The distribution of electricity outside national grids, facilitated through mini-grids, a generic term encompassing various system sizes (pico, micro, mini, or small), stands as the main means of extending access to electricity for rural populations in Africa . In principle this approach should contribute significantly to achieving the MDG7 (Sustainable Development Goal 7: ensuring universal access to reliable, sustainable, and modern energy services at an affordable cost). However, the mini-grids sector faces significant challenges in making substantial progress. National, and at times international, decision-makers encounter difficulties in scaling up this approach due to a lack of compelling evidence regarding its impact, a void that economists and evaluators have so far struggled to fill.
In a series of four articles, we introduce the Cafés Lumière mini-grids project in Madagascar, highlight the limitations of the standard evaluation conducted for accountability purposes, which fails to offer substantive proof of impact, and explore alternative methods for assessing and documenting the socio-economic impacts of the project.
Cafés Lumière in Madagascar: a Shop, a Welcoming place, and a Mini-grid.
The Café Lumière solution, conceived and developed since 2019 by Electriciens sans frontières, provides, in 6 villages in the Vakinankaratra and Itasy regions of Madagascar, a shop with a photovoltaic solar power system, backed up by batteries and a generator.
The Cafés Lumière are unique in their dual role as a mini-grid and a multifunctional energy hub. In other words, the Café Lumière, usually located in the centre of the village, has a shop which offers services such as mobile phone and lamp charging, and supplies electricity to meet other local demands. Thes multi-service platforms deliver energy services and a welcoming space for productive activities which need electricity. The mini-grid supplies electricity from the Café Lumière via local connections to households, businesses, public lighting, and community services. A portion of the electricity consumption for the community services is funded by a contribution collected from sales to other users, households, and businesses.
Four fundamental principles guide the installation of Cafés Lumière :
- Ensure a minimum access to a sustainable electricity service for all members of a rural community.
- Enhance the quality of community services, particularly healthcare and education, by establishing long-term minimum access to electricity.
- Promote the development of private productive activities.
- Contribute to a political and regulatory framework that empowers local stakeholders to oversee and sustain Café Lumière facilities and services over the long term.
This solution is based on a public-private partnership which involves the operator, Anka, the Agence de Développement de l’Électrification Rurale (ADER), the Structures Collectives de Gestion Mixte (SCGM) at the village level, and the solution provider, Electriciens sans frontières.
With a presence established in each of the villages involved, the service provider operates in close proximity to isolated rural populations. This proximity allows for the sharing of relevant information and immediate actions (operation and maintenance of facilities, sale of services, etc.). Furthermore, a remote monitoring system for energy production has been implemented, enabling the tracking of Café Lumière activities, which plays a pivotal role in generating monitoring and evaluation data for the project by compiling monthly activity reports. These meticulously detailed data facilitate a comprehensive examination of the project’s impact.
The primary funding source for the project came from the French Development Agency through the Sectoral Innovation Facility for Non-Governmental Organisations (FISONG) and its replication under an NGO Initiative Note (NIONG).
In its approach, the Cafés Lumière project is an innovative solution. Based on multiparty funding, and in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the project demands consideration for expansion on a broader scale.
Standard Evaluation for Accountability Purposes
Aid agencies use a standard approach to assess the efficient allocation of funds, commissioning an independent firm to produce a report on project completion. This report serves as the final evaluation of the project, as long as it complies with principles of accountability.
This evaluation reports projected results, aligning more with expected rather than observed impacts. In the case of an infrastructure project, the assessment takes place shortly before the planned launch of the equipment, which is often too premature to gauge the expected medium- or long-term effects. While this evaluation fulfils administrative objectives, it may not necessarily enhance our knowledge on how projects contribute to sustainable development goals.
In the context of the Cafés Lumière initiative, the initial analysis conducted on behalf of the French Development Agency concluded that there has been a significant positive impact on the living conditions of the local populations, especially women, and on the enhancement of public services, including education, access to healthcare facilities, and public safety. The findings from focus groups underscore the substantial support provided by this project for fostering economic vitality and the growth of income-generating activities. These results are encouraging and provide an initial indication of the momentum generated by the Cafés Lumière.
However, it is important to note that the evaluation, completed in January 2021, occurred at a time when not all Cafés Lumière projects had reached their full completion. While the multiservice platforms had been launched for all 6 Cafés, only 3 mini-grids were operational, with just 1 having been in operation for over a year. Consequently, the information base collected was too limited in terms of both its timeframe and geographical coverage to draw robust conclusions.
From a methodological perspective, these standard evaluations suffer from several shortcomings. They are deficient not only due to their limited timeframe but also because they lack a counterfactual comparison. The standard evaluation conducted for the French Development Agency in the case of Cafés Lumière does not attempt to compare the treated localities with other similar localities that have not had the same intervention.
Electriciens sans frontière had foreseen this requirement by selecting the 6 treated localities at random from a larger pool of 12 localities. Baseline data on the socio-economic profile was collected in collaboration with FERDI for these 12 localities. However, the use of this survey framework, which is inherently costly, may not have been suitable for 2020, and we will delve into this matter in the fourth article of this series, noting that a second round of the survey in May 2023 is currently being processed. In the meantime, alternative investigative approaches have been explored, combining the utilization of remote sensing data and activity reports from Anka, the operator.
Further reading : Using Remote Sensing: Initial Results on the Impact of Cafés Lumière in the same serie of articles on “Measuring the Impact of Decentralised Electrification Projects”.