Mott adjusts renewable energy grantmaking in Africa to expand impact

A large group of people are gathered on the bank of a waterfront around a solar panel. Cars feed on grass in the background. Several buildings are in the distance.
Farmers withdraw water from a river in rural Tanzania using a solar-powered pump. The water is used to irrigate crops and improve the health of livestock. Photo: Sisty Basil, courtesy E-LICO Foundation

In 2015, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation launched an effort to increase access to sustainable energy services globally, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative, which initially focused on rural areas of Tanzania, is based on an approach Mott calls the Distributed Renewable Energy Ecosystem Model, or DREEM. The goal: Create a replicable model that uses solar power to increase access to modern electrical services, build local economies and combat climate change.

The approach includes a focus on overcoming barriers, such as inadequate financing for climate solutions work in developing countries, limited access to sustainable energy innovations and a lack of integrated energy planning — all of which have prevented last-mile energy access in places like Tanzania. The DREEM approach shows how energy-poor communities can transition to a low-carbon, sustainable energy pathway that meets local aspirations for improved, sustainable livelihoods and avoids greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Pictured are water lines running across a crop field in Tanzania.
Solar-powered pumps can make help farmers cope more effectively with climate change and droughts. Photo: Sisty Basil courtesy of E-LICO Foundation

Mott also supports sustainable energy access work in South America, primarily in isolated Amazon forest communities. That work uses a different approach, one that has helped deliver solar power systems to over 150 remote communities. It also prompted the Brazilian government to create a federal program that will accelerate access to off-grid solar power throughout the forest.

Mott has focused much of our energy access work in Africa because the stakes are so high. Globally, about 775 million people live without access to electricity, 80% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency. Tanzania was the first target country because the need is great, the policy framework is favorable, and able partners are in place who will benefit immensely from additional funding support. The Tanzania work focuses on using solar power for productive uses, such as farming, food processing and refrigeration for retail stores.

Wood pallets of freshly picked tomatoes line the edge of a farm in Tanzania.
With solar-powered equipment, farmers can grow food on more land and increase production. Photo: Sisty Basil courtesy of E-LICO Foundation

In this Q&A, Mott Environment Program Officer Robert Ddamulira discusses the impact of the DREEM approach to date. He also explains how updating the model — by focusing on one segment of agriculture to demonstrate its benefits and supporting a hub organization to coordinate the work Mott funds — could accelerate the use of solar power. That, in turn, could create jobs, increase community wealth and improve overall quality of life in rural areas of Tanzania that lack access to electrical grids.

Mott: What exactly is the DREEM?

Ddamulira: It’s an approach to grantmaking that resembles a bicycle wheel, with a coordinating organization at the hub in the center, various stakeholders on the spokes extending outward and cross-cutting actors on the rim of the wheel. Over the past eight years, Mott has used various versions of the model to support sustainable energy access initiatives in rural Tanzania and elsewhere. The DREEM approach guides Mott’s grantmaking in giving last-mile communities access to solar power services for productive uses — in many cases, for the first time. The latest version of the model aims to strengthen the agricultural economy in East Africa, which employs over 70% of the working population in the region.

We are first deploying this DREEM approach in Tanzania before seeking to replicate the model in one or two other nearby countries. The goal is to demonstrate how using solar energy services can facilitate the development of communities that are sustainable and climate-resilient, while increasing local production, lowering operating costs and generating more revenue for all players across agricultural value chains: farmers, food processors, distributors and stores. Mott will select a central player in this model — a hub organization that will work with all the other players on the spokes of the model, as well as the crosscutting actors. The hub organization will seek to increase the use of solar power systems in a specific agricultural value chain and use it as a replicable and scalable approach for other productive uses in other countries. By connecting and powering all elements of the selected agricultural sector, the DREEM approach could strengthen local businesses, create jobs, expand economic opportunities and spur long-term development in rural communities.

Mott: What has this approach achieved to date?

Ddamulira: In the rural Tanzanian communities of Dodoma and Iringa, Mott-funded projects helped to: create and retain over 700 jobs; train over 1,000 young men and women to be solar technicians who are capable of installing, operating and maintaining solar power systems; train 250 people to become solar energy entrepreneurs; and provide solar-powered pumps that enabled farmers to irrigate their fields and cope more effectively with droughts. Additionally, microfinance loans underwritten by one of our grantees provided energy access to 900,000 people in East and Southern Africa, including those in Tanzania.

Mott: Given the success to date, why are you making adjustments?

Ddamulira: Continuous learning and improvement is a hallmark of effective program management. We wanted to take a step back to identify lessons learned and ways to improve. Our evaluators found, for example, that Mott and other funders could make microfinancing more affordable for farmers and small business owners. In some cases, small businesses in rural Tanzania pay up to 45% interest annually on loans they need to buy costly solar equipment. Our grantees are now looking for ways to make financing more accessible and affordable.

The evaluation also found that Mott’s grantmaking for solar power systems could more effectively demonstrate the numerous benefits of low-carbon solutions for people and nature if it focused on one segment of the local economy. In response, we are focusing the DREEM on selected value chains of the agricultural industry, such as dairy farming. From farm to table, our grantees will use this approach to support affordable access to solar energy systems for farmers, food processors, distributors and retail stores. While we are applying the model first to one segment of the agricultural industry, it could be used to support productive uses in other areas, such as aquaculture, horticulture, consumer goods and telecommunications.

Mott: What is the Foundation’s role in this next phase of this work?

Ddamulira: Mott will provide several million dollars over the next three years to a competitively selected hub organization in Tanzania. That is a critical action, as the hub organization’s work will play a significant role in the program’s success. We believe this revised approach can more quickly break down barriers to progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7, which seeks to ensure universal access to modern energy services worldwide by 2030. By accelerating the use of solar energy services, this version of the model could generate wealth in rural villages, which could have a variety of social and economic benefits, including access to better health care, education and mobility services for everyone in those communities.

Mott: Are there other benefits to increasing access to renewable energy in rural areas?

Ddamulira: Using solar energy services will reduce the use of diesel and other fossil-fuel-powered energy sources. The dependence on fossil fuels in off-grid communities is dangerous and costly. Those energy sources emit toxic pollutants that contribute to climate change and cause health problems and premature deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that 4 million people, mostly women and children, die prematurely each year due to indoor air pollution from a lack of access to modern energy services.

Mott: Could other communities use the DREEM approach to increase access to energy

Ddamulira: Absolutely! That is one of our goals for this project. Off-grid solar power systems can be used anywhere that lacks access to renewable, reliable energy services. The Mott Foundation is open to sharing lessons learned from the DREEM approach with other stakeholders working to achieve universal access to modern energy services.

Mott: What is the timetable for this work?

Ddamulira: We will implement the adjusted approach for three years. In 2026, we will reevaluate our progress and make decisions on how to proceed.

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