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Renewable energy systems in Africa

A postponed take-off and its institutional backgrounds

At the beginning of the 1980s renewable energies like biomass, hydropower, wind and solar energy were considered as the key to solving the energy problems of the African continent: on the one hand, it was assumed that renewable energies might substitute for fossil fuels on a massive scale in the near future; on the other hand, there seemed to be no doubt that the utilisation of renewable energies would quickly stop the deforestation process. Both expectations were by far too optimistic. Our author's critical reflections of the past decade and of the strategies followed by AT-NGOs raise the question of how governments, donor agencies and NGOs must change their approach in order to give "renewables" a viable future in Africa.

In order to reduce fossil fuel consumption in African countries and world-wide, energy conservation programmes are at present far more effective than tapping renewable energy sources. But the prospect of global warming caused by the greenhouse effect might lead to a reassessment. Sub-Saharan Africa however, accounts for only 3% of the global fossil fuel consumption. It can thus not be expected that these countries make a significant contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation is only to a limited extent an energy problem. Above all it is repopulation and land issue (increase of population, extension of farming areas, etc.). As far as it can be treated as an energy problem, several remedial measures are possible: fuelwood plantations, dissemination of more efficient wood and charcoal stoves, substitution of fossil fuels (kerosene, bottled gas) for woodfuels, and utilisation of other renewable energy sources (mini-hydropower, wind and solar energy) as substitute for woodfuels. Unfortunately the last-mentioned option is the least relevant.

Rural development

The currently available renewable energy systems can nevertheless be of some importance for Africa's development. They are suitable for decentralised applications in rural areas, where they might supply electrical energy for lighting and basic public infrastructures, and also mechanical energy for water pumping and, to a limited extent, for small-scale industries. These applications will have no significant impact on the national energy balances of African countries. They might however contribute in a significant way to the development of rural areas. These considerations lead to a striking conclusion.

The rural development aspect is far more important in justifying renewable energy projects and programmes m Africa than any energy-sector or ecological argument - at least at present.

The last decade has seen a lot of effort in promoting the utilisation of renewable energies in Africa. Most of these activities have not been very successful. The standard renewable energy project in Africa in the 1980s consisted of a number of more or less curious and very often rotten biomass, wind or solar energy installations in the dusty courtyard of a research institute in the capital city. A frustrated engineer tried to explain to the astonished visitor why it should work in theory but did not work in practice. The implementation of renewable energy systems under field conditions and their dissemination on a large scale have to be qualified as rare exceptions.

Some progress, no breakthrough

This disappointing state of affairs is partly due to a number of objective constraints for the utilisation of renewable energy sources: profitability problems, high capital intensity, maintenance requirements, etc. But there are also institutional backgrounds which can explain why a real breakthrough has not yet taken place. A lot has already been written about the crucial role of private enterprises and households in the technology transfer process and their hesitation to invest in renewable energy systems. Other institutional groups - donor agencies, government institutions in African countries, and nongovernmental organisations have not been so much in the limelight. Bottlenecks for the smooth dissemination of renewable energy systems at this level are described below.

Donor Agencies

The big multilateral and bilateral donor agencies working in the field of financial and technical cooperation with developing countries-like the World Bank, USAID, etc. began to promote renewable energy systems in Africa and elsewhere after the two oil price shocks of the seventies. Most donor agencies reacted by setting up renewable energy units in their energy or technology departments.

But donor agency management was very reserved and hesitant with respect to renewable energy technologies, and integration of renewable energy-related activities into the main stream business of the large country and sector departments has not yet really taken place. Renewable energies are still a minor issue for the heads of the donor agencies; the renewable energy units in their institutions are kept in a situation of relative isolation "In" and "out" of fashion

More than that, donor financed renewable energy programmes have been a rather cyclical affair. Renewables were "in" after the two oil price shocks. They went more and more "out" after the de cline in oil prices in 1985/86. At the moment they are "in" again because of the greenhouse effect.

