Before choosing the technology, system size or ownership model, a mini-grid project developer must understand the local context and the community’s needs. Communities are usually both the customers and beneficiaries of mini-grid projects, and they sometimes own and operate mini-grids. Community engagement is critical. Actively addressing community needs during the planning phase helps ensure buy-in, maintaining community involvement over time improves sustainability.
Community Involvement by Project Stage
Communities may be more involved in some stages of a project than others. In all projects, communities should play a significant role in planning. Communities may also play a role in determining the best ownership model and/or operating and maintaining the mini-grid.
- Determining Ownership
- Selecting the best ownership model for the mini-grid’s generation and distribution systems
- Establishing partnerships
- Involving local government and social structures
- Operation and Maintenance (O&M)
- Assessing local capacity needs
- Building local managerial and technical capacity
- Providing ongoing training and technical assistance
Further Explanation of Key Points
Community engagement at the planning stage gives a project developer a better understanding of the community’s energy needs, willingness to pay for energy services, available resources and local economic conditions. Members of the community should play an active role in the community needs assessment, a key part of the planning process.
Members of the local community often have critical information about energy resources. For example, communities might be able to map the location and seasonal variability of water sources. This information is important for siting mini-hydro plants, as well as determining an appropriate tariff type for the electricity produced by the plant. Community engagement can also help clarify resource rights. Understanding local resource rights during the planning process can prevent resource-based conflicts later.
Community engagement helps project developers understand their customers, their energy needs and how those needs are likely to change over time. Mini-grid developers can determine how much communities are able and willing to pay for energy services. During the planning process, developers can communicate with community members about how much electricity they will have access to, when it will be available and how much it will cost. Setting realistic expectations can prevent future conflict.
Early involvement helps communities understand payment requirements and responsible use of energy services. Developers can design payment models that align with local patterns of income flow. During the planning phase, communities can learn about uses of electricity beyond task lighting, mobile phone charging and other commonly requested services. Educating communities about productive uses of energy can help stimulate additional demand.
Barriers to Effective Community Engagement
Community engagement can be challenging, time consuming and resource intensive. The long-term gains of a successful project, however, outweigh the short-term investments in community engagement. By anticipating and addressing barriers to community participation, developers can increase the likelihood of a project’s success. Barriers to effective community participation include indifference, participation fatigue, a culture of non-participation, language barriers, elite capture and local conflicts.
Communities may simply lack interest in the mini-grid project. They might see participation as a waste of time and resources. In communities where many outside organizations are planning and implementing different development projects at the same time, community members may feel overburdened by participation requirements. Other communities may lack a culture of active participation in electricity service provision. The community may consider state or local government bodies responsible for providing the provision of energy services.
Language barriers can also hinder community engagement. When project developers can’t communicate directly with local community members, frustration and misunderstanding can result. Working through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other organizations can help developers surmount language barriers.
Community participation can also fail due to elite capture. Elite capture is when privileged members of society dominate the community engagement process. Community elites are defined by age, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, religion, ethnicity and/or other characteristics. When community engagement falls prey to elite capture, the developer only learns the views and needs of a select, privileged few, not the community at large.
Finally, local conflicts inhibit effective community engagement. Groups in conflict with one another may not be willing to cooperate on projects, even mutually beneficial mini-grid projects. Local politics and changes in local leadership may also hinder community participation.
Gender and Community Engagement
Successful community engagement involves both women and men, as well as members of representatives from other disadvantaged groups. Women and men often have different energy service needs and knowledge of local resources. To meet the energy needs of the whole community, project developers need to understand these differences as well as the barriers to women’s participation. In many rural communities, women have very little say in decisions about issues that affect them directly.
Without inclusive planning, women may not have access to energy services and energy-based, income-generation opportunities. In many communities, women have less money and fewer opportunities to earn money than men do. Because women often lack access to credit, their ability to invest in income-generating activities is limited. As a result, women who need energy services or want to invest in productive uses of energy many not be able to afford it.
Women’s input can also strengthen the technical design of a mini-grid project. Involving women in project planning provides valuable information about land, water, biomass and other resources relevant to mini-grid development. Because women depend on natural resources to meet agricultural, water and household energy needs, they often know more than men about the location and seasonality of the resources. Understanding women’s resource-use patterns will also help ensure that a mini-grid project doesn’t impede their access to water and other essential resources.
