An international research team led by Dr Aoife Brophy from SSEE and Saïd Business School has been awarded funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to undertake RISE: Renewable, Innovative and Scalable Electrification from 1st September 2018 to 29th February 2020.

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in late 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. GCRF forms part of the UK's Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment, which is monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The interdisciplinary research project aims to design integrated, actionable and transferable development strategies for the local renewable energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa. The research pursues three mutually reinforcing areas of inquiry: suitable business models for a competitive local renewable electrification industry; optimal institutional arrangements to facilitate the development of the industry; and enabling community involvement, especially in rural areas. Two contrasting national case studies, Uganda and Zambia, form the basis of the project.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most energy-deprived region in the world, with more than two-thirds of the population lacking access to electricity. Energy poverty is especially acute in rural areas, while high prices, unreliable supply, and slow adoption of renewable sources are persistent problems even for those with access to electricity. Thus none of the three criteria for equal energy access — affordability, reliability and sustainability — as defined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is yet close to being fulfilled. Energy poverty has impaired sub-Saharan Africa's economic development for decades, yet these challenges will only worsen as the continent's rural population growth outpaces capacity growth.

Given the sheer size of the African continent and low rates of urbanisation, large-scale electrical grids are both impractical and prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, rapidly falling system costs have made renewable off-grid solutions the cheapest and cleanest option in many remote areas. To date, however, three main issues have prevented sustainable electrification: difficulties in attracting international investment to small-scale renewables; inconsistent and often opaque regulatory and institutional frameworks; and a failure to include local communities, i.e. customers, in planning.

The project aims to understand how these three broad factors are interrelated, and is deeply committed to delivering impact beyond academia. Key stakeholder groups from government, business, and civil society will be involved throughout all stages of the project. Integral to the success of the project will be translating the research findings into actionable development plans, including new renewable energy business models, financing and revenue schemes, and policy recommendations.


The main objective of this interdisciplinary research is to design integrated, actionable and transferable development strategies for the local SME renewable energy sector capable of delivering rural electrification in SSA at scale. This requires significant advances in business models, institutions and community engagement. Research to date is alarmingly scarce in all three of these areas in SSA (Trotter et al., 2017). Most importantly, an integrated perspective on these three pillars is absent from the literature, despite the fact that they are known to constitute prerequisites for successful diffusion of renewable energy technologies (Gabriel and Kirkwood, 2016) and are recognised as the top three barriers to rural electrification (Ahlborg and Hammar, 2014). There is generally limited understanding, particularly in developed country contexts, of how these three pillars can best interact, especially in energy sector settings where the interaction between public institutions and private businesses is changing over time (Haney and Pollitt, 2013).

Image showing the three pillars as described next

The three pillars are:

1. Innovative Business Models Workstream:

  • Phase 1 (Sept 2018 - Apr 2019): We will examine the local renewable energy SME landscape in Uganda and Zambia, as well as opportunities and challenges to scale up.
  • Phase 2 (May 2019 - Feb 2020): Drawing from best-practice business approaches in Uganda and Zambia, as well as from other known successful cases, we will design business models for SMEs aimed at delivering rural electrification at scale.

2. Institutional Facilitation Workstream:

  • Phase 1 (Sept 2018 - Apr 2019): First, this phase will map the existing institutions across the energy sector in Uganda and Zambia in terms of their roles and responsibilities in the energy sector. Second, current institutional, policy and regulatory constraints for the development and scaling up of decentralised renewable energy will be identified. Third, a comparative analysis will reveal qualitative differences between the two institutional designs to generalise the problem.
  • Phase 2 (May 2019 - Feb 2020): To design an improved institutional, policy and regulatory framework for local renewable energy markets, we will analyse the characteristics of successful institutional setups.

3. Community Engagement Workstream

  • Phase 1 (Sept 2018 - Apr 2019): The objective of this phase is to understand the factors that lead to the successful adoption and management of renewable energy projects at the local level. This includes current and prospective customers' attitudes towards different technologies, different methods of community participation, customer-specific electrification needs as well as the interaction between enterprise and communities.
  • Phase 2 (May 2019 - Feb 2020): Building on the survey results, this phase designs suitable local engagement and inclusive community participation approaches.