News: Energy on the Move: comparing energy practices among informal settlers in capital cities of Nepal, Bangladesh, Nigeria and South Sudan

Photo (cropped): Oxfam East Africa/Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

14/01/2019

Energy on the Move’, which has been enabled by ESRC-DFID’s Strategic Partnership as part of the Development Frontiers Research Fund, is designed to bring social science perspectives to a growing field of research about energy use practices among groups of people in the global south who are not full beneficiaries of modern electricity grid systems. People are migrating in great numbers into peri-urban and informal settlements for reasons of conflict, environmental crises, and rural poverty. Our research is looking at what energy options they find, and how the cases of four countries’ capital cities (Kathmandu, Nepal; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Juba, South Sudan) can be compared. In addition, we are sharing perspectives across the disciplines of anthropology, history and geography.

Research teams communicated with local users of knowledge by convoking Country Consultative Groups at different stages of the research process. This involved inviting relevant ministries, NGOs, aid organisations, practitioners and other researchers to help shape the research focus, the selection of field sites, improve awareness of related research and policy, and share findings.

Group photo from team workshop at Nairobi Strathmore Energy Centre November 2017

Energy resilience narratives can provide culturally nuanced information on poor peoples’ energy needs, vulnerabilities and precarities  

There is a great deal of research being conducted around the UN’s agenda of Sustainable Energy for All, and bringing about energy transitions in the developing world such as that undertaken by the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network (LCEDN). Much of this research is driven by a simple techno-economic construction paradigm of building cost-efficient and reliable national/micro/nano-grids and solar home systems to deliver energy to end-users. Many projects expect that with sufficient capacity building and partnerships, along with dialogue between engineers, planners, private sector enterprises, and communities of end-users, solutions will be found to bring affordable, clean and reliable energy systems to address poor people’s needs for cooking, lighting, warmth and cooling, which will in particular avoid burning biomass (saving health, biodiversity and forests, and carbon emissions).

By contrast ‘Energy on the Move’ is producing information on the poor living in informal settlements on the edge of four capital cities. It is looking especially at women’s perspectives on their everyday energy livelihoods, and their relational networks for energy access. The four countries’ teams are comparingresearch findings in terms of ‘energy resilience narratives’ – in other words, they are exploring with people, and comparing responses across the project, questions such as:

  • What conditions of energy precarity do people find themselves in?
  • What do they do in terms of pragmatic and socio-culturally distinct strategies?

Instead of techno-economic logics, we are exploring how people cope through culturally inflected means of redistribution, reciprocity and networks of social capital. This approach requires a focused exploration of the following question:

  • How do modern energy technologies and biomass fuels move among users through channels of gift, obligations to extended kin, within patronage of community leaders, and other networks of assistance?

Energy resilience narratives: our interviews, focus groups and life histories reveal information on how people go about shoring up vulnerability to shortages (e.g. using guard dogs for LPG cannisters) but they further lead us into deeper understanding of precarities (dependence on middlemen to access fuels such as charcoal in Sudan and Nigeria, or informal line connections in Nepal and Bangladesh).

Emerging findings and highlights

An initial workshop took place in Nairobi (31October - 2 November 2017). At the workshop, we agreed a consistent basis for the interviews, focus groups, and energy life histories. South-South collaboration is a key part of the project, and so the methodology for the project’s communicative processes focused on understanding and developing our skills and expertise using an inclusive and collaborative approach. We shared initial findings at a second workshop in Kathmandu from 22 to 23 July 2017. A subsequent Country Consultative Group meeting took place on 24 July in Nepal where we publicly shared with a diverse range of research stakeholders our findings from the different teams and invited comments on the international comparisons. Emerging findings and highlights to date include the following:

  • Energy safety and insecurity have been raised by interviewees and by NGOs working on women’s empowerment attending the Country Consultative Groups. Safety for users, and concerns over accidents and deaths from fires and faulty wiring were often raised as requiring awareness training. Constraints on investment in energy technology can be recognised as due to worries of theft and of being evicted.

  • Energy practices are revealing information about domestic norms and adaptations: women can no longer fetch wood in South Sudan due to insecurity; Nigerian examples of occasional lack of wood or charcoal lead to women refusing to cook food for husbands due to ‘lack of energy’.

  • Borrowing of fuel from kin and neighbours is not practised in Nigeria or South Sudan as a reciprocal calculation of ‘this for that’, but is rather part of the gift economy among community members. In South Sudan it was said that energy is ‘left to individuals’. Energy here does not appear to feature as a matter of community organisation, such as in dispute settlement and dealing with NGOs. At the same time it seems to be a matter of reputation and personal responsibility to care for people who are lacking fuel, so someone with a diesel generator, or charcoal supplies will be liable to say “how can you deny anybody energy?”, “Culture demands you share what you have with others”.  

  • A broader area of interest for the project is how energy appears not to be a matter of ‘public’ concern but for individuals to sort out. This could be seen as inhibiting a more systemic approach to energy justice among the marginalised.  

  • People in informal settlements work in day labouring, in construction, in domestic enterprises (which is improved by lighting), and in many ways contribute to the urban economy, but are only gaining access to less than adequate energy services in conditions of considerable financial duress. The illegality of informal line connections in Nepal and Bangladesh especially benefits middlemen.

  • Project teams have used innovative methods: enumerators for Bauniabad settlement in Bangladesh were recruited from within the community, so people were interviewing neighbours, rather than outsiders attracting suspicion concerning the purpose of the project.

  • Transport has become a new lens to consider the comparative retail geography of energy and its effects on access.

  • A common energy policy dualism of urban grid vs renewables ignores the needs of people who live within the jurisdiction of grids, but cannot access reliable and legal supply. This also reduces the possibility for a greater diversity of institutional actors and pro-poor projects concerning energy transitions in the areas of informal settlements, which are rising in number. There is a relative absence of renewable energy technology in Nepal and Bangladesh (while some humanitarian solar distribution was noted in Nigeria and South Sudan).

According to a woman interviewed in in Balkhu, Kathmandu, Nepal: “I do not know exactly about renewable energy and we do not possess any solar product. In addition, I do not know about any house that has solar system nearby us. In my previous residence also, I did not know about renewable energy like biogas, solar system and so on… I do not know exactly what the climate change is, however, we have been facing many problems like flood in rainy season, problem of suffocation due to lack of fresh air, mosquito bite in winter season... Though we have been facing many problems, no-one either community or government is marching forward to make us feel secure from such problems. Besides, I do not know about any environmental projects that has been undertaken by either government or non-government authority for the benefit of this settlement. In fact, no-one is helping us to be more secure though we hope for such steps. We can further improve our condition of living if we could get better jobs and opportunities.”