Interview: Professor Yacob Mulugetta
Professor of Energy and Development Policy at Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at the University College London (UCL)
What is your role with EEG?
I co-led the development of EEG’s Ethiopia programme, with a focus on understanding the research gaps and priorities of Ethiopia’s power sector. This involved face-to-face interviews with key stakeholders to hear their perspectives around the challenges the power sector is facing, and identifying research opportunities that can make an immediate contribution. The stakeholder list included policy makers, key decision makers in government, academics, private sector representatives, NGOs and international agencies such as the World Bank and UN. We held some excellent discussions with key decision makers at the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE). The information gathered through this mission allowed us to build a good picture of some of the critical knowledge gaps and research needs in the sector.
I also co-organised a workshop in Addis Ababa in June 2018, attended by high-level policy and decision makers, national and international energy experts, and representatives from academia, the private sector, civil society organisations, and international organisations. The meeting was organised by MoWIE in collaboration with EEG and the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London (UCL). The purpose of this event was to identify and prioritise research gaps affecting energy access with the potential to lead to more rapid generation of subsequent research and to outline capacity development priorities in Ethiopia’s electricity sector.
These two engagements led to the production of a report and a call for proposals. Subsequently about twenty projects have been identified – some will be funded through EEG now and others have been earmarked for when other funders come on board.
What interests you about energy and international development and this intersection?
Energy and development has been at the heart of my professional life throughout my career. You cannot deliver an economic or social programme without adequate and reliable energy services, as energy is the enabler of economic transformation and social change. However this requires thinking about the need for energy systems to be responsive to demand and sensitive to local environmental conditions and climate systems. We now have the sustainable development goals (SDGs) which give us a good mechanism to look at energy and its relationship with social, economic and environmental systems.
I am particularly interested in energy provision in rural and peri-urban areas, much of these areas in Ethiopia are unserved by modern energy. Historically, the policy drive was to expand the grid as far as possible as the answer to energy access questions. But new thinking is on the horizon that looks at energy services at different scales and deploying a variety of options. This change in thinking has been possible because of the continued drop in the price of renewables over the past decade and the emergence of high efficiency appliances, which bring down the cost of energy services further. We should also be pleased that a new generation of decision makers have come to the scene who see the importance of a diversified energy landscape to address needs, consisting of grid, mini-grid, and standalone systems as part of the energy mix to meet different energy needs.
What drew you to work on this project in Ethiopia with the EEG team?
Many people in Africa and parts of Asia still lack access to electricity. For example, some 65% of people, over 60 million people in Ethiopia have no access to energy. This condition needs to change.
Over my professional career, I have done much research and policy work that touches on the challenges EEG sets out to address. I see the EEG vision of strengthening the power sector through the deployment of new technologies and building the country institutional capacity and human capabilities as being fundamental to development. I am very interested in the broader development challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa, and so I came to the project with existing relationships with stakeholders in Ethiopia and a background in understanding how the conditions of large populations of people un-served by energy can be improved by energy provision. I was therefore very pleased to be approached by EEG to contribute to building their Ethiopia programme.
I am also interested in low carbon technologies and the important role they can play in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Ethiopia is one of the few countries that is experimenting with some ambition in this area. It is both an exciting and challenging time to get involved in energy work in Ethiopia.
I like the systems wide approach EEG takes. It really feels like we are bringing together different players, approaches, frameworks and tools in the energy sector in an important new way.
What impact would you like the project to have?
The reception of the project from Ethiopian stakeholders has been very encouraging. I hope EEG’s individual projects will deliver good value for energy research in Ethiopia, but also I see that the programme could serve as a catalyst for growing research in energy systems, attracting more investment on research to build institutional and human capacity in this area. Support from EEG and similar initiatives in strengthening institutions will be important.
It is also important that the the programme aims to meet the needs of MoWIE and support in a meaningful way the Ministry’s research capability through the specific activities and the various partnerships forged to address knowledge gaps.
The programme could also act as a stimulant to leverage more research attention and funding from other donors, but we do need to engage the Ministry to expand this side of the mission.
What have been EEG's biggest achievements in Ethiopia so far?
We are still at the beginning of the process. But the commitment and excitement that the EEG engagement generated from stakeholders has been encouraging. For example, the workshop brought together a significant number of influential people who participated and contributed to enrich the discussions and the recommendations. Senior people from the Ministry joined the workshop and took an active part in the breakout sessions, which demonstrates their commitment to the programme and ownership of the process.
The process so far has shown that there is fertile ground for energy research in Ethiopia, backed by strong policy maker commitment.
What are the challenges?
Obviously projects need to be delivered and the quality of the research output will be shaped by the level of support and commitment from the research partners and end-users. Each project will need to work hard to nurture interest in the work, and maintain the levels of commitment and enthusiasm from key stakeholders over the duration of the project. EEG will also need to work hard in building relationships with the key stakeholders and end-users of the selected projects in order to maximize impact and potentially build new pipelines of research projects.
And of course, all this is happening whilst Ethiopia continues to move through a process of political change.
What’s next on the project?
We have to live up to our own and other’s expectations on delivery. Projects will soon go to the next round of proposals and selections will take place. They will be assessed on their academic and research merit as well as value for money.
EEG and its team will need to keep engagement up with the Ministry, which has been forthright in its support, bringing it with us, in the process of selection.
After selection, then we move to implementation! EEG’s Ethiopia programme will have two and a half years of project implementation, whilst in the background asking can we make something bigger out of this? Can we support Ethiopian institutions to do more? They are ready to engage and it’s exciting to see what other donor support may come forward, catalysed by the existence of this programme.
MoWIE has its own research and development unit, and they are considering part funding some projects, which shows strong interest and ownership on their part. They are objectively identifying the challenges they face and the EEG programme has a role in strengthening their internal capacity to think about what more can be done.