The challenge of providing energy access goes beyond passing electrons through wires. Historically, programs that have focused on increasing energy delivery have paid too little attention to improving lives, eradicating poverty, and improving economic empowerment through productive use of energy. This historical trend has limited, in various ways, the socioeconomic and developmental impact of access to energy. Now there is a need to rethink the existing energy access frameworks to include economic empowerment programs. More scholarship is needed to investigate whether economic empowerment can engender sustainable energy access and promote other SDGs to inform future energy policymaking.
Economic empowerment programs, at the broadest level, support activities that lead to income generation. More specifically, such empowerment demonstrates to people that their value is being recognized, respected, and rewarded fairly. These programs may include formal and informal jobs, skills development, financial services, and market information, as well as microcredit schemes that provide loans to low-income households so they can grow more food, for example, or make money by processing it.
We argue that coupling dedicated energy access programs with an economic empowerment component may yield better results than programs dedicated to energy delivery alone.
Integrating energy access and sustainable development
When the United Nations established the SDGs in September 2015, it precipitated a shift in international policymaking frameworks. Because the SDGs are integrated and interdependent—the successful realization of one may promote the realization of another—these goals cannot be viewed in isolation. In a 2017 meta-analysis of more than 100 studies involving energy access, David L. McCollum and his colleagues argued that there are positive linkages between the energy and the nonenergy SDGs, which include poverty eradication, zero hunger, good health, quality education, gender equality, clean water, and decent work. Moreover, they posit that the positive linkages outweigh potential negative ones—such as the effect of utilizing renewable bioenergy on food production—both in number and intensity. As the researchers write, energy access is “a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for delivering the type of services fundamental to escaping the poverty trap: education, employment, and quality healthcare.”
We can zoom in to see more clearly some of those positive linkages of energy access and other non-energy SDGs. Access to modern energy (electricity and clean cooking fuels) frees up resources for other income-generating activities. It can also support agricultural productivity by providing the energy needed to reduce postharvest losses, by powering cold storage for fruits, for example—which in turn aids food security. In terms of health, electrification can reduce smokerelated deaths and provide the means to access clean water. Electrification is also central to climate change mitigation as it helps reduce the use of diesel-powered motors and generators that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. If that electricity comes from low-carbon sources such as solar panels, it may reduce fossil fuel use even further.
Igbatoro’s experience demonstrates that energy access programs alone are not enough. This is not a trivial consideration. By 2017, Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency (REA) alone had overseen the installation of 2,800 mini-grid and solar hybrid projects. In 2018, international agencies provided REA with an additional $350 million to continue this work.
In order to provide sustainable energy access and realize other SDGs, we believe that the issue of economic empowerment should be addressed first. This can only be done if energy access projects are designed to improve livelihoods, which means aiming programs at revenuegenerating activities rather than households. Here, we find it useful to consider energy and development consultant Kamal Kapadia’s definition of productive uses of energy as the “utilization of energy—both electric, and nonelectric energy in the forms of heat, or mechanical energy—for activities that enhance income and welfare.”