A Tool Kit to Identify Energy Solutions in Off-Grid Areas


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A new package of data-collection and decision-making tools helps communities with poor energy access make informed decisions about how to meet their most pressing energy needs. MIT D-Lab’s Energy Assessment Toolkit is aimed at organizations that work closely with communities that have been overlooked in the work to provide energy to everyone around the world.

While aid organizations tend to focus on dense populations where infrastructure can serve the most people, and private business seeks optimum markets, hard-to-reach and sparsely populated communities can fall through the cracks.

In 2015, MIT D-Lab began working with Mercy Corps to develop the tool kit with a goal to create a means by which organizations with strong connections in off-grid communities can assess energy needs and select market-based solutions for residents and businesses.

Expertise in the energy sector is not necessary to use the tool kit. The essential qualifications are a strong presence in the community and the ability to take action based on the opportunities identified. Organizations that have used the tool kit include community-based businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society organizations. They all have ongoing programs in off-grid regions and are looking to further develop energy access programs that leverage their existing connections with communities.

The Energy Assessment Toolkit, which is open-source and available online, includes surveys and interview guides that an organization can use to gather information from a range of stakeholders, such as community residents, business owners, government officials, and others.

Lamine Keïta (left) preparing for an interview in Segou, Mali. Image: Eric Verploegen / MIT D-Lab

The kind of information the surveys and interviews explore includes current energy access and expenditures, aspirational energy needs, existing supply chain, community institutions, and stakeholders (private sector, government, NGO).

The tool kit is modular, allowing the organization conducting the assessment to determine the scope and scale of the study. In addition to the data collection tools, the tool kit includes data entry and visualization tools that can be used to analyze data and guide the design of the assessment plan by identifying technologies and business models that address the most pressing needs in a specific area. The goal is to enable organizations to collect the information needed to make informed decisions about how to meet the particular needs in their community through market-based initiatives.

An example is an assessment conducted by Mercy Corps in Mali, which identified the need for households to reduce the money spent on cooking fuel.

It also found that the major reason why efficient cookstoves had not reached this market was a poor supply chain beset by security issues in the northern part of the country. Mercy Corps is now helping facilitate the distribution of cookstoves by connecting manufacturers in southern

Mali to wholesalers and entrepreneurs in northern Mali.

The Energy Assessment Toolkit is part of a larger suite of initiatives developed as part of the MIT D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Roadmap. D-Lab is also working on developing and curating resources to help organizations identify technologies and business models that can meet the needs of off-grid communities and guidance for designing pilot programs and market deployment.

MIT D-Lab is known for its work in Creative Capacity Building, an approach to international development that trains people in resource-poor settings around the world to create or adapt technologies that will improve their lives and strengthen their communities. In this way, people become active creators of technology, not just recipients or users of technology. The Energy Assessment Toolkit approaches development in a similar way; it views organizations with a strong local presence as powerful agents of change and provides the tools and training necessary to assess community needs and implement the right solutions to meet the energy needs of the community in which they work.

Eric Verploegen leads the MIT D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Group.

While aid organizations tend to focus on dense populations where infrastructure can serve the most people, hard-to-reach and sparsely populated communities can fall through the cracks.

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November 2017

by Eric Verploegen, MIT D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Group