Actors, Agency and Politics in Sustainability Transitions: Evolution of the solar PV market in East Africa

Access to clean, reliable and affordable energy services is fundamental to economic and social well-being. Yet nearly 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. International commitments aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring universal access to energy services, principally the Paris Agreement of the UN Climate Change Convention and the UN SE4ALL Sustainable Development Goal 7, have created a momentum for African countries to transition to more sustainable low-carbon energy pathways.
Such commitments can be attained through targeted policies pursuing systemic changes, which include strategic and deliberate actions on the part of multiple actors to consolidate their efforts, collaborate, develop pragmatic solutions and ensure just and socially inclusive outcomes. Towards this end, transnational actors, such as aid agencies, financial institutions, non-profit organizations and private firms play a crucial role through their involvement in framing agendas, engaging in policy advice and mobilizing resources, both technical and financial.
Against this background, the objective of this thesis is to investigate how these transnational actors operate and influence the transition to solar PV in East Africa, focusing specifically on off-grid and utility-scale solar PV systems in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. By investigating the dynamics of transnational linkages, external dependencies and global-local entanglements shaping specific transition pathways, the thesis contributes to an improved understanding of agency and politics in the sustainability transitions literature. The research topic is investigated through multiple case studies presented in the form of four articles that comprise the thesis. Article 1 adopts a ‘transnational’ perspective to analyze the development of the off-grid solar PV regime in Uganda. It identifies how transnational actors mobilize key resources (finance, technology, knowledge) to enable the PV transition. Article 2 adopts an agency-centric ‘policy translation’ perspective to analyze the process by which actors modify and localize imported policies, thereby accelerating the transition to utility-scale solar PV in Uganda. Article 3 adopts the actor-centered concept of ‘frictional encounters’ from the Sino-African literature to study the micro-politics and actor struggles as they unfold between Chinese and Kenyan actors during the development process of a utility-scale solar PV niche project. Article 4 integrates the MLP framework with a ‘political economy’ perspective to analyze the utility-scale solar PV niche against the background of the niche-regime-landscape dynamics in Rwanda.
The thesis applies qualitative research methods, mainly semi-structured interviews and document analyses in order to provide detailed and context-specific insights. The dynamics of change are analyzed through the multilevel perspective (MLP), as a well-known framework. The thesis contributes to further develop the MLP by establishing a more actor-oriented approach, which is necessary to understand actor interests and strategies in pursuit of particular transition trajectories. The thesis develops a typology of transnational actors and identifies their specific roles and characteristics. It makes use of transition frameworks to explore
agency by nuancing simplified actor categories, assessing the underlying motives, and by explicitly unraveling the micro-politics. The thesis also highlights the interplay of transnational and local agency, which is pertinent in the highly globalized energy regimes, but has received limited attention in the literature. In doing so, the thesis explores strategic and intentional actions, locates the relative position and influence exerted by specific transnational actors, and explores the socio-political processes underpinning sustainability transitions.
The thesis demonstrates that the diffusion of off-grid solar PV systems in East Africa has witnessed a shift in the actor-drivers in recent years, away from international donors and NGOs toward more private-sector engagement. This observed shift has entailed a change in the modus operandi of development actors. While the off-grid PV sector has evolved over many decades in, the utility-scale PV systems have only emerged over the last five years. The thesis finds that cost competitiveness, tailored