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In the push for electricity access in the developing world, many policymakers are trying to figure out where on-grid or off-grid solutions make the most sense. My new CGD paper with colleagues Ben Leo and Jared Kalow asks 39,000 consumers in 12 African countries about their energy use and demand. The big takeaway: African consumers don’t view grid versus off-grid as a binary question.

Among our findings:

  1. Off-grid (non-generator) electricity is largely inadequate. A significant proportion of respondents reported that their off-grid electricity solution did not fulfill any of their power needs, including almost two-thirds of Rwandans with off-grid systems.

    Chart of 10 African countries by percent with access to off-grid electricity

  2. Off-grid customers still exhibit strong demand for grid electricity. In most countries, off-grid respondents reported a high desirability for grid electricity. In fact, demand for a grid connection is significantly higher among off-grid households than those with no electricity at all.

    Chart of whether households in Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria want an electrical connection to the national grid

  3. On-grid customers rely heavily on generators. For example, nearly half of on-grid Nigerians also report generator reliance.

    Chart of the percent of the population that rely on a generator for electricity use across 12 African countries

While these findings undermine a key assumption implicit in the on-grid versus off-grid question, they make sense given energy consumption patterns. Off-grid customers may appreciate the lights and basic appliances (e.g., phone charger, fan, small TV) that off-grid systems can power, but want to move up the energy ladder toward higher power appliances (refrigerator, larger TV) enabled by a grid connection. At the same time, on-grid customers face a host of reliability issues and thus see off-grid options as an important backup. 

So what might this all imply for policymakers or initiatives like Power Africa

  1. We shouldn’t assume rural means off-grid and urban means on-grid. Better information about actual consumer behavior and demand would present a more nuanced picture and a variety of solutions.
  2. Low-energy off-grid solutions should expect growing consumer demand for higher-energy systems over time.
  3. Grid reliability is a major problem.

For more details and further findings, read the full paper, “What Can We Learn about Energy Access and Demand from Mobile-Phone Surveys? Nine Findings from Twelve African Countries.”

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.