Understand User Needs

From energypedia


Designing electricity delivery models for people living in poverty begins with an understanding of the opportunities and constraints arising from the end users’ specific socio-economic and cultural context. These opportunities and constraints may be related to energy but also to other, non-energy factors. This dimension has a broad scope and touches on many of the subsequent dimensions of the toolbox. This section will firstly provide some guiding principles by reviewing some of the broader concepts and secondly hint towards existing tools and resources.


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Guiding Principles

There is an increasing amount of evidence that underlines the importance of taking into account the socio-cultural, economic and political dimensions of the specific local contexts in which off-grid energy interventions take place[1][2]. The importance of these contextual dimensions can be roughly categorized into three issues: a) understanding needs, b) securing engagement and c) addressing structures of inequality.

Understanding needs

When developing an electrification intervention, understanding aspirations and values of the people that get access to the electricity service is as important as solving the economic challenges (e.g. the accessibility and the financial ability to buy the required appliances). There is a diversity of benefits that electricity users can perceive as valuable, such as business opportunity, the elimination of labour intensive tasks, preservation of health, security, the ability to acquire knowledge, and comfort, among others. Understanding and properly addressing these context specific values of a population is an important factor to ensure communities’ endorsement to electrification interventions [3][4]. The potential effects of access to electricity on practices linked to business activities of the served population are of particular interest in the design and implementation of electrification interventions. These types of effects are often gathered under the term “productive use of electricity” (PUE). The PeopleSuN qualitative study addresses the importance of understanding the needs of potential electricity end-users by exploring energy needs and motivations in rural and peri-urban areas of Nigeria.

Securing trustful communication with all actors affected by the electrification intervention

One crucial issue is the building and maintaining of trustful communication. This is key in order to build proper understanding of the needs of the users and to ensure that all the actors involved or affected by the electrification initiative understand the project objectives, potential benefits as well as its limitations, i.e. for proper management of expectations[3]. This implies for instance securing mutual understanding about important design parameters such as tariffs, the costs and rules for connection, the power or the amount of energy available to single users, the schedule of the energy provision, the operation and management arrangements[3][5].

Local factors influencing such design parameters can be difficult to determine ex-ante and might become apparent first after the implementation or even the operation of the systems has started. It is also difficult to foresee how the practices of the users will evolve once the use of electricity is integrated in their lives. Thus, maintaining communication channels and – more generally – engagement with the users can be crucial also for managing the future evolution of the systems[6][5][2].

The local population served can also have additional roles in the electrification scheme, i.e. beyond being the users of the services and the customers of the supply company. The local population can be actively involved in several phases of the project development - including the construction, the operation and the management of the systems[7][8][9][10].

Engaging the community

The process of implementing a new local energy system implies introducing a series of changes in the physical and immaterial aspects of the lives of the local population. It is essential to engage the community in all the phases of project development – i.e. in the process of introducing changes in their lives – in order to secure sustainable operation of the systems, deliver effective development impacts, foster a sense of local ownership and enhance the acceptance of the project[11][12][5][13].

Community involvement should start right in the beginning. A key part of the planning progress of a mini-grid is the community needs assessment where the demand is estimated. An early exchange with the local community can help to understand the energy needs and willingness to pay for energy services. Furthermore, the communities can help to understand the local resource rights and prevent future conflicts.

The local population served can also have additional roles in the electrification scheme, i.e. beyond being the users of the services and the customers of the supply company. It can be actively involved in several phases of the project development - including the construction, the operation and the management of the systems[7][8][9][10]. To ensure the commitment of the community, a strong community representation in the operation and maintenance of a mini-grid is inevitable. Accordingly, comprehensive training is advantageous for a smooth operation[11].

One approach that exceeds community engagement are community-based models. Under these models, local communities own, manage, operate and maintain mini-grids. The communities usually receive external help with financing, design and installation. Often, the developer or another outside organization provides technical capacity building, and a public entity or donor provides grants or other financial assistance. Once the mini-grid is installed, the community assumes responsibility for tariff collection and operations and maintenance. Community electricity cooperatives and other local organizations often play this role[14]. The success of community-based models is challenged by a number of factors, including a lack of local capacity and a rushed ownership transfer[15].


