Ep. 91 Powering Rural Africa

Man in small shop pushing cold orange soda towards camera.

Stephane, a shop owner, is able to sell cold drinks with electricity supplied from a solar microgrid. Credit: Sumin Wang

According to USAID, only four percent of people in rural Zambia has access to power. A Duke University interdisciplinary team has spent the past academic year trying to get a better understanding of the barriers to energy investment there.

The team looked at policy issues, assessed customers’ willingness to pay, and even created a geospatial application so potential investors can easily look at variables in each region before deciding to invest.

Faculty and staff of the Energy Access Project at Duke led the team, which also included students. What the team learned in Zambia could be helpful to those trying to help other developing countries gain sustainable power.

Listen:

Guests: Undergraduates Aashna Aggarwal and Miranda Wolford. Graduate student Sumin Wang.

Conversation highlights have been edited for readability and clarity.

Conversation Highlights

So what was the goal of the team?

adults and children smiling, standing outside in Zambia. Air conditioner on wall in backround.

Duke students and faculty visited a solar microgrid site in the village of Mugurameno in August 2018 to learn about challenges and opportunities facing electrification in rural communities.

Wolford: Well, the energy landscape in Zambia has been relatively untapped in comparison to neighboring countries, like Kenya where they have a thriving off grid energy private sector.

We were meeting with all of these private sector companies, government agencies, NGO’s, and we really wanted to create a sort of document or resource for private companies looking to enter the space and also financiers and backers looking to enter the space [in order to] connect all of the dots and create that sort of market overview and market landscape that highlighted both the opportunities in the space, the immense untapped market, and then also the many challenges that come with this space, such as the unpredictability.

Being that it’s such a new space for private companies to expand into, there’s a lot of reactionary policy.

What surprised you most of what you found or what experience you had?

Wolford: What surprised me the most was just with all of the funding coming in and just a new emphasis on sustainability and energy access as well, that same emphasis on sustainability hasn’t necessarily been extended to the actual business side of the energy access equation.

When you’re looking at local companies that often start off as individually run operations, where they’re just perhaps reselling solar home products or solar home systems on the streets, those don’t have the same access to early seed capital or early financing as foreign or expat owned companies.

So, just really trying to get that sector of the energy access equation off the ground and realizing that a lot of the money hadn’t previously gone to those same people. That was probably was most surprising to me considering just all of the wonderful Zambian entrepreneurs we had the immense pleasure of meeting.

What have you learned about promoting energy access in hard to reach access areas as a result of being part of this project?

Aggarwal: When we talk about energy access, a lot of times people assume that these communities do need access to electricity. But, we did not realize that [many people] have been living without access to electricity since they were born and now it doesn’t really make huge difference in their lives. Whereas there are instances where the quality of life could be improved and there could be economic gains if these communities get access to electricity, it’s really important to work with the communities and not just for them.

Our visits to these communities, really showed us what are the desires of these community members and do they want electricity or not? What kind of services do they want? Because a lot of times, energy access is not just a great connection to your house, but are you actually using the lighting or the heating or the cooking? What are you using this electricity for? Do you have a restaurant and you only need a refrigerator to cool your cold drinks or do you actually need a cook stove that is electrified to cook food for others?

I think there are a lot of factors that go into the decision making. They’re often overlooked in the equation where we’re calculating energy access, but working closely together with these communities is a really big part of it.

Aashna Aggarwal (top left) poses with a family and Duke team members after a household interview in the Monze district.