Energy for Productive Use: How renewables can be put at the service of human development 

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Energy is the vital core of pretty much any human activity, from lighting to cooking, from transportation to entertainment. It literally powers up our lives, making possible the majority of the daily actions we take for granted. Furthermore, when and if derived from renewable sources, it guarantees extra benefits which, nowadays, are becoming critical such as environmental sustainability, increased social justice, wider employment opportunities and access to electrification even for the most remote areas.

Energy can easily be described as the conditio sine qua non of economic, environmental and human development, as well as an incredibly strong multiplier for enhancing income generation and other forms of well-being. This is what we call productive use which, for convenience, can be defined as any activity (commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc.) able to generate income, powered by renewable energy.

The positive effects of energy for productive uses can be unleashed especially in marginalized or isolated regions, even in areas which can’t benefit from access to energy at all. A situation that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, is unfortunately almost endemic, and which goes hand-in-hand with low levels of development, as confirmed by an abundance of evidence and sectoral reports. A situation that concerns more than 600 million people, with the majority of the progress concentrated in just a handful of countries (Senegal, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, etc.).

But the matter is far more complex than it appears. Let’s consider the example of Kenya, a virtuous country when it comes to widening the energy access. Since 2013, the number of Kenyan citizens with access to energy rose from 13% to 85%. Nevertheless, 38.8% of the electricity consumers (2.6 million users) demand no more than 10 Kw/h per month, depicting a situation of low-intensity energy utilization, which corresponds to low productive outputs and remarkable struggles for electricity utilities to make ends meet.

But how should the productive uses of energy be envisioned and implemented in order to trigger social and economic growth? According to evidence, deploying decentralized, clean and affordable Renewable Energies is an effective starting point, but it doesn’t suffice. The provision of energy shouldn’t be conceptualized as an occasional occurrence, but as a dynamic process. It should be adapted to the changes and evolutions of the local context, stimulated through integrated solutions, mindful and far-reaching projects, and implemented involving the private sector in partnership with local/national authorities.

Local productivity can and must be improved, facilitating not only the creation of power-related infrastructures, but also making the most of the access to energy they provide. This can be achieved through supporting local capacity and favoring local businesses, as well as promoting effective community engagement in order to understand and single out the productive uses preferred by a certain local community, and providing material and technological inputs (procurement, digitalization, etc.)

In this way, access to renewable energy can be defined according to the needs of a specific local context, producing tailored and impactful benefits; extended working hours for commercial businesses; new irrigation and mechanization solutions for agriculture; and more production-intensive but less energy-consuming industrial practices – opportunities that, stimulating growth and productive efficiency, will sooner or later create further demand for energy, thus initiating a potential self-renewing virtuous cycle.

Renewable energy is the most powerful accelerator of human development and, when channeled into productive uses, provides a service of unfathomable impact and usefulness. It is able to project African communities towards a greener and brighter future. Are we just going to sit and watch?

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Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of RES4Africa Foundation, which gathers more than 30 stakeholders to accelerate the renewable energy transformation in Africa, with Africa and for Africa. In his 30+ year-long career he has covered various positions at Enel, University of Pisa, IEA and IRENA. When it was still considered an unlikely option, he was already convinced that deploying renewable energy in Africa would result in a positive socioeconomic impact for its population. In 2012, he therefore embarked on the RES4Africa adventure, to support a wider participation of private players in delivering investments in Africa. He also coordinates renewAfrica, an industry-backed Initiative that advocates the creation of a European comprehensive Programme for RE investments in Africa, to be promoted and owned by EU institutions

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