Making science work for development

Alternative energy systems

Improving the use of alternative energy systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia

Alternative sources of energy are gaining considerable global attention. They have the potential to provide a sustainable source of energy to the billions of people who currently have inadequate energy access. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have been leading the way to improve accessibility and use of alternative energy systems in developing nations across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Their work has already boosted clean energy access and enriched livelihoods for approximately 250,000 people in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

Limited access to sustainable energy is one of the major constraints to global development and poverty alleviation. If current trends continue, 3 billion people will still be cooking with traditional fuels and appliances in 2030, resulting in the deaths of over 30 million people due to smoke-related diseases. For the poorest people worldwide, alternative energy systems – such as purpose-grown biofuels, cleaner and more efficient stoves or solar technologies – will offer an opportunity to improve their health and livelihoods. Development of such alternative sources of energy will also be vital if the global community is to meet the UN Secretary General’s goal of providing ‘Sustainable Energy for All’.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh – backed by a variety of funders including the Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Scottish Government – have been working to improve the accessibility, efficiency and use of alternative energy systems in developing nations across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Supported by funding from DFID, they helped set up Project Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security (PISCES): a multidisciplinary research, multi-partner collaboration spanning Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.  The complementary mix of partner organisations – universities, think tanks and an international non-governmental organisation – was crucial to develop insights into the complex factors that affect whether new energy technologies fail or prevail. It has highlighted the importance of strong relationships between entrepreneurs, researchers and local consumers in turning scientific and local knowledge into effective products and services, and in creating favourable markets for affordable and sustainable energy supply.

Supported by this multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach, PISCES created bioenergy Policy Working Groups (PWG) in Kenya and Tanzania, with a similar process now underway in Sri Lanka. These multi-stakeholder forums seek to develop a consultative and participatory methodology for discussing policy issues and to guide bioenergy policy statements. The Kenyan PWG played a key role in the writing of the National Biofuel Policy, which has since been integrated into the draft Kenya Energy Policy.

Wilkister Ombidi, a social scientist with Practical Action Consulting, conducts energy-use baseline data collection with focus group of women farmers in Kisumu, Kenya (Image Thomas Molony, UoE)

This work with policy has led to a real impact in the use of alternative cleaner energy sources and has been supplemented by work on new, more efficient stove technologies. By supporting the design and production of marketable technologies, PISCES has facilitated the distribution and use of 30,000 efficient gasifier stoves in Tanzania. This programme, reaching an estimated 180,000 people, has directly contributed to reducing the country’s smoke-related health problems. Overall, underpinned by research to better understand energy markets and local communities, PISCES has enriched the livelihoods of up to 250,000 people in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania by supporting a more resilient and accessible bioenergy industry. Learning from PISCES has since informed new avenues of research including examining solar energy markets in India and sub-Saharan Africa, again working in partnership to develop new ways of improving energy access and enhancing livelihoods in the some of the poorest communities.

Read more about this research in the original impact case studies that were submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014:

  1. Improving bioenergy use in East Africa
  2. Alternative energy systems in Sub-Saharan and South Asia

NB: The partner organisations in PISCES are: the University of EdinburghM.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, India; Practical Action UK , East Africa and South Asia; and The University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Department for International Development | Economic and Social Research Council | Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council | Scottish Government