When Anne Nyendwa started her shop, she didn't have any electricity. Like 568 million people across sub-Saharan Africa -- which represents three quarters of the world's population without electricity -- the mother of four in the rural village of Sitolo, Malawi relied on daylight hours to do business.
Then she heard about solar-battery minigrids -- off-grid, stand-alone electricity networks not connected to the national electricity grid. While the upfront costs, such as internal wiring and meter connection fees can be more expensive than other solar solutions like solar home systems, the quality and reliability of electricity provided is higher, allowing for higher consumption of electricity including for income-generating activities. While conventional grids powered by polluting fossil fuels tend to prioritize more privileged neighbourhoods in urban areas, solar minigrids offer exciting potential to provide access to electricity in rural areas like Sitolo.
So when she had the opportunity to test the solar battery minigrid in Sitolo through a UNDP-supported project, she joined 665 households in trying it out.
"My business has grown so much since I got connected to the electricity."
"I have a shop that opens early and closes as late as 9 p.m. because I have electricity. I make about MK50,000 (US$50) in sales per day. I have many customers beyond this area who come here for the cold or frozen beverages. The money I make allows me to pay my employees at the farm, pay for school fees and provide for my family," she said.
Getting electricity to the last mile
Now Anne has also expanded her business to venture into animal and crop farming, and she's acquired more appliances, connecting her house to the same electricity for home use."I am very happy because we have access to services like those living in urban areas," she said.
By providing reliable and affordable electricity, solar minigrids like the one in Sitolo, can deeply improve people's lives. But currently, these solutions are not being deployed at the scale and pace needed to bridge the energy access gap where it is most needed.
The Africa Minigrids Program (AMP) aims to build on the existing work done across the minigrids space to enable this scale-up. A country-led technical assistance programme, the AMP is funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the African Development Bank. It aims to make renewable energy minigrids commercially viable and unlock opportunities for private investors to electrify off-grid communities .
With a focus on cost-reduction and innovative business models, the programme will work with countries to put in place the policies and regulations that enable large-scale private investment, creating the conditions for renewable energy minigrids to be deployed at scale. AMP will also curate, generate and disseminate knowledge on the minigrid scale-up opportunity across the continent.
Africa's average electrification rate is 48.4 percent, and in eight African countries, this rate is lower than 20 percent. Despite an upward trend in electricity access since 2013, recent data shows a reversal of gains during the COVID-19 pandemic -- it's estimated that due to the pandemic, 15 million sub-Saharan Africans who had recently gained basic electricity access lost the ability to pay for it. Unless electrification efforts are significantly scaled up, 670 million people will remain without access to electricity by 2030 with 9 out of 10 likely to live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Fueling the future
Access to electricity is one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to unlock development benefits for the world's poorest. It also has knock-on impacts on how communities can access information; on the ability of communities to provide healthy and disease-free cooked food; access to education, health services and hospital facilities; legal services and more, with myriad implications for a person's future.
Before the installation of the solar minigrid in Sitolo Primary school, donations from parents were used to buy batteries and kerosene which were expensive and unsustainable in the long term. Now, more learners attend night studies, and in turn, there has been an increase in the pass rate of pupils going to secondary school. Edmark N'dlamini, a 14-year-old student, said: "When you have lights, you can plan your study time better. My friends and I are confident that we will pass these Primary School Leaving Certificate Exams at first attempt, because we have been studying a lot."
Elsewhere in Malawi, health facilities powered by mini-grids now have reliable power sources to support general lighting-- especially important during child delivery and emergency night-time health care; for refrigeration of vaccines and other medicines; and to power up medical and diagnostic equipment.
Minigrids also have important environmental benefits. Minigrid systems usually replace fossil fuels like diesel and kerosene. And unlike centralized generation requiring long-distance transmission grids, the installation of decentralized solutions such as minigrids does not involve heavy disruption to natural habitats. For instance, a standard 30 metre-wide Right-of-Way for equivalent transmission lines requires the clearance of around one square kilometre of forest, land or bush for every 30 kilometres in length. In comparison, a typical 1 MWp minigrid would occupy roughly 1 percent of a square kilometre next to the community it serves.
Transforming energy markets
Yet the major challenge in scaling minigrids is mobilizing private sector investment. While solar solutions have emerged as a strong, least-cost option to ramp up electricity provision across sub-Saharan Africa, and with disruptive digital trends in mobile money, digital platforms and data collection paving the way for wider use, the minigrids market in Africa remains nascent.
Except in a few markets, nearly all current investments in minigrids are in the form of grants and non-commercial, patient capital. If minigrids are to truly scale, there is a need to access large volumes of commercial financing, coupled with de-risking activities to attract the private investment necessary to deploy minigrids at scale.
In Togo, where 16 percent of the rural population has access to electricity, a partnership with Desert Technologies has already seen 10,000 solar street lamps installed countrywide, through the community development emergency programme (PUDC-Togo), produced through UNDP's Global Procurement Unit.
Towards UNDP's pledge to mobilize partners to enable 500 million additional people to have access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy by 2025, in Togo, the goal is to support 1.5 million people living in rural and semi-urban areas with a total of 100,000 street lamps.
The solar street lights and public lighting have also increased safety and security in the wider community at night, where off-grid street lights also double as connection hubs, providing people with a convenient recharging station for phones or small appliances.
A just energy transition will enable every community and individual to enjoy reliable, sustainable and affordable energy and the immense opportunities it brings. Photos: Shutterstock (left and centre), UNDP/Aurélia Rusek (right)
A just and equitable energy transition will be front and centre at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm-el Sheikh, with countries attempting to define what that transition looks like, especially amid the ongoing energy crisis and deepening climate emergency.
A critical piece of the conversation must be that a just energy transition is one that enables every individual, every community, to have access to reliable, sustainable and affordable energy and the immense opportunities it brings. With its new Sustainable Energy Hub, UNDP aims to mobilize partners to spur this transformation of energy markets and help countries build energy systems that work for everyone, leaving no one behind. UNDP, along with the GEF, RMI and the Africa Development Bank Group, will formally launch the Africa Minigrids Program at COP27, with an event to discuss the minigrid opportunity in Africa.
The event, entitled Africa's Just Energy Transition: Scaling Up Renewable Energy Minigrids for People and Planet, will take place on 15 November at 11:45 a.m. at the UNDP Pavilion. It will also be broadcast live online.