Renewable energy projects in Africa will never solve the commercial energy crisis, nor will they significantly influence global warming. The justification for such projects lies in their potential contribution to rural development. The donor agencies should consequently replace their erratic policy of the past by a sound long-term policy which keeps the renewable energies m proper perspective.

The attitude of renewable energy protagonists in the donor agencies has contributed a lot to their relative isolation. In the beginning most of them were engineers with a special interest in one specific renewable energy technology. They tended to defend their " baby" against all kind of criticism, even if it was justified. Even now, many renewable energy experts are at draggers drawn with the standard methods of economic and social project appraisal .

This largely explains the very technology-oriented approach of donor agencies in the field of renewable energies. The lack of willingness of many renewable energy protagonists to respond to substantiated criticism corresponds with a certain reluctance to criticise. There seems to be a kind of informal standstill agreement between renewable energy experts in the development community.

Such a climate is not very conducive when having to choose between promising and less promising renewable energy technologies in order to concentrate human and financial resources on the promising ones. Donor agency management has repeatedly asked their renewable energy units to prepare for comparative evaluations in order to define clear selection and exclusion criteria for the different technologies. These efforts cannot claim a total success.

As a consequence, some donor agencies are still investing part of their money in producer gas plants (gasification of wood and charcoal) or in the development of cars and trucks driven by biofuels (alcohol and vegetable oils), despite the fact that these technologies cannot be justified, neither economically nor in the context of basic development policy goals. Other renewable energy technologies are quite overestimated and receive too much attention when compared with their real prospects.

Biogas plants to produce methane gas from animal dung, for example, will not significantly change the rural areas of Africa because they are only useful and affordable to a small group of wealthy farmers who practice intensive cattle breeding. On the other hand, certain renewable energy systems (for example solar pumps and mechanical wind pumps for drinking water supply or small decentralised photovoltaic systems for rural electrification) are not yet receiving the amount of funding they deserve.

The insider atmosphere prevailing in renewable energy' units of donor agencies has not incited colleagues from country or other sector departments (e.g. water supply, health services, agriculture) to finance renewable-energy-related activities in the framework of their programmes. In house business development activities not being very successful, the renewable energy protagonists have invested a lot of time and money into donor-to-donor acquisition, which does not increase at all the total amount of funding available.

Government Institutions

In African countries the energy sector is dominated by parastatals and private enterprises in the electricity and petroleum sub-sectors. The electricity companies and the petroleum product distributors - subsidiaries of international oil companies - administer 90 % and more of total investment in the energy sector.

When a ministry or department of energy exists, its political competencies and its administrative and personnel capacities are very weak. The energy institutions of African governments are generally occupied with collecting energy data and drafting and rectifying national energy plans. The energy policy documents largely reflect decisions already taken else where (by parastatals, private enterprises, and donor agencies).

Renewable- energy - related activities are very often monopolised by research institutions. Researchers prefer to focus on complicated equipment which needs further technical development. Big photovoltaic or solar thermal plants and their sophisticated electronic components, for example, might receive much more attention than small systems for decentralised applications, although the latter are far more important for the economic and social development of rural Africa.

Research trap

Research institutions frequently place a low value on the extension of the results of their work. They are not very eager to bring a technology to maturity, because at this stage, they have to delegate responsibility for implementation to other institutions. A lot of renewable energy systems which might be quite useful for African countries are caught in this research trap.

Such institutional deadends have not prevented African governments from declaring ambitious long-term renewable energy action plans. Indeed, renewable energy policy in the African context has a substituted declarations for implementations.

In order to escape from this unsatisfactory reality, African decision-makers and their counterparts in the donor agencies like to organise and frequent international and regional conferences. The air conditioned atmosphere of international hotels and conference centres seems to provide the right surroundings for the renewable energy jet set to regain self-confidence and assure its own importance and relevance. Cynics think that the energy wasted by the travelling of renewable energy experts might easily exceed the energy gained by the limited number of successful renewable energy projects in Africa. This is certainly an exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that the development of renewable energies in Africa would be better off if the conference tourism were limited and the additionally available resources used to strengthen the organisational structures at home and implement projects in the field.


