Accelerating Sustainable Electricity Access in Sub-Saharan Africa

A team from Rocky Mountain Institute is working in sub-Saharan Africa to address barriers to sustainable electricity access. Since September of last year, we have been working with an African government to find ways to achieve ambitious electricity access targets using a combination of on- and off-grid resources. Although providing sustainable, affordable electricity access in the developing world is fraught with challenges, many of the lessons we’ve learned are cause for optimism and are applicable to other developing countries.


The rewards for both human and economic development are enormous, and easy to see. Standing on a narrow, red-dirt path, we’re surrounded by small subsistence farms of banana trees and short, pale green bushes of coffee. Two small shops in this farming town are doing a bustling business—a rustic bar is serving banana beer to farmers coming in from a day of work and a small general store on the opposite side of the building is selling soaps, spices, light bulbs, and fertilizer to local women—many with babies wrapped against their backs with colorful cloth.

What’s remarkable about this scene is that here, in one of the poorest places in the world, where there is no electricity grid, a small energy-efficient television is playing in the bar and a small but powerful LED bulb lights the room. The general store now offers a mobile-phone charging service to people who don’t have electricity at home, and it will stay open after sunset, with its own pair of LED bulbs lighting the counter. A 100-watt solar panel is perched on the corrugated aluminum roof of the building, while inside, between the two businesses, a lithium-ion battery, charged from a typical day of sunshine, will provide power into the night. In the modest homes of farmers in the village nearby, a few families have similar, smaller solar-battery units providing cell phone charging and light by which they prepare food, work into the evening, and allow their children to study. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa this level of service is comparable to—and complementary to—grid service, in that most grid-connected homes and business use electricity in a similar way.

But even at this modest scale, 68% of households in sub-Saharan Africa—or more than 600 million people—did not have access to electricity in 2013. In Asia, there are an additional 530 million people without access to electricity. Globally, there are 1.2 billion people without the power to light a bulb over a kitchen table, run a small grain mill, refrigerate food, or run a business after dark. That’s over 1 billion people who lack an essential ingredient for economic growth and social welfare improvement.


Providing people with affordable, clean power is both a tremendous economic opportunity and a substantial opportunity to mitigate future carbon emissions. By 2040, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to consume 1,600 terawatt-hours of electricity, the equivalent of the combined 2013 consumption of Latin America and the Caribbean, or the equivalent of the power produced by more than 600 large (500MW) coal power plants. How quickly and cleanly sub-Saharan Africa reaches this level of electricity consumption depends on thoughtful on- and off-grid electricity planning.


Rapidly increasing access to electricity faces three challenges: developing country electricity systems are often plagued by high costs, off-grid market growth is progressing slowly, and there is a lack of complete and coordinated electricity planning across the public sector, the private sector, and the development partner community.

Grid electricity can be costly—In countries with few domestic natural-gas or coal resources, traditional electricity generation can be an expensive proposition. Without simple, cheap generation solutions, utilities often rely on expensive but dependable diesel generation. Even so, electricity blackouts can occur throughout the year, particularly during dry seasons when hydropower is less available.

Off-grid market growth is slow—A nascent off-grid electricity market is beginning to provide some people and businesses with reliable solar-plus-battery, solar-plus-diesel, and micro-hydro electricity, but the rate of uptake does not yet reflect the magnitude of the need.

Energy planning is incomplete and uncoordinated—There are some significant but resolvable problems with the business-as-usual approach to electricity planning in sub-Saharan Africa. First, few parties take a holistic view of the power sector when developing their approach to electricity development. Such a view of the power sector would consider all off-grid, centralized-generation and grid-extension, and demand-side resources in order to create an integrated electricity-access strategy. Second, there are multiple stakeholders with competing approaches, agendas, and interests who do not rally around a common strategy. This leads to confusion, limited effectiveness, poor deployment of investment and development dollars, and slowed impact. Finally, there may not be enough capacity in developing countries to evaluate, operate, and maintain the multitude of emerging energy resources, including off-grid resources.


There are several concrete ways developing countries can address the three challenges of costly grid electricity, slow off-grid market growth, and a lack of coordination between on- and off-grid planning.

Costly grid electricity: While recommendations will be different for different countries, our experience thus far shows that even this small country can avoid many tens of millions of dollars per year in grid operation costs by doing three things:

  • Deploying aggressive, utility-led energy efficiency programs
  • Investing in solar-plus-diesel hybrid systems to replace the pure diesel rental systems currently on the grid
  • Prioritizing investment in transmission and distribution loss reduction and congestion reduction

Slow off-grid market growth: Governments can speed the growth of the off-grid market by launching a government supported, private sector-driven, off-grid electrification program that:

  • Addresses any affordability gap between off-grid products and the citizens who need them through financing or subsidy
  • Increases awareness of off-grid products and their use in areas of the country that will not be connected to the grid in the next five years by establishing a clear off-grid plan for the country and a national off-grid awareness campaign to educate consumers
  • Develops consistent and supportive policies for quality products, incentives, and imports
  • Supports scaling enablers, such as capital deployment and workforce training, by setting up effective debt facilities and education programs

Planning is incomplete and uncoordinated: On- and off-grid development should be considered together. Off-grid technologies and businesses are racing into emerging markets as the costs of solar and batteries drop. While many governments are eager to take advantage of the technology, few governments have national energy plans that take into account the value and costs of stand-alone solar home systems or minigrids. It is crucial that each government develop a complete plan that coordinates efforts and capacity across on- and off-grid electrification by:

  • Developing an on-grid integrated resource plan to harness new, lower-risk, and lower-cost technologies that also considers off-grid opportunities
  • Driving a coordinated off-grid program with clear roles and responsibilities for all players, including substantial and continuous involvement of the private sector
  • Avoiding distraction from new support that does not clearly fit into the plan

This spring, our work in our first sub-Saharan Africa country shifted from strategic planning to handing off implementation to partners on the ground. Along with ensuring a successful start to implementation there, we are looking to apply our approach in additional countries.

With any luck, the subtle changes visible in that rural village—light bulbs keeping general stores open later, televisions in bars, and families with a light to turn on in the evening—may soon not be so subtle. RMI will be there to help drive this change.