‘Experiences of urban energy in an African city’ by Dr Idalina Baptista, Short Courses Director

(c) bittegitteAwareness of climate change has raised a collective sense of urgency in recent years about the need to transform energy consumption patterns in order to reduce oil dependency. For some commentators, urban livelihoods in advanced economies of the global ‘North’ will probably have to adopt strategies that rely on smarter and cleaner technologies. Talk about smart electricity meters or renewables hardly goes unnoticed over there, where the main focus for change has been on both the service provider and the consumer. Comparatively, what hardly goes unnoticed in developing economies of the global ‘South’ is not how to change energy consumption or production patterns, but how much energy is available for consumption and by whom.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone (excluding South Africa), annual per capita electricity consumption stands at about 20% of that of Europe, according to World Bank estimates for 2011. Addressing the energy infrastructure needs of the African continent requires some $40 billion a year, also as per World Bank estimates. It remains to be seen whether such investments will get developing countries on a path of adopting sustainable and affordable energy practices. Certainly, initiatives like Sustainable Energy For All are trying to point in that direction. There is a growing interest in off-grid renewable energy solutions for rural populations in different African countries. Some commentators think this is both more environmentally friendly and economically sustainable in face of unviable extensions of the integrated grid to remote areas. However, in urban areas, where the electricity grid is mostly available, the struggle has been to improve access to, the affordability of, and the quality of the energy available.

One strategy being adopted by electricity provides across Africa has been to transition from a post-paid to a prepaid system of electricity retail. The trend has been growing in recent years, with some countries moving into a wide-scale transition to prepayment in the electricity and water sectors, while others are only starting to experiment with neighborhood-level pilot projects. Earlier in 2014, I conducted a cursory survey online of prepayment for electricity and water services and found out that it was in use in forty-three African countries. In essence, a transition to prepaid electricity means that consumers need to buy credit electricity in advance of consuming it, instead of consuming it first and being billed after a period of time (usually a monthly cycle). The logic is not much different from that of a Pay-As-You-Go mobile phone, which is widely popular in Africa, with top-ups required whenever mobile credit runs out. In spite of this similarity, there has been much discussion about the fairness of prepaid systems when applied to basic utility services such as electricity and water, particularly in contexts of urban poverty. Some commentators are favorable to prepayment because they think it allows the urban poor to better manage their meager incomes. Other commentators, however, have noted that prepayment is inherently unfair to the urban poor because it cuts them off of an essential service if (and when) they have no means to pay for it. Underlying both arguments are perhaps questions about the appropriate nature of the relationship between service providers and consumers. How and why should consumers pay for a service that is of poor quality, as it happens in so many African cities where power fluctuations and blackouts (or water cuts) are a feature of everyday urban live? Why and how should utility companies continue to provide a service to a non-paying customer when, precisely, there is little energy (or water) to go around?

Having in mind these questions, I have been studying the transition to prepaid electricity in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, with the project Electric Urbanism: the Governance of Electricity in Urban Africa. In particular, I have been investigating experiences of prepaid electricity in Maputo’s lower-income neighborhoods, trying to understand how and whether prepayment makes a difference in the lives of urban dwellers. I have also been investigating how and whether the transition to prepayment makes a difference in how the grid is managed by the utility provider, the state-owned company EDM (Electricidade de Moçambique, E.P.). Like many other post-colonial African cities, the geography of the grid in Maputo is closely tied to the colonial policies that spatially segregated access to networked utilities along racial lines. The transition to electricity prepayment, adopted first in 1995 but rolled-out consistently to the rest of the city since the late 2000s, seems to have allowed EDM to expand the grid to reach nearly universal coverage (according to its own estimates). Prepayment seemingly also allows urban dwellers to consume electricity in a way that keeps them out of energy-related debt. However, as research to date has shown, the expansion of the grid has been driven largely by demand. In other words, the grid seems to be expanding essentially in response to household demands to access a utility service that individuals consider essential for a ‘modern’ urban life. In that process, households tap into a wider network of individuals that can help pool the necessary resources to pay for the extension of the grid, the actual wiring of dwellings, or even to acquire a daily top-up of electricity credit. The picture emerging from this research project is one of a complex assemblage of people, devices, spaces and practices that extend the experience of urban energy beyond the dichotomy of service provider vs. consumer. Hence, if we are to take stock of what ‘smart’ energy consumption practices look like in an African city, we will need to pay attention to the complex entanglements required to manage mundane everyday affairs in many cities of the global ‘South’.

Dr Idalina Baptista is Associate Professor in Urban Anthropology, a Fellow of Kellogg College and an Associate Fellow of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities at the University of Oxford. Idalina is Short Courses Director for the Sustainable Urban Development Programme.


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