The big international NGOs (especially church organisations) as well as local and national NGOs in Africa are neither very eager nor reluctant to use renewable energy systems. If they are convinced that certain renewable energy equipment could be beneficial for their clientele, they definitely opt for it. They might well become important agents for the dissemination of renewable energy systems in rural Africa.

The ecological movement in the industrialised countries has induced the formation of a specialised group of technology-oriented NGOs. These NGOs fight for a concept which they call "intermediate" or "appropriate " technology and which they would like to implement both in industrialised and in developing countries.

Appropriate technology organisations can be characterised by their technological and political principles:

- they reject large-scale technologies of industrialised societies which are considered as being non-adapted or dangerous (e.g. nuclear plants, large hydropower schemes),

- they support small technologies based on local knowledge and local resources which are considered both socially and environmentally sound ("small is beautiful"),

- their goal is to strengthen participation and self-determination by the local population ("the better approach").

Ambitious concept

It is not surprising, therefore, that small renewable energy systems in Africa and elsewhere have become a major focus for the appropriate technology movement.

In following the "better" approach, reality falls far behind the ambitious concept. On the one hand, appropriate technology organizations heavily depend on government funding and some of them have been absorbed by government institutions and transformed into sub-departments of the donor agencies. They then become more or less controlled by the establishment which they criticise. On the other hand, they have never really familiarised themselves with the rules and regulations of their financial backers.

The sometimes unbearable moral and ideological argumentation of appropriate technology activists is not likely to convince even open minded decision makers in donor agencies of the incontestable merits of their concept. Their " better-than-you " attitude, which very often replaces sound arguments, just bores their colleagues from other departments. The rate of failure of appropriate technology development projects seems to be as high or even higher than that of conventional projects.

The readiness of poor people in rural Africa to tinker with appropriate technology equipment is definitely not as high as expected by activists. Financial and economic considerations are furiously rejected as part of the conventional technology approach. A small-scale farmer, however, will not invest in a wind pump for irrigation just because an appropriate technology organisation might recommend it as socially and environmentally sound equipment.

Financially it is not at all attractive and thus not appropriate for the small-scale farmer who simply wants to survive. As a matter of fact, the appropriate technology activists are as technology-oriented as their conventional counterparts. A glance at one of their numerous appropriate technology periodicals is enough to realise that their objective of "putting people firstĀ» is not really respected. Appropriate technology organisations choose technologies first and only after that do they turn to the people who might use them.


During the last decade a lot of effort has been put into promoting the utilisation of renewable energies in Africa. Most activities have not been very successful. Institutional bottlenecks have had their part to play in this disappointing state of affairs. Eliminating them may be conducive to the dissemination of renewable energy systems where they provide appropriate solutions to remedy grievances in rural areas. Hence, a few recommendations:

Donor agencies: The donor agencies in general should replace their erratic policy of the past by a sound long-term policy which keeps renewable energies in proper perspective. Renewable energy protagonists in donor agencies should:

• respond more favourably to substantiated criticism,

• accept and apply the standard methods of economic and social project appraisal,

• make a choice between promising and less-promising renewable energy technologies, and

• convince their colleagues from the country or other sector departments to finance renewable energy-related activities in the framework of their programmes.

Government institutions In African countries: In order to take a step further than policy declarations and research efforts towards actual applications in rural areas, responsibility for disseminating renewable energy systems at government level should be concentrated within the rural development ministry.

The energy ministry has to be involved as far as general energy policy decisions are concerned. The production of ambitious but useless policy papers and conference tourism should be kept within proper limits. Instead, additional resources could be directed towards field projects.

Non- governmental organisations: In order to convince decision makers of the incontestable merits of their concept, appropriate technology activists should:

• familiarise themselves with the rules and regulations of the donor agencies who finance a lot of their activities,

• not overestimate the readiness of poor people in Africa to tinker with appropriate technology equipment, accept financial and economic considerations as an important element of a sound appropriate technology concept,

• not be too technology oriented but stick to the objective of "putting people first".