Amidst the stunning background of Terrat, a Masaai village in remote Northern Tanzania, members of the Smart Villages team spent the weekend of 22-23 August, 2015 engaged in an extremely productive dialogue event with representatives of village level energy initiatives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda. The event was organised at a time when final discussions were taking place on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), their accompanying targets, and indicators to measure progress. It brought to the fore the voices and views of village leaders and rural change makers on the impacts of energy provision, a feature that is often missing at international fora.
Participants included local champions, community leaders, academics and representatives of small private companies at the forefront of bringing technological, social and institutional change to effect tangible sustainable developmental impact throughout their communities in East Africa. The passionate nature in which individual and communal experiences of the impact of energy provision were discussed, and the atmosphere of mutual respect in which a lively debate evolved, are testament to the presence of dynamic visionary leaders and collective spirit throughout the region. Through their communities, leaders had adopted innovative modes of collective action essential to achieving their own local sustainable development goals. These experiences and the exchanges between participants are the foundations upon which transformational development change can be built.
The Smart Villages team in Terrat listened carefully to participants’ experiences, views, successes and failures. The goal of this process is to ensure that these voices are heard and their stories of bravery, ingenuity, persistence and passion told and retold. The over-riding message participants left the team with was the importance of sustained ongoing engagement with local communities. As such, this workshop should be the beginning of such a listening process, not a one-off exercise.
Key messages emanating from the participants of the workshop included:
- The Notion of a Smart Village:
- Participants across the board shared the goal of making human life better in their communities, however, there was a strong consensus that development priorities at global and national forums did not necessarily reflect those of villages. For community leaders, the potential to achieve local development priorities is strongly affected by access to modern energy. These priorities include: improved female and child health; income and employment generation opportunities especially for youth and women through skill development and training; improved educational outcomes and standards; access to water resources; and increasing participation in agricultural value chains.
- In the opinion of participants, a Smart Village is a context specific concept that should reflect the demands and objectives of the people residing in rural areas. It can be neither universal nor predesigned without local problem diagnosis, prioritisation and sustainable solution design.
- Whilst this still allows for certain ingredients of a Smart Village to be identified, these should in no way be viewed as a ‘checklist’ guaranteeing universal success if all boxes are ticked. Policy makers must find a model to fit rather than fit villages to a model – a reversion from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’.
- Participants emphasised that access to electricity is a means to an end and the mere provision of electricity is not in itself sufficient to enable achievement of sustainable development outcomes.
- Any technical goods and services provided need to be of high quality and reliable, with long warranties and a sustainable maintenance plan.
- There are significant social, cultural, institutional and economic hurdles to adoption of new technologies. Overcoming these barriers requires concerted and sustained efforts from internal and external stakeholders.
- Apart from electricity, other forms of rural energy provision like improved cookstoves have substantial environmental and health impacts, especially on women and children. These sections of rural society are often the most marginalised which hinders the adoption of these solutions, despite their benefits.
- Empowerment of youth, as well as women, through utilisation of technological innovations in off-grid energy provision emerged as an important theme. Both these groups understand the specific development needs and priorities of local communities better than external actors but are frequently constrained by capacity and social barriers.
- Local sustainable development is a collective action problem. It requires not only visionary leadership but community ownership and continued engagement. Information transfer via social relationships based on trust and demonstration effects have a positive impact on adoption of new technologies.
- Developing sustainable business models for off-grid energy provision requires long term engagement.
- Mechanisms that support revenue sharing arrangements between distributors and rural entrepreneurs, supply chain development, technical support and training, incentivising market mechanisms for payments, and the ability to exclude free riders, are likely to have a positive impact on local communities.
- In larger projects such as mini-grids, financial sustainability may be facilitated by engaging with local anchor customers like agricultural processing units.