Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions


Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions (SAMSET) is an EPSRC/DFID/DECC-funded project (Grant No. EP/L002620/1) that seeks to develop a knowledge exchange framework for supporting local and national bodies involved in municipal energy planning in the effective transition to sustainable energy use in urban areas. Through close partnering with six cities in three African countries (Ghana, Uganda and South Africa), the project aims to develop an information base from which to support cities, undertake direct support for cities around strategy development and priority initiatives, and facilitate knowledge exchange and capacity building.

Urbanisation rates in Africa are the highest in the world, and in most Sub Saharan countries service delivery is inadequate to keep up with the needs. African populations remain among the poorest in the world, and efforts to achieve the energy-related dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals have in most cases not had significant impact on urban populations.

The situation can be summarised as one where much urban energy transformation research does not understand the detailed organisational dynamics and constraints in cities and therefore is often of limited use; where there is a gap between policy and implementation; where capacity within local/national government departments involved in energy and urban development is inadequate in the face of increasing challenges; and where modes of knowledge transfer are not effective in facilitating sustainable energy transitions in cities.

This research project aims to “design, test, and evaluate a knowledge exchange framework to facilitate the implementation of an effective sustainable energy transition in Africa’s Sub-Saharan urban areas“, and includes a strong action research component which involves close partnering with six cities in three African countries (two each in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa) to foster a deeper understanding of the dynamics and constraints that policy and strategy implementation faces in Sub Saharan African cities.

The project includes the following key features: it draws on existing work in the North and other developing countries, while recognising the often huge contextual divergence, and will develop a deeper understanding of the status quo and constraints particular to Sub-Saharan Africa;  core work packages are based on an existing model that has been developed in South Africa over the past 15 years to support cities with effective energy transitions, and it is rooted in practicalities of implementing energy-related initiatives effectively in complex urban environments through action research components.

The project work areas cover the knowledge exchange research thread. These include developing an information base from which to support cities, undertaking direct support for cities around strategy development and priority initiatives (the ‘action research’ component), and focusing on knowledge exchange and capacity building in range of different ways, covering local to international levels.

While much attention has been paid to mega-cities, the literature highlights features of small and medium sized cities that make them of particular interest. It is in these cities that most urbanisation in Africa will take place – and here the lack of resources and capacity to deal with the resulting challenges is often weak or absent. For example smaller cities have only limited infrastructure, and offer wider opportunities for sustainable development. Previous research has shown that middle sized cities (less than 1 million) tend to contradict the trend for transition from traditional to modern fuels (ESMAP, 2004. The Urban Household Energy Transition: Energy, Poverty, and the Environment in the Developing World. Barnes D. et al.). The Cities Alliance also notes the limited planning capacity in such cities.

This suggests that any approach to influencing energy transitions in urban Africa will need to include smaller cities. The South African experience suggests that knowing what needs to be undertaken, and having this worked into policies and strategies, is relatively easy compared with the challenge of developing an effective environment for implementation. While there is a growing body of work on promoting sustainable energy in cities, including Africa, it tends to be too high-level, often listing barriers and policy options to be adopted, and generally has had limited impact on welfare in urban areas because a detailed understanding of the complexities of the urban institutional situation is absent. Instead the issues that need to be understood include capacity constraints in different municipal departments, financial planning and management practices, political priorities and pressures, mandates in different areas of service delivery, national vs. municipal competencies and tensions, standards and codes of practice, experience base of the engineers and planners, legal barriers, procurement practices, land rights issues and rigidity of land markets, and revenue sources and flows, amongst others. Developing the necessary level understanding requires a different research and policy approach.

A core feature of the working approach to the project is a commitment to “action research”. A common issue with research projects in developing countries can be the development of inappropriate or unfeasible solutions to the challenges faced, as there is often huge contextual divergence between countries and communities. Solutions and strategies that work in one region/country are often inappropriate for implementation in others.

The SAMSET project differs in this approach, through the application of the action research agenda. This involved close partnering with institutions, individuals and the local community, researching the specific challenges and frameworks that exist in urban areas, to develop a more tailored, accurate solution to the challenges faced in the specific context. In practical terms, this commitment will translate to direct support for the six partner cities in the three Sub-Saharan African countries studied, and direct involvement of civic and municipal leaders in the development of strategies and initiatives. This, in turn, will hopefully lead to a tailored, appropriate development framework, with specific needs identified and specific goals set.

Research Objectives

The key research aim is to: “design, test and evaluate a knowledge exchange framework design to more efficiently and effectively support sustainable energy transition in Africa’s Sub-Saharan urban areas”. To achieve this, we have established six key project objectives:

  1. Identify the relevance, transferability and adaptation of the existing body of knowledge on sustainable energy transitions to the Sub Saharan African urban situation,
  2. Understand the specific and contextual issues involved in effective implementation of policies relevant to energy transitions in the African urban context,
  3. Clarify how best to facilitate policy and strategy development and implementation through active engagement and support for six partner cities in three Sub Saharan African countries to enable detailed understanding of the complex set of constraints and dynamics in these cities,
  4. To explore knowledge exchange methodologies via inter-city and inter-country network exchanges, specialist inputs and practical lesson exchanges,
  5. To develop knowledge exchange methodologies for facilitating more effective interactions between researchers and practitioners to improve implementation of policy objectives at the city level, and
  6. To disseminate project findings and information beyond the project in Africa and internationally.


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One Response to “Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions”

  1. Waste-to-energy paradigm: Opportunities for African cities to transform their energy landscapes | SAMSET Blog

    […] Unsustainable waste management has adverse consequences on the environment including the breeding of mosquito and related diseases, emission of obnoxious odours and methane, and flooding through choked drainage systems [4]. These waste-related problems are not uncommon in most African cities and city authorities are seeking sustainable waste-management solutions. Indeed, unraveling sustainable solutions for efficient waste management is one of the top priorities of the two municipalities in Ghana that are partners to the “Supporting Sub-Saharan Africa’s Municipalities with Sustainable Energy Transitions (SAMSET)” …. […]


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