframe the research according to the particular context of each country. NGOs and politicians will advocate better energy policy and services to reach communities in deep situation of poverty and fragility as well as providing support to these vulnerable groups in terms of reducing gender inequality. Drawing comparisons between African countries will have the potential to increase awareness about and which types of responses have to be taken into account to deal with these issues when designing energy policies and regulations. Findings will address existing gaps in terms of understanding what is the politics of energy in least developed and low income African countries and contribute to the development of more resilient energy systems which will be more responsive to the depletion of conventional resources and structural and social inequalities. Workshop and capacity building will be organised in each country to include NGOs, politicians and representatives of local communities. Politicians will be briefed during small group sessions/seminars. Administrations from central and federal states like Zambia/Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Nigeria will benefit from the robust, exploratory and novel data that this study will be providing; based on the analysis of discourses of stakeholders, network mapping, and the description of state policy-making processes, the research will provide them with a roadmap of possible best practices to implement energy transition and pitfalls to avoid. Staff will be briefed during small group sessions/seminars.

Case studies from the research project will help NGOs, politicians and administrations to understand how energy interventions have an impact on communities, especially on groups in situation of vulnerability. They also will be able to understand how RETs projects are being perceived by local communities and how effective past interventions have been in reducing, or on the contrary, increasing the poverty gap extent between different subgroups (remote conditions of living, gender gaps, deprivations, social stigma, etc.). This research has the potential to change some important patterns in terms of analysing roles and responsibilities and power differentials, notably between men and women. Our findings have the potential to contribute to the development of public policy, and in doing so it will reduce the poverty among energy end-users by age, ethnicity, social status, gender balance, region, and state. All findings will be presented in synthetic documents targeted to particular audience (policy briefs for politicians; case studies for NGOs/International organisations/Universities). Translation in French will help to reach regional organisations which require for their members bi-lingual working documents.
Description ENR-Demos website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Wesbite of the project codesigned by UCL and the African partner ZIPAR which is being launched in 2022 to publicise the first outputs of the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Working group on renewable energies in Nigeria 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Nigerian research partner has been invited to working meetings with Nigerian policy-makers on renewable energies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020