Back to the future: Backcasting the energy transition in rural Kenya

SEI and Hivos highlight knock-on development effects of cooking with electricity, underscoring that working together with communities and investing in their social capacity are key to success in the transition.

This post originally appeared on the SEI website.

The negative health and environmental implications of cooking with traditional biomass are well known, and efforts to shift households to cleaner, more sustainable cooking technologies and fuels have been under way for many decades. Sustainable cooking implies transitioning to a future where cooking needs are met in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

Access to sustainable cooking fuels in rural sub-Saharan Africa remains poor, with most people relying on fuelwood or charcoal for their household energy needs. To date, the development community has mostly focused on providing households with access to improved biomass cookstoves, but in recent years there has been a shift in focus to electric stoves as a potential sustainable cooking option in the region.

The main catalysts for the upsurge in interest in electric cooking are the growing number of people who have access to electricity through grid expansion, the widespread availability of solar home systems, and the rapid progress being made in mini-grid and storage technologies. While efforts to extend power grids have generally made slow progress, mini-grids hold enormous potential to deliver clean cooking energy to “off-grid” households. In combination with efficient cooking appliances, such as electric slow cookers and pressure cookers, electric cooking could become cost-competitive for households in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, putting aside economics and technological advancements, switching to electricity in the region will require rural communities to change their daily practices and behaviour, including adopting new cooking technologies and even cooking different foods. Previous Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) research has clearly shown that successful household energy interventions hinge on the careful design of products and services that are well aligned with users’ values, needs and socio-cultural contexts, and this is no less true for large-scale energy transitions like rural electrification programmes.

Photo: Fiona Lambe / SEI.

Asking the users

Keen to understand what a large-scale energy transition would mean for people living in rural sub-Saharan Africa, Hivos commissioned Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) to conduct a case study with rural households in Machakos county, Kenya. The project had two aims: to understand how people in rural Kenya envision a future where cooking with electricity is a given, and to co-develop a transition pathway towards this vision. Hivos specified that they wanted to use backcasting to explore the future scenario and how we get there.

SEI researchers held workshops in a church in Kitulu, a village in Machakos. Thirty community members, men and women of different ages, none of whom were using electricity for cooking, were asked to imagine that the year is 2030 and everyone in the community is now cooking with electricity. After that, they were asked to imagine what would have needed to happen to get to that situation, and when, back to the present day.

When imagining the future goal, participants immediately associated electricity for cooking at home with a much wider development leap. As one participant put it:

So, if I have electricity in my home for cooking, that means that there will be street lighting, electricity for agriculture, for powering schools and clinics. And if these changes have happened, then even wider infrastructure must exist – we probably have roads and internet.

When it comes to the changes within households, the participants noted that electric cooking would improve food security too. Right now, it takes a long time to light a fire, so the Kitulu residents only do it in the evening. With electricity they would be able to “eat on demand”, as one participant put it. Interestingly, even though we had in mind the goal of 100% cooking with electricity in 2030, most participants imagined that they would still also use other stoves (charcoal or gas) to cook certain dishes.

Photo: Fiona Lambe / SEI.

Backcasting from 2030 to 2020

Following the visioning exercise, SEI researchers went on to map out what would need to happen to reach the goal of fully cooking with electricity by 2030. There was a lot of talk about the need for civic engagement, in particular, for the community to build capacity to demand public services and access the government programmes that they are entitled to. Although there is a clear role for the government, the community members indicated it was essential to develop their own social capacity in the form of, savings groups, farmers’ groups, etc.

In terms of technology adoption, the community saw the transition towards electricity as stepwise with households adding increasingly clean technologies and fuels to their kitchens, as they move to electrification, stacking the various cooking technologies as they went along. This model of moving up the so-called energy ladder in line with economic development is generally dismissed in the academic literature – but it is clearly how this community viewed the energy transition as a process. They insisted that electric cooking would not happen overnight – too many other factors needed to be in place for it to work well in the community.


Exploring a complex energy transition

Backcasting has proved a useful way of exploring transitions, flipping things around so that the end goal (future scenario) is the starting point. From prior experience, beginning in the present day and asking people how to reach a distant goal often leads to them getting bogged down in technical and financial barriers. Momentary detachment from reality seems to open up space for another type of discussion, bringing in important contextual aspects linked to community needs.

The method worked because the speculative and creative parts worked well and the act of imagining and describing a desirable future seemed to be a really positive, joyful experience for the participants (and for the research team!), which allowed for a different kind of thinking. As one participant mentioned at the end of the backcasting session, when they had “arrived” back in 2020: “It feels like coming from a dream, or from the moon, and crashing down to earth.”

Finally, using this method seemed to produce an empowering effect on the workshop participants. By the end of the two days the participants had developed a detailed map for cooking energy transition, including key actions, responsible actors, local resources and targets. Several of the participants began discussing what they thought should happen next based on the map and asked if the researchers would share the report with them for their input (which they did). At the end of the workshop, one of the older participants noted:

NGOs sometimes come here and ask what we would like them to do for us. Sometimes this is a difficult question to answer . . . so many things are needed. But now we have a road map, we can use it to remind ourselves of where we would like to go, and what help we should be asking for.