Digital platform could increase access to modern energy services in Africa

A store owner in Ilemba shows off a refrigerator/freezer in his shop.
Solar power is providing electricity for a growing number of small businesses in Tanzania. Photo: Sandra Smithey

An online platform that converts reams of data into interactive maps could help close the energy access gap in sub-Saharan Africa, where 600 million people lack access to energy services that are safe, reliable and affordable.

Globally, about 760 million people lack access to modern energy services, according to data compiled by the World Bank. Nearly 80% of those individuals reside in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in rural areas located beyond the reach of electrical grids that deliver energy to urban population centers.

A digital platform called Energy Access Explorer is helping government agencies, private investors and funders address the energy access problem. The open-source software uses satellite imagery and more than 30 detailed datasets to generate maps that show where energy needs are greatest and which technology options — extending energy grids or installing off-grid systems based on solar, wind or hydropower — are best suited for specific areas.

The potential of this platform to support a data-driven, integrated approach to planning for the expansion of modern energy services is huge.”
Headshot of a man in his 30s with dark short hair and a beard. Dimitrios Mentis

“The potential of this platform to support a data-driven, integrated approach to planning for the expansion of modern energy services is huge,” said Dimitrios Mentis, a senior energy geographer at the World Resources Institute and leader of the EAE project. “It’s already exceeded our expectations, in terms of use cases and geographies. But there’s significant room to scale the platform, considering the size of the problem we’re trying to address.”

The World Resources Institute developed EAE in partnership with local stakeholders in several countries. Anyone can use the platform free of charge, and users can generate unique analyses and reports, Mentis said. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is one of several funders supporting the project.

“Increasing access to modern energy services can transform the lives of people in rural areas for the better, and this tool will help communities achieve that,” said Robert Ddamulira, an Environment program officer at Mott. “The idea for this tool was to provide a glimpse of sustainable energy demand and supply options. When you overlay different datasets, the mapping tool clearly shows areas of immediate opportunity for public or private investments.”

With over 60% of all people in sub-Saharan Africa living in isolated, rural settlements, tools like EAE make it easier to provide modern energy services in those communities, Ddamulira said.

The online tool is currently available for use in seven countries — Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria and parts of India — and 14 smaller administrative divisions within those countries. Thanks to its modular and open-source infrastructure, EAE could be adapted with minimal software engineering costs in other countries that face energy access challenges, Mentis said.

Created by the Energy Access Explorer, this map used a variety of data to highlight areas where solar power could provide modern energy services to schools and health care facilities.
Image: World Resources Institute

Safe, reliable electricity can drive sustainable development, reduce poverty, catalyze economic growth and improve human well-being, according to the World Resources Institute. The EAE also addresses the United Nation’s seventh sustainable development goal, which calls on all countries to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Mentis said the EAE identifies areas with high demand for electricity — to power schools, health clinics and small businesses — and viable ways to deliver it. In doing so, the tool enables government agencies, banks and funders to determine where energy investments would have the greatest impact.

In Kenya, for instance, an EAE analysis found that 70% of the total land area has high solar power potential and an abundance of people who lack access to reliable electricity. More than 7 million people live at least one mile away from the energy distribution grid, in areas where the potential for solar power is significant. Given those factors, the EAE concluded that solar power could provide electricity to about 4.3 million people.

In Tanzania, the tool revealed that 25% of the total land area has high potential for renewable energy, such as wind, solar or hydropower. It showed that some 17 million people live in areas that are close to health and educational facilities, but far from electrical grids. The EAE found that renewable energy systems could serve about 2.9 million people, nearly 5% of the country’s total population.

Government agencies in Zambia are using the platform to encourage the development of off-grid, renewable sources of electricity. That process will diversify the country’s energy portfolio and increase access to reliable electricity, said Veronica Mwiche, permanent secretary of Zambia’s Ministry of Energy.

“The Energy Access Explorer could not have been developed at a better time,” said Mwiche.

The EAE also is being used in one unexpected way. In Nepal, the tool has been adapted by the Clean Cooking Alliance to help energy planners identify communities where people rely on the dangerous practice of burning wood or coal to cook food. Mentis said the program’s open-source software gave stakeholders in Nepal a jumpstart on assessing the problem and developing solutions.

One of the beauties of the online tool is its simplicity, said Richard Muhangi, who leads geographic information system mapping at Uganda’s Rural Electrification Agency.

“With Energy Access Explorer, you don’t need GIS software to overlay a number of layers — such as solar potential, population density, network data — and carry out (an) analysis,” Muhangi said. “All you need is an internet browser.”