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How to bring clean energy to informal settlements: Co-designing sustainable energy solutions in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa

Providing clean energy to urban informal settlements in Africa is a huge challenge. In this story, we follow the joint effort of scientists working across three African countries to produce the knowledge required to get households to adopt clean energy.

Providing clean and efficient energy for households in informal settlements in African cities remains a huge challenge. A challenge that is compounded by a heavy reliance on fossil fuels such as charcoal, which often results in unintended health consequences as a result of prolonged exposure to air pollution. Despite a plethora of new technologies, adoption has been disappointing. We talk with three early career scientists – Amollo Ambole from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Kareem Buyana from Makerere University in Uganda, and Josephine Musango from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa – to learn about their work in Nairobi, Kampala and Stellenbosch to try to produce the knowledge required to get households to adopt these technologies.

Energy poverty in informal settlements in Africa

On the eastern side of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, lies Mathare Valley slums. The slum, recognized as one of the oldest informal settlements in Nairobi, is home to over 200,000 residents, all confined within a square kilometer of land. Just a stroll through the community reveals the complex nature of the challenges faced in Mathare: there is a lack of access to basic amenities like water, shelter and healthcare and a non-existent road infrastructure.  Housing is in a poor state. Residents live in dense makeshift structures made of rusty iron sheets, red loam soil, or in some cases, polythene walls.

Energy access is a big issue. According to a report by Slum Dwellers International et al, only 9% of residents have formal connection to electricity, with 68% of residents tapping into the grid illegally while 22% have no electricity at all. For cooking, charcoal and paraffin are the most common fuels for households in the settlements. The use of these inefficient energy sources increases indoor air pollution leading to poor health outcomes for households in Mathare. The problem of indoor air pollution is compounded by the nature of housing in the settlement, very tiny and improperly ventilated. As a result, the community is faced with an energy-health-housing nexus problem, a complex situation where the factors worsening the life of urban informal settlements enforce and reinforce each other.

This phenomenon is not unique to Mathare Valley slums and can be found across many urban informal settlements across Africa, and even in ‘new’ informal settlements like Enkanini in South Africa.

Despite the fact that many of the technologies needed to tackle the energy-health-housing nexus problem are available, success remains elusive. There tend to be three approaches to the problem. One is to change the source of pollution such as distributing improved cook stoves or supplying alternative energy sources such as low-smoke briquettes. A second approach is to improve the living environment such as through better kitchen design to improve ventilation. The third approach is to modify user behavior by changing cooking practices to reduce smoke inhalation.

Why have these approaches failed to significantly address energy-related indoor air pollution? Researchers believe that this is the case because they are often implemented in isolation, or with little understanding of the socio-cultural, behavioral and economic specificities of the targeted populations. In Mathare, a biogas digester meant to provide free communal cooking energy to the community became defunct after only a year, mainly because reactions to communal cooking and promoting co-ownership with the community was not considered. What became evident is that a solution requires going beyond a single approach.

Involving communities in co-designing solutions

Young career scientists in three African cities (Nairobi, Kampala, and Stellenbosch) have been pre-occupied with this challenge for a little over a year. The project is a comparative multi-country research led by Amollo Ambole from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Kareem Buyana from Makerere University in Uganda, and Josephine Musango from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. This time, they are involving the communities and other relevant stakeholders throughout the research process.

“We are hoping that by interacting with stakeholders from all over the region, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, we will be able to get good views from multiple layers” said Prof. Madara Ogot, the lead advisor for the project. These stakeholders include the research teams in each of these cities, selected community members from settlements, officials from local and national government, and experts.

Working together in urban settlements of Mathare, Kasubi-Kawaala, and Enkanini, the researchers are providing a platform for stakeholders to co-design and work together to integrate a comprehensive solution to the health consequences of energy poverty.

“We provide them with a space and facilitate the exercises, and then we start to see how the ideas grow. The most amazing thing is that we found that people are very happy to listen to the informal settlement dwellers. This informal settlement dwellers just rarely get the chance to voice their concerns, but when we provide them with the platform and they voice their concern, people listen. We hope that this type of interactions, if we are able to continue facilitating them, will lead to the needs of the communities being met, even beyond the results of this research”.

That is to say that it has become necessary for stakeholders to work together and integrate the different solutions that are already available and see how a policy framework can be used to enable this integrated solution.

One way that the involvement of stakeholders is helping find a solution to the problem is in helping shape the research itself. The stakeholders are not only there to provide information but they are helping to refine research questions and, in some cases, change them entirely.

“When we started, we only wanted to look at household energy and health. But then we found that housing is a very important issue, housing is actually at the center of this problem. If these people had better housing, then some of these problems would have already been solved. We are realizing that we need to look at urban planning and land tenure issues too”, says Amollo. She continues that “as researchers, we are very open to changing our approach, changing the questions and doing anything extra to get to the root of issues to enable us produce the knowledge needed to solve it”.

Doing this kind of research, that involves stakeholders and the communities, comes at a cost though – it slows things down considerably. Although this makes for a slow, arduous and costly process, it is a necessary step. “It is not enough to generate knowledge and write papers, scientific enquiry needs to be addressing the direct needs of society”, they said.

For an informal settlement like Mathare, this kind of knowledge production appears to hold the key to understanding and contributing to finding solutions to its complex problems. It is hoped that the involvement of the community and policy-makers would bring out a deeper understanding of the challenges and ultimately lead to a rapid uptake of solutions.

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Header photo by Amollo Ambole

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