The governance of energy transitions in Africa

@Stiftung Solarenergie

The 2020 World Energy Outlook examines the prospects for accelerated energy transitions away from fossil fuels (especially oil and coal) [1]. Similarly, the Africa Energy Outlook 2022 stipulates that “energy efficiency and renewables—especially solar—are key pillars for building Africa’s new energy economy” ([2]; p. 4). The reports define the energy transition as a structural transformation of the energy sector that requires capital for new infrastructures and efficiency measures. While this energy transition varies in pace, scale, and objectives across different geographies, there is an increasing tendency to think about it as a global transition [3]. It is global, both because of the magnitude of change required—whose impacts will likely reach all the confines of the World—and because it has constituted a standard discourse of energy governance, which is now ubiquitous in every geography. The energy transition, however, also results from the complex integration of highly globalized value chains and local material and institutional conditions that determine actual outcomes [4].

In Africa, the energy transition is interlinked with complex energy access challenges [5]. It has emphasized the need to draw attention to the productive sector as an engine for change [6]. Most studies of energy transitions in Africa emphasize the need to mobilize a wide array of actors operating at different scales. For some time, the idea of leapfrogging towards a more sustainable, renewable future dominated the debates on energy transitions in Africa [7]. Unlocking the transition is often seen as a question of overcoming policy and investment barriers to unlock the enormous potential of ‘indigenous sources of energy’ that could put Africa at the forefront of sustainability [8, 9]. In these accounts, human capital and capacity building appear as the keys to unlocking the transition [7, 8], echoing regional development approaches.

However, recent work has emphasized the necessarily fragmented nature of energy transitions and the need to foreground specific local conditions in understanding differentiated transition pathways [10]. There are continued demands for further investments in renewable energy and a sense that the gap is not being addressed as fast as it is desired in international organizations [11, 12]. At the same time, this investment gap is attributable to several binding constraints at different levels of intervention [13, 14]. Therefore, while the global nature of the challenge and some critical dynamics are widely acknowledged, so is the fact that essential context conditions and challenges for energy transitions differ substantially from country to country and from place to place. Such pluralities of material constraints and transition pathways are not consistently recognized in the dominant literature that often assimilates idealized conditions for transition (with particular reference to the case of South Africa) to a whole continent.

Moreover, the last decade has seen an increasing interest in understanding the conditions of transition because, as explained by geographer Cheryl McEwan, transitions are not only bound up with material constraints related to the technologies, resources, and land available but also with complex historical trajectories and complex politics, which in the African context are often impossible to extricate from their colonial histories [15]. One of the most productive areas of study in understanding energy transitions in Africa has therefore been to engage with the political economy of energy in different countries. This can be fruitful from an analytical perspective—examining e.g. how economic barriers to the transition are intertwined with political dynamics—or from critical ones—for example examining how the political-economic configurations of power reproduce existing inequalities and injustices within the energy system. In most cases, these perspectives are actually combined (e.g., [12, 16,17,18,19,20]). What emerges as an alternative to these perspectives is an engagement with the place-based practices in which different transition alternatives are explored, for example by constituting ‘experimental zones’ [15]. In several cases, academics have become embedded in making such experimental zones through locally-based co-design experiments that herald a different approach to energy transitions [21]. Often, modular, decentralized systems offer opportunities for the constitution of such experimental zones [22].

In his latest book, Swilling observes two tendencies in responding to the need for sustainability transitions, of which energy transitions will be a crucial part [23]. He separates a body of policy-oriented scholarship on sustainability transitions which is generally concerned with the dynamics of structural change and, specifically, how to intervene through disruption of existing systems (e.g., [24] or through alignment of different actors attempting to govern the process of change (e.g., [25]). In contrast, Swilling identifies a body of scholarship for which a sustainability transition entails challenging dominant institutions and practices (see also [26]) but argues that despite its promise, such a body of scholarship is limited in understanding how such a fundamental change can happen in practice. Swilling argues for approaches capable of apprehending the multiple changes while simultaneously engaging with forms of ‘radical incrementalism’ [23]. The promise of such radical incrementalism is that it could help apprehend the impact of multiple changes in experimental zones [15]. Yet, scholars of sustainability transitions have pointed to the difficulty of moving from experimental theories to broader processes of structural change, beyond often simplistic ideas of scaling up (for a multi-perspectival critique see: [27]).

