Shifting power: communities mobilise for mini-grids in Ghana (Story of Change)

Installation of solar panel

In Ghana, several isolated, low-income and marginalised communities have literally been kept in the dark. This is a story about how, with the support of the V4CP civil society organisation, Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD), communities took matters into their own hands to ask for mini-grids in Kwahu Afram Plains North and influence national public policy in Ghana.

It’s late. The sun has long set and many  rural residents in the Kwahu Afram Plains North District have gone to sleep. Yet one building is alive with activity in Sedekorpe, a village whose situation is typical for the region. Community members and representatives of CEESD are huddled together, engrossed in conversation. The topic? Increasing access to affordable, efficient and sustainable energy solutions in their community – a civic right of every Ghanaian citizen. Over the last couple of years, lakeside and island communities in Kwahu Afram Plains have been seeking access to electricity. Thanks to the support of V4CP and CEESD, they learned about mini-grids, small electricity grids with local power production, as a suitable solution to bring power to their community. Jointly, they have made significant strides in their district and at the national level. This is a story about how they got there.

Remote, isolated and island communities kept in the dark

While Ghana is ranked among other countries with the highest national electrification rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are still many remote, isolated, and island communities located within the Volta lake catchment where grid power does not reach. Barriers to extending grid electricity to these communities include the lack of infrastructure and high cost of laying underwater cables from the nearest grid facilities.

CEESD is a not-for-profit organisation based in Kumasi, whose mission is to promote interventions that lead to sustainable development of local communities. As partner in the Voice for Change Partnership (V4CP) programme, they reached out to community members in the Kwahu Afram Plains North district to figure out how they get access to sustainable power.

According to CEESD’s Director, Dr. Julius Cudjoe Ahiekpor, “our research, supported by V4CP, uncovered that communities used many different forms of energy, yet none were aware of the possibility of gaining access to electricity through mini-grids. According to our research, a rural household spends between 5 and 210 Ghana cedis ($1 and $42) every month on either dry cell, kerosene, candle or diesel for lighting. To add to their woes, the absence of electricity has resulted in a generally low level of economic and social activities within these communities, with health care and education also affected.”

CEESD installing a standalone solar system in a household in Faso Battor.

CEESD installing a standalone solar system in a household in Faso Battor.

In an interview with Hanna Akpoeteeh, a member of the Kwahu Afram Plains community, she said:

“Having access to electricity on this island will be very beneficial to me and my family. As a trader I could invest in a refrigerator to sell cold drinks, as my sister does in the city.”

– Hanna Akpoeteeh, member of the Kwahu Afram Plains community

Civil society identifies a solution: mini-grids

In addition to research on existing energy sources in the communities, CEESD and partners identified mini-grids as the most suitable solution to provide electricity to these remote households. Mini-grids are a form of off-grid electricity with a distribution network and small-scale electricity generation.

The advocates’ confidence in pursuing this approach was bolstered by research findings, commissioned as part of the V4CP programme. The research, conducted in eight off-grid communities in Ghana, found high levels of satisfaction with the services provided by mini-grids, and positive socio-economic impact of the electricity services provided by mini-grids.

Civil society builds on its advocacy strategy

CEESD used the tools offered by the V4CP programme to strategise and set up a multi-pronged advocacy strategy. V4CP offered a dedicated place for civil society organisations to develop their advocacy capacities and network, increasing CEESD’s confidence in their ability to influence, allowing them to claim more civil society space – a spiral of positive reinforcement.

This process resulted in a clear set of unified strategies and messages, firstly aiming to inform the communities of the possibilities, and secondly aiming to mainstream these ideas into public policy. According to Dr Ahiekpor, “Our set of messages to policy-makers was clear from the start and included the demand to mainstream mini-grids into District Assembly’s Medium-Term Development Plans; the development of a regulatory framework for mini-grids; and ensuring that existing public policy make room for private innovations and initiatives”.

In 2016, CEESD, in partnership with SNV through V4CP, started engaging with a variety of stakeholders including policy makers, development partners, the district assembly, and island communities. It aimed to create awareness on mini-grids as a solution to provide power to island communities. For this reason, CEESD mobilised communities in the districts to advocate for mini-grids in their assemblies, while simultaneously lobbying national policy makers and development partners for inclusive policies and budget.

Engaging private sector and communities

Key to CEESD’s strategy was also its partnership with the private sector. Private sector involvement would bring innovation and investments, and could speed up the pace of mini-grid deployment.  Through joint advocacy, CEESD and the private sector tried to convince the government on the need for private sector involvement to achieve Ghana’s electrification targets.

“From the start of our initiative, we saw that community engagement is key,” said Dr. Ahiekpor. CEESD and SNV thus organised several community durbars, or town hall meetings. Community members learned about the benefits of mini-grids, and were keen to engage in actions alongside CEESD to demand electricity access through mini-grid from their policy makers. “It is a right of island dwellers to enjoy electricity just like our city counterparts,” according to a community member. It was this community engagement that propelled the movement forward.

With the backing of community members, CEESD conducted a series of capacity building and awareness programmes for the district assembly. This culminated in a district symposium which even caught the attention of key officials from the Ghana Energy Commission. National level officials participated in discussions on the current situation in the country, sharing presentations and research on the energy situation in the region. They also outlined the steps government is undertaking to ensure that all communities in the country get electricity.

Local results

Struck by the severity of the problem and impressed by civil society and private sector’s collaboration to identify a solution, the Assembly officials committed to adequately plan and demand for mini-grid electricity for island communities from central government.

To show its commitment to ensuring island communities have access to electricity, the District Assembly included mini-grids as an electrification option in their Medium-Term Development Plan for 2018-2021, fulfilling one of the key asks that CEESD had set out. The District Executive Officer has also commissioned a five-member subcommittee on Energy charged with the responsibility to develop a comprehensive district-level electrification plan and to incorporate this plan in the next mid-year review of the Medium-Term Development Plan.

During the inauguration of the committee on 18th March, 2019, the District Executive Officer , Hon. Samuel Kena, indicated that:

“The low access rate of electricity in the district has been my greatest worry. In fact, I will be the happiest person when even one of the island communities in my district gets electricity through mini-grid and I will do all that is required and within my power to ensure we also benefit from mini-grid electrification.”

– Hon. Samuel Kena, District Executive Officer

Scaling up: from local to national

Kwahu Afram Plains is not the only district with changes underway. Community and governmental enthusiasm has had a ripple effect across the country. Thanks largely to CEESD’s advocacy, two island communities from Kwahu Afram Plains district have already been selected by the Ministry of Energy to benefit from mini-grid electricity by 2020.

Across Ghana, another 17 have been built by the private sector, 65 communities have been earmarked for mini-grid feasibility study by USAID, and 55 communities have been earmarked for deployment of mini-grid by the government of Ghana. With donors’ and national government’s increased investment in mini-grid development, CEESD and community members are optimistic. Step by step and together, we are changing the power to ensure universal access to electricity by 2030.

Who we are

The Voice for Change Partnership (V4CP) strengthens the capacities of CSOs to foster collaboration among relevant stakeholders, influence agenda-setting and hold the government and private sector accountable for their promises and actions. It is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.