By Beryl Onjala, Research Assistant at Nuvoni Research.
Among the many efforts to establish sustainable and reliable electricity access for the estimated 600 million people who lack it in sub-Saharan Africa, mini-grid projects are rapidly becoming a promising solution, especially to power households and enterprises within rural and marginalized areas. Households most commonly use energy from mini-grids for electric lighting and powering or charging other small electric appliances such as cellphones, televisions, and radios. Exclusively powering household needs, however, often leads to under-utilisation of the electricity generated by mini-grids. This is because we are yet to develop affordable, scale-able electricity storage technologies. In the case of solar-powered mini-grids, for instance, low daytime demand increases the risk that excess energy will have to be dumped when the batteries are full.
As a measure to address this challenge, mini-grid projects afford communities opportunities to use electricity beyond their immediate domestic needs by improving, for example, the efficiency of social amenities like health centres and schools. Communities who were previously restricted in their choice of economic activities by lack of access to power also find new avenues for income generation by taking on electricity-based productive uses such as agro-processing, powering tools such as saws, drills, welding machines and sewing machines.
Occurring concurrently with the rise off-grid electricity access projects is a growing and sustained interest in doing away with non-renewable sources of energy or unclean fuels. Unsustainable or “dirty” energy sources feature prominently in the cooking practices of households in rural areas. Cooking energy is primarily obtained from biomass, whether charcoal, wood or others, and poses health issues to women and children along with environmental issues of deforestation. In some of these areas, there are further costs in the form of the time spent fetching ample firewood for cooking, taking time away from other activities.
In this challenge lies an opportunity to merge the focus on off-grid access to power with clean cooking initiatives that would see a reduction in the adverse effects brought about by the reliance on biomass. There are multiple advantages to introducing clean cooking initiatives within mini-grids. First, mini-grid developers often have an understanding of the intricate socio-economic contexts within which they are set up. This means that they have information on the relevant socio-cultural and political networks that need to be explored and the various tailored strategies to obtaining community buy-in. Second, the localized set up is a platform on which other private and public-interest development initiatives can be piloted, as there are already households who could benefit from these.
An obvious but largely overlooked mechanism to increase the daytime demand for electricity is encouraging the use of electricity to cook. Based on what we now know regarding the comparison between the cost of cooking with electricity and that of cooking with less efficient fuels, financial projections based on introducing electric cooking in mini-grids are positive. This is, of course, predicated on the use of energy-efficient appliances such as electric pressure cookers. Apart from the health and environmental benefits that stand to be realized as a result, one of the expected immediate outcomes would be less time spent by women and children in fetching firewood and cooking. There is potential for the sustainability and profitability of mini-grids in reducing the labour hours related to cooking on biomass, as women could then dedicate time to income-generating activities that use electricity. Activities like sewing or agro-processing could be undertaken by women, further raising the demand for the electricity produced.
Given the opportunities outlined above, there is a need to do more to encourage electric cooking in mini-grids. Perhaps a good first step would be to bring stakeholders involved in mini-grids together with those developing clean e-cooking solutions. This approach seems to be working in Tanzania, where there are electric cooking pilots within some mini-grid projects. With sufficient supply and stabilized mini-grid capacities, linkages between relevant actors, capacity building for the community, and availing efficient cooking technologies, the potentials for e-cooking within mini-grids can be realized along with several other development benefits.