Involving women in mini-grid project development requires conscious effort. Women-only focus groups are a good way to ensure that women have input. Public meetings and other outreach efforts should take place at times when women can attend, and developers should use outreach methods that target women.
Possible owners of a mini-grid system include governments, public utilities, communities, private businesses or some combination of these actors. Developers may want to consult the community when selecting the best ownership model for the project based on the project’s operating environment.
Some donor-funded mini-grid projects give communities sole ownership. In other projects, communities partner with utilities or private-sector actors. In projects where the community owns or co-owns the mini-grid, community members should play an active role in setting up the ownership structure. Community members often provide land for the facility, either as a donation or in exchange for compensation.
The micro-hydro mini-grid in Long Lawen, Malaysia is a good example of a project created by multiple partners but ultimately owned by the community. Local and international NGOs collaborated with the local community to design and build the project. Upon completion, the community assumed sole ownership and management responsibilities.
When projects include community ownership, project developers need to understand local governance structures. The developer might need to establish local ownership around existing social structures. Understanding local governance structures can also help a project developer identify influential community members to champion the mini-grid effort.
Operations and Maintenance
In projects where local communities help operate and maintain the mini-grid, project developers might need to build local technical and managerial capacity. Communities that lack the necessary expertise to maintain a system may abandon the project after the developer leaves and withdraws technical support.
Community engagement can help identify gaps in local capacity. Developers can then design training and other capacity-building activities to target the community’s specific needs such as sourcing providers for replacement parts. Even after local capacity building, communities typically need sustained access to training and technical assistance to maintain mini-grid projects.
Putting it into Practice
The following guide is designed to help plan for effective community participation. Mini-grid developers can work with communities to answer these questions.
A. Which activities will communities participate in?
- Identify all planning activities in which communities will participate. Examples include collecting and sharing information, determining local energy needs and priorities, conducting resource mapping and indentifying project site selection.
- Identify all ownership-related activities in which communities will participate. Examples include determining management structures, setting performance indicators and targets and monitoring and evaluating mini-grid functions.
- Identify all O&M activities in which communities will participate. Examples include maintaining technology, collecting payments and monitoring and evaluating mini-grid performance.
B. Who will participate?
C. How will stakeholders participate?
D. What resources are available? What other resources are needed?
- Identify the human, financial, technical and other resources needed for effective community engagement such as input from community members and interested stakeholders and background information on the topic
Relevant Case Studies
Island Mini-Grids in West Bengal. The West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA), a government agency in India, created local cooperatives as its partners in mini-grid development. Together with communities, WBREDA has developed 23 mini-grids serving 10,000 customers throughout West Bengal.
Alliance for Rural Electrification (2011). Hybrid Mini-Grids for Rural Electrification: Lessons Learned.
This resource provides a comprehensive summary of the lessons learned from projects implemented by members of the Alliance for Rural Electrification. The report addresses the key technical, financial, organizational and institutional issues in developing of sustainable and replicable mini-grid implementation models.
Agarwal, V., et al. (2014). Rural Energy Alternatives in India: Opportunities in Financing and Community Engagement for Renewable Energy Microgrid Projects.
This report explores the role of innovative financing mechanisms and community engagement in scaling up mini-grid development in India. The report analyzes how community participation in early-stage feasibility studies, demand characterization, O&M, revenue collection and customer retention strategies can facilitate mini-grid development and scaling up.
USAID (2015). Building a Safer World: Toolkit for Integrating GBV Prevention and Response Into USAID Energy and Infrastructure Projects.
This toolkit provides a guide for technical and program officers working in energy and infrastructure to integrate gender-based violence prevention and response into their work.
USAID (2018). Guide to Community Engagement for Power Projects in Kenya.
This guide outlines how electricity producers can best engage with electricity consumers. Developed with input from local communities, government agencies, private sector developers, finance institutions, and Kenyan and international civil society organizations, the guide features real-world examples and is customized to reflect country-specific laws, customs and institutions that developers in Kenya must navigate.