Developers might also face a lack of interest in participation by community members. They may consider local or state government bodies as responsible for the provision of energy services or a culture of active participation has never been established. Some might even see participating in the project as a waste of time and resources. Language barriers, appropriation by the elite and local conflicts can also be causes for non-participation[16].

Addressing structures of inequality

It becomes increasingly important to view the needs and constraints of different groups through an energy justice framework. Studies find a strong risk of implementing rural electrification interventions that do not represent a sustainable solution to the structural drivers of energy poverty and do not have the capacity to address social inequalities[17][18]. This also includes interventions that are addressing productive uses. For example, programmes promoting the use of rice husk processing appliances among women in rural North India led to formal employment opportunities, but their presence did not secure long-lasting women’s empowerment[19].

To improve diversity and inclusion, developers should provide training for all genders[20]. A selection of training academies already offers courses targeting women specifically. There is a greater potential of gender-sensitive approaches to reduce household poverty and increase the overall wellbeing of the community[21]. Women might benefit from an increase in electricity supply by spending less time on household production, providing them more time for e.g. economic activities. This in turn leads to an increase in employment and factor incomes which benefits the whole community[22].

To ensure a comprehensive and diverse perspective, women and other disadvantaged members should be included in decision processes. Developers should also consider women-led groups for better representation[11]. Public meetings and other outreach efforts should take place at times when women can attend and should be adapted to women needs[16].

See also: Publication - Energy and Women and Girls: Analyzing the Needs, Uses, and Impacts of Energy on Women and Girls in the Developing World

Existing Tools

Name Nigeria specific Open source Description
PeopleSuN Survey Data Yes Yes The survey data within the PeopleSuN project comprise responses from 3,599 households and 1,122 enterprises. The survey included a set of questions specifically designed to ascertain the ownership of electrical appliances, as well as the timing of their usage during both the day and night. The dataset is publicly available on PeopleSuN Harvard dataverse for the open access of academic community, local stakeholders and international initiatives.
PeopleSuN Qualitative Data Yes Yes This qualitative study, conducted in rural and peri-urban Nigeria (North West, North Central, South South), aims to inform locally relevant electrification projects by gaining insights into energy needs and motivations, ensuring long-term success and sustainability.
Rural Senses User-Perceived Value approach No Yes The Rural Senses User-Perceived Value approach helps to understand individual preferences and values linked to the use of energy. It helps to understand what is important to local community members and to effectively link this to project design. By ensuring that projects target what local community members truly value, the success rate of interventions can be increased.  The development of this approach is based on previous research work that has been published [4][23].
Powering Renewable Energy Opportunities (PREO) Knowledge Hub No Yes The hub collects information related to productive use of energy. The published resources aim to close critical knowledge gaps in sub-Saharan Africa’s PUE market, helping to uptake PUE, stimulate economies and create jobs. The knowledge hub is clustered in various subject areas like case studies, mini-grids, agri-processing, cold-storage and many more.
Local Solutions Lab by Clean Technology Hub Yes Yes The Nigerian organisation Clean Technology Hub (CTH) applied an innovative approach to identifying community needs and triggering change. The “Local Solutions Lab” (LSL) concept aims to develop community-driven and bottom-up local solutions for sustainable development through a collaborative deep dive into challenges of local stakeholders and opportunities[24]. This experience is featured in a case study that sums up the application of the LSL in Kaduna (North West Nigeria) and Anambra (South West Nigeria) as well as some of the impacts it has had since, in particular in the development of energy-related solutions.
USAID Mini-Grids Support Toolkit No Yes The toolkit includes one module that focuses on community involvement in mini grids. It describes approaches for engaging the local community (including women and other marginalized groups), how to assess a community’s energy needs, how to assess community support, types of conflicts that might arise and how to measure social benefits and impacts of a mini grid project.
Paper: Household Preferences and Willingness to Pay for Electricity Connection in Rural and Peri-urban Nigeria Yes Yes

Case Study

This case study describes the approach of a Local Solutions Lab developed by the Clean Technology Hub. They used a design-thinking approach to identify community needs and solutions. You can view and download the case study here.

Peoplesun Casestudy 2 CTH.pdf


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