These concerns generate a temptation to replicate similar questions to those who have long guided the literature on sustainability transitions and emphasized the synchronicity and alignment of different actors and interests in transitions. This literature on sustainability transitions has been applied in multiple contexts. Still, it was developed concerning empirical examples, first in the Netherlands, then in other Western European countries and North America [28]. Often, this literature struggles to explain change processes beyond the contexts in which they were developed [29]. While the long-term perspective adopted in transitions theory and its engagement with the material aspects of change finds resonance across different contexts (for example, Swilling [23] uses it effectively), there is a risk involved in an uncritical adoption of extraneous theory across contexts. The extent to which social change can be examined through a transitions lens is increasingly questioned as part of a broader colonizing discourse that establishes global normative ideals based on systems of prioritization that are alien to those contexts in which they have to be deployed.

Looking at a diversity of geographical contexts can help rethink the epistemological and ontological assumptions that form the foundation of transition theories. Recently, calls have been made to consider spatial disparities in energy transitions on a global or national scale [30]. Thinking of transitions in contexts already facing significant gaps in service provision is particularly intertwined with questions of justice. It requires a sophisticated approximation to the social dynamics and politics of transition that move beyond traditional conceptualizations of the energy transition in the context of development as a question of capacity building or technology transfer [31]. In Africa, colonial histories bear a particular weight in the structure of discourses, policies, and infrastructures that shape energy transitions [32].

This special issue explores the governance of energy transitions in Africa without taking any theoretical approaches to understanding socio-technical transition for granted. Instead, our objective at the outset was to capture a wide range of approaches to understanding the transition, emphasizing the importance of social factors beyond complex modelization or theoretical structuration of the transition process [33]. The objective, instead, was to reflect on the plurality of context of transitions in Africa alongside a plurality of perspectives. Our purpose is to develop understandings of sustainability transitions that do not take for granted its explanation, but that depart instead from engagements with the diversity of changes that aggregate into transition pathways—a diversity that in the context of Africa is impossible to overlook. This special issue follows an international workshop held in Ghana in September 2019. Participants were asked to engage with the topic of the governance of energy transitions both empirically, with material from Africa, and conceptually. The discussions at the workshop focused on three key themes for future research, for which the papers in this article collection provide an introduction:

  1. Transition dynamics are highly context-sensitive and place-specific. Our theorization of transitions needs to be built upon such place-based specificities, as well as global interdependencies and dynamics between different geographical scales.
  2. Colonial pasts often shape current investments in energy infrastructures, e.g., via knowledge production or developmental agendas, with influential roles played by donor agencies, development banks, and trans-national (state-owned) enterprises. This calls for a differentiated and historically informed analysis of the political economy of energy investments.
  3. Furthermore, notions of energy justice and democracy relate to questions of the provision of basic needs, the relationship between energy transitions, energy crisis, and energy access, and what adverse effects of energy infrastructures particular groups reasonably have to accept. Often, notions of justice are intertwined with complex ideas of epistemic justice [34], for example, when individuals are excluded from decision-making. By empirically researching justice concerns and democratic aspirations of individuals, and by giving voice especially to ‘silenced voices,’ researchers can contribute to articulating alternatives and support productive ways of dealing with conflicts.


