Powering Africa’s urban revolution

The pace of change in some sub-Saharan African towns and cities is relentless. In Lagos thousands of people arrive every day to establish new lives, economic opportunities and social connections. Many of these new arrivals will find space in the informal settlements that house up to 60 percent of the population in cities such as Kampala. Urbanisation is taking place on a scale unmatched in human history and its creating an urgent need to produce new infrastructure systems to serve the needs and dreams of these growing urban populations.

The energy challenges of these cities form only one part of this infrastructure agenda – but one vital to the futures of these urban regions and their inhabitants. The energy issues of powering what Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (2014) term ‘Africa’s urban revolution’ are complex and ever changing across the multiple, urban geographies of this vast region. From mega-infrastructure projects such as the $20 billion Grand Inga hydro in DR Congo to the everyday struggles of energy poverty in households in Cape Town, it’s clear that multi-scalar energy transitions are taking place alongside the broader infrastructural transformations of the region. But how such transitions are taking place across towns and cities and how these socio-technical processes might be guided around concerns such as sustainability or security remain less clear.

It is this uncertainty concerning the trajectories of energy transitions and how they are understood that has provided the impetus for our critical commentary. We have been working for a number of years with an international team based across Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and the UK as part of the SAMSET project (Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions). The work of researchers, practitioners and municipal partners has shown that understanding this energy transition is complex and varies across different urban, national and regional contexts. Furthermore, they also offer very different outcomes to the infrastructuralisation that occurred during electrification in the global North. As such we have taken inspiration from the growing literature on postcolonial urbanisms, particularly across sub-Saharan Africa to consider these urban energy transitions in ways that are more applicable to the regional dynamics of (urban) infrastructure.

Beginning with debates concerning urban transitions analysis we then propose extending the outlines of such a framework into new directions that address our concerns about how we research the energy dynamics of ‘Africa’s urban revolution’. Here we seek to draw attention to the specificity of sub-Saharan African urbanisation, the need to find an ‘urban’ context for understanding transition, how urban capacity is constituted and might be rethought and finally the politics and contested natures of these transitions. Our conclusion argues that we need new ways to interpret and explain urban energy issues as a basis for critical social science research that better accounts for actual existing urban energy conditions. Such research is vital to connecting with, informing and partnering with the world of practice through helping a range of intermediaries, from municipalities to slum dweller groups better grasp these energy challenges.

One way we have done this is to take our ideas and concerns from this critical commentary to inform a new short documentary made in an informal settlement in Kampala with our research assistant Joel Ongwec — ‘Powering Namuwongo‘ — an examination of energy transition in an poor but vibrant neighbourhood in Uganda’s capital city.

See journal article, ‘Powering sub-Saharan Africa’s urban revolution: An energy transitions approach’ by Jonathan Silver and Simon Marvin, published in Urban Studies.

Article republished from Urban Studies.

Photo: Solar panels for sale in a market in Timbuktu. Jonathan Silver

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply