Looking at the productive use of energy in rural Tanzania

An article by Sisty Basil, Coordinator Hivos Energy Change Lab Tanzania


Sisty Basil

This article was featured in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global SouthSubscribe to The Beam for more.


Rural electrification programs in unconnected areas in countries such as Tanzania aim to improve local economies and quality of life. However, evidence shows that this does not happen automatically. According to a review by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, rural electrification often fails to have a long-lasting or transformative impact on poor people’s livelihoods (ESMAP, 2008). In fact, electricity supply needs to go beyond household use for lighting homes, charging phones or powering household appliances such as radios and TVs. Growing Tanzania’s rural economy requires energy for ‘productive use’ (PUE) — where electricity can power appliances, such as Information and Communication Technologies for local businesses and agricultural machinery for agriculture production.

Rural electrification and productive uses of energy

Policy-makers and citizens globally have high expectations that rural energy access investments will transform local economies. Solar and hydro-powered mini-grids are promoted especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where energy access needs are highest. Tanzania has been considered a regional leader in the development of mini-grids following regulatory reforms in 2008. The resource potential in the country to develop mini-grids is enormous, considering its available hydropower and solar energy potential, and Tanzania has huge needs and opportunities for energy access investments to foster industrialisation and increase rural productivity–for instance in agro-processing and irrigation.

Developers of these rural mini-grids have a stake in increasing local electricity demand, to increase revenue and get a return on their investment. Mere household electricity usage doesn’t do the trick, hence, developers are focusing on stimulating more heavy use of their grid, by means of productive activities. Which brings us back to the ultimate aim of rural electrification: an increase in local productivity, the creation of jobs and local development.

How to foster productive uses of energy

Promotion of productive uses of energy (PUE) requires extra measures to overcome barriers, such as gaps in local people’s (entrepreneurship) skills, availability of appliances, or access to financing to start up a business. As awareness has risen on the importance of PUE, we see mini-grid developers venturing in unknown areas, trying out different interventions which combine energy projects with rural development initiatives to increase people’s skills and productivity.

The Energy Change Lab Tanzania, a program by Hivos and the International Institute of Environment and Development, is implementing a program that enables pioneers in and outside the energy sector to design, test and learn about interventions that promote PUE. The Lab has tried out different small-scale interventions (so-called ‘prototypes’) to test what works.

One of these interventions considered PUE capacity building and awareness-raising for local entrepreneurs in three villages. The prototype focused on bridging the skills gap of entrepreneurs (existing and new) in the mini-grid site by training so-called ‘PUE champions’ who would further train other potential PUE entrepreneurs.

In tandem, the Lab developed PUE appliance operating manuals and vocational training modules in Swahili. It was also envisaged that PUE champions would initiate their own business using electricity from the mini-grid and offer a chance for practical demonstration to other aspiring entrepreneurs.

The intervention resulted in the set-up of 14 new businesses, run by men and women alike, for example, barbershops, movie screening centres, woodworking workshops and welding workshops.

These type of developments are important for the vitality of rural areas, where we see youth migrating to cities to find a job. In that context, the Lab organised an Energy Safari program for young Tanzanians; a five-day learning journey that exposed participants to issues surrounding rural energy access and productive uses of energy.

One of the participants of the Energy Safari program, Reginald Saria, is featured here: The buzz that’s energising Tanzania’s rural youth.


Sisty Basil has played a leading role in the promotion of renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies throughout Tanzania. Today, he is the national coordinator of energy change lab, a program of Hivos and IIED, based in Tanzania.

This article was featured in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global SouthSubscribe to The Beam for more.