  1. IEA, World Energy Outlook (2021) 2021. IEA, Paris
  2. IEA (2022) Africa Energy Outlook 2022—World Energy outlook special report. International Energy Agency, Routledge
  3. Solomon BD, Krishna K (2011) The coming sustainable energy transition: history, strategies, and outlook. Energy Policy 39(11):7422–7431
  4. Swilling M et al (2022) Linking the energy transition and economic development: a framework for analysis of energy transitions in the global South. Energy Res Soc Sci 90:102567
  5. CastánBroto V et al (2017) A research agenda for a people-centred approach to energy access in the urbanizing global south. Nat Energy 2(10):776–779
  6. Sokona Y, Mulugetta Y, Gujba H (2012) Widening energy access in Africa: towards energy transition. Energy Policy 47:3–10
  7. Murphy JT (2001) Making the energy transition in rural east Africa: is leapfrogging an alternative? Technol Forecast Soc Chang 68(2):173–193
  8. Simelane T, Abdel-Rahman M (2011) Energy transition in Africa. Africa Institute of South Africa, Pretoria
  9. Todd I, McCauley D (2021) Assessing policy barriers to the energy transition in South Africa. Energy Policy 158:112529
  10. Bellos E (2018) Sustainable energy development: how can the tension between energy security and energy transition be measured and managed in South Africa? J Clean Prod 205:738–753
  11. Oppong A et al (2020) Variations in the environment, energy and macroeconomic interdependencies and related renewable energy transition policies based on sensitive categorization of countries in Africa. J Clean Prod 255:119777
  12. Bawakyillenuo S. The political economy of renewable energy investment in Ghana. 2017.
  13. Pueyo A et al. Green investment diagnostics for Africa: what are the binding constraints to investment in renewables in Kenya and Ghana? 2017.
  14. Owusu-Manu DG et al (2021) Mechanisms and challenges in financing renewable energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa: a Ghanaian perspective. J Financ Manag Prop Constr.
  15. McEwan C (2017) Spatial processes and politics of renewable energy transition: land, zones and frictions in South Africa. Polit Geogr 56:1–12
  16. Baker L, Newell P, Phillips J (2014) The political economy of energy transitions: the case of South Africa. New Political Econ 19(6):791–818
  17. Newell P, Phillips J (2016) Neoliberal energy transitions in the South: Kenyan experiences. Geoforum 74:39–48
  18. Power M et al (2016) The political economy of energy transitions in Mozambique and South Africa: the role of the rising powers. Energy Res Soc Sci 17:10–19
  19. Hanto J et al (2022) South Africa’s energy transition–unraveling its political economy. Energy Sustain Dev 69:164–178
  20. Osiol H, Pueyo A, Gachanja J. The political economy of investment in renewable electricity in Kenya. 2017.
  21. Ambole A et al (2019) Mediating household energy transitions through co-design in urban Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Energy Res Soc Sci 55:208–217
  22. Zalengera C et al (2020) Decentralization: the key to accelerating access to distributed energy services in sub-Saharan Africa? J Environ Stud Sci 10(3):270–289
  23. Swilling M (2020) The age of sustainability: just transitions in a complex world. Routledge, London
  24. Kivimaa P et al (2021) Moving beyond disruptive innovation: a review of disruption in sustainability transitions. Environ Innov Soc Trans 38:110–126
  25. Moberg E et al (2021) Combined innovations in public policy, the private sector and culture can drive sustainability transitions in food systems. Nat Food 2(4):282–290
  26. Westman L, CastánBroto V (2022) Urban transformations to keep all the same: the power of ivy discourses. Antipode. 12820
  27. Turnheim B, Kivimaa P, Berkhout F (2018) Innovating climate governance: moving beyond experiments. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  28. Markard J, Raven R, Truffer B (2012) Sustainability transitions: an emerging field of research and its prospects. Res Policy 41(6):955–967
  29. Huang P, Westman L, CastánBroto V (2021) A culture-led approach to understanding energy transitions in China: the correlative epistemology. Trans Inst Br Geogr.
  30. Bridge G (2018) The map is not the territory: a sympathetic critique of energy research’s spatial turn. Energy Res Soc Sci 36:11–20
  31. Marquardt J, Delina LL (2019) Reimagining energy futures: contributions from community sustainable energy transitions in Thailand and the Philippines. Energy Res Soc Sci 49:91–102
  32. Baptista I (2018) Space and energy transitions in sub-Saharan Africa: understated historical connections. Energy Res Soc Sci 36:30–35
  33. Bolwig S et al (2019) Review of modelling energy transitions pathways with application to energy system flexibility. Renew Sustain Energy Rev 101:440–452
  34. Fricker M (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press, Oxford


Download the full document


Excerpt of: Späth, P., Castán Broto, V., Bawakyillenuo, S. et al. The governance of energy transitions in Africa: a sketch of plural perspectives. Energ Sustain Soc 12, 51 (2022).