From policy to implementation discourse: Transformations required to achieve clean and sustainable energy in Africa

Dr. Joanes Atela, ACTS


This week from 23rd-27th May, 2016, delegates drawn from across the world are gathered at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi  to participate in the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) to deliberate on the overarching theme ‘ ‘Delivering on the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’’. I was privileged to speak as a panelist on one of the side events entitled, “Sustainable Energy and Technology”. The event was co-organized by UNEP and ACTS, and drew over 150 participants.  I was asked to speak about the required institutional transformations needed to move to a low carbon economy, and the role that African policy and research institutions can and should play in promoting a low-carbon transition.  Despite the strong policy discourse perpetuated by the international community on the need for clean and sustainable energy for all, Africa has not achieved meaningful transformation to clean and sustainable energy, as evidenced by the continent’s dismal performance in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), compared to other developing regions.   

Clean and sustainable energy is critical to ensure Africa’s performance in the post-2015 SDGs. This is so not only because clean energy will help to decrease emissions, helping African countries deliver on their Intended Nationally Determined Commitments, but because sustainable energy also plays a large role in spurring social, economic and environmental benefits. Therefore as African nations begin the task of designing policies and interventions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Africa Regional Consultative Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals acknowledged that the continent faces multiple institutional, socio-cultural complexities that require institutional transformations in order achieve the SDGs.  

What institutional transformations are needed to realize social, economic and environmental benefits from clean energy in an African context?

The problem with accessing clean energy in Africa is not that clean energy technologies are not there, that there are a lack of policies, nor that there aren’t key actors pushing the agenda. Rather, it is a lack of proper implementation pathways that increase inclusive access to renewable energy, specifically for marginalized groups.

While African countries have put in place laws, strategies and policies calling for inclusive or universal access to clean and green energy, the implementation of these policies remains poor.  As such, this could be the time to shift from the policy discourse to finding effective ways of implementing these policies. .   

Currently, the clean energy policy discourse in Africa is politically perpetuated by governments, whereas the practical implementation is mostly driven by the civil society and private sector. This means policy implementation is dominated by market based mechanisms, which limits access for most poor people who lack the financing options to benefit from the market instruments.  For example, insights drawn from the inception phase of the Transformative pathways to sustainability project  under the African Sustainability Hub- hosted at ACTS, illuminate this challenge. The project already raises concerns that even emerging business models deemed to be pro-poor e.g. the mobile enabled payments for solar, are still far from achieving inclusive clean energy for all especially the poorest in Africa.   Not surprisingly, even in situations where governments have made some efforts to implement clean energy e.g.  the geothermal and wind sectors in Kenya, interest has remained on national economic development, with no clear institutional pathways for channeling benefits to the poor or similar investment in developing renewable energy systems for household level consumption.  

Fortunately enough, most African governments have enacted policies which emphasise public participation and inclusivity both in clean energy and other sectors. The big question however remains whether these policies are truly open spaces for participation. Indeed emerging regimes restricting civil activities within various African countries e.g. the Kenyan NGO Coordination Council Board and Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs contest the notion of inclusivity which is being anticipated in these policies.    

What role can African research and policy institutions play in transforming growth of African economies?  

African research institutions have a key role to play in this transformative agenda. These institutions provide a bridge to domesticate global energy frameworks and technologies into national and local policy and socioeconomic contexts. While global discourse and aspirations through the post-2015 SDGs and the Paris Agreement are now becoming priorities for African Governments, operationalizing these global policies is often cumbersome and challenging for governments. African think tanks, such as the African Centre for Technology Studies, have a large role to play in helping to provide research and policy advice on how to domesticate these global agreements.

In environments characterized by sectoral competition and path dependencies in resource governance, pan-African research institutions are expected to provide independent and objective support to national policy processes.  They can do this through conducting research that involves all stakeholders to generate research evidence on the best practices, policy options, and implementation pathways.

This way, African research institutions can provide  global, national and local policy players with evidence on best practices, possible barriers and success factors that are critical in sustainable energy transformation. African research institutions can also play a role through capacity building for policymakers, communities, civil society and private sector that can increase capacities, foster attitude change and create partnerships thus support transformation.

The aforementioned role of African institutions can thrive better with partnership with international partners. International research and development partners have for a long time played a key role in supporting clean and sustainable energy for all, through research, capacity building and/or financial support. This important role can be enhanced through strengthening strategic collaboration with African institutions in a manner that leverages mutual benefits. International partners could also stand to benefit from knowledge of African institutions concerning the African context while from these international partners, African institutions can draw lessons and expertise transformative  approaches to tackling Africa’s sustainable development challenges. Emerging international partnerships such as the Africa Sustainability Hub are proving to be useful platforms for long term research collaboration and capacity building that recognise that transformation to clean and sustainable energy is a long term undertaking, dependent on a set of transformative research and policy skills.

STEPS Centre Blog Link