What should Oxfam be doing on renewables? Your advice, please

June 16, 2010 20 By admin

Wisdom of crowds time. We’re doing some thinking on renewable energy and energy poverty (which affects about 1.5-2bn people), and thought we’d pick your brains. My colleague John Magrath has written this guest blog as an opener, and I’ll run a few posts on energy-related issues over the next few days. Over to John:

As an NGO we’ve never done much work in the field. But increasingly, we’re deploying renewables because they make financial sense for

solar lamp-lit foodstall in India

solar lamp-lit foodstall in India

communities and for us – such as solar panels to pump water in Turkana. Now with thoughts of “low carbon development” increasingly in mind, a number of Oxfam country offices are thinking of trying something on a larger scale. But what exactly? We don’t want to duplicate what others are doing, or, it has to be said, go the same way as the many attempts at renewable energy programmes that have only partially succeeded, or even failed outright.

A classic example of partial success appears to be the much-heralded roll-out of “multifunctional platforms” (MFPs) across West Africa. Championed by UNDP, these are diesel engines to operate milling machines and a generator to produce electricity, to be owned and operated by women’s organisations, and ultimately, powered by renewable fuels in the shape of jatropha grown by the women.

MFPs tick all the donors’ boxes – innovation, production, income generation, light, gender, renewable energy etc….But writing in Energy Policy (vol 38 (2010) 1192-1201), Ivan Nygaard finds MFPs are not multifunctional at all – they can only do one thing at a time and most of them end up only milling. What is more, many of the women’s organisations might still own an MFA, but employ a miller to run it. Nor has jatropha proved to be a viable fuel, and has been quietly dropped from new programmes.

This seems to illustrate a key dilemma. So far, neither the market nor the state have been sufficiently effective in providing enough people with the different forms of energy that they need. And to fill the gap in the middle, and with the best of motives, have swarmed all sorts of worthy initiatives – but – I sense – to relatively limited effect.

There’s incredible inventiveness and dynamism in the middle, inventing “stuff” like new stoves and creating new business models, to reach the base of the pyramid – a bewildering hybridisation of social entrepreneurs, NGOs, civil society organizations and social investors. But most of those “models” turn out to be little more than projects and not replicable.

As the MFP example hints, maybe it would be sensible to start by enrolling existing small businesses – like millers – instead of setting up new (and less efficient, supposedly co-operative) associations to run things….

how to get to scale?

how to get to scale?

Maybe we have to be clearer about what the market can effectively deliver, and find ways to support and link both entrepreneurs and potential customers. The market is increasingly good at supplying “gadgets”, small stuff (but with big welfare impacts) for individual or household use, notably solar lanterns. What the market can’t provide is generally anything big that requires an upfront investment that poor individuals or communities can’t afford.

On the other side, maybe we have to renew demands on governments to provide energy as a public service. In Nepal a new consumer movement of electricity user groups is campaigning to extend the grid into villages and has already electrified 176,000 rural households in a little over four years. The 20:80 scheme – communities contribute 20% of the cost of connection, the government 80% – is “communitising” the grid. Despite the long and frequent power cuts, many people prefer power from the grid to the hassle and costs of maintaining off-grid power plants. Communities assume a role in running their grid locally and making it more efficient. See Down to Earth (vol 18, no 24, Monday, May 03, 2010).

So, readers, am I being naive or foolish to think the state or the market can be reformed/transformed to provide energy needs? Am I underestimating the vibrant potential of initiatives in the middle? And where do you think Oxfam could go with this?