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Access to energy in rural East Africa

Energy security challenges are widespread across East Africa, where 73% of the population do not have access to electricity. Regional policies aim to expand energy provision, focusing on rural decentralized renewables. Several small-scale off-grid and mini-grid solar arrays have been developed across sub-Saharan Africa, e.g. in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola. However, the land use change required for these arrays typically involves clearing land to bare soil, eliminating several important ecosystem services e.g. soil stability and water retention, carbon sequestration, food provision, and habitat for biodiversity. Current electrification strategies, therefore, achieve increased electricity provision at the cost of land use sustainability and other ecosystem services.

Introducing new technology

Integrated systems, termed “agrivoltaics” (AV), can mitigate these land use conflicts by combining solar electricity production with agriculture and rainwater harvesting, thus enhancing rural community livelihoods. These systems are gaining traction in the Global North, but they have not yet been developed in the Global South, and it is unclear if the benefits will be transferable. This project  assesses the feasibility of this technology transfer by fostering in-country innovation and assessing the technical, cultural, and socio-political dimensions to this transfer.

Project objectives

Working with African solar developers and a Kenyan agribusiness company, as well as non-governmental organizations, regional political organizations and local communities, case study sites in Kenya and Uganda where solar arrays are being installed have been identified and where our interdisciplinary research can be conducted. The project provides a real test case for the application and adaptation of AV systems to the needs of communities in Eastern Africa by:

a) Identifying areas in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that are most physically suitable (e.g. climate, existing land use, lack of energy access) for realizing the benefits of AV systems and their uptake by communities.

b) Field testing of AV systems in communities in Kenya & Uganda to provide data on resulting livelihood enhancement (increasing crop yield and farmer income, access to sustainable energy) as well as perceptions and attitudes of rural communities to AV systems.

c) Using the data collected to develop a decision support tool for regional and national governments and NGOs to deliver AV systems effectively and in line with community needs.

Expected outcomes

The findings from this project will reveal the potential this technology to lead to livelihood improved access to energy and increased incomes through production of higher-value crops, as well as the barriers within local communities to the uptake of AV systems. It will also show which economic, social, cultural and political factors help or hinder the expansion of AV systems in this region. Finally, it will assess how AV technology can best be co-designed with users and seek input from national and regional policymakers to inform the potential roll-out of AV systems across East Africa and potentially beyond.

Fully funded by UKRI-GCRF, through its Sustainable Energy and International Development call.

The project is led by Sue Hartley (Sheffield), with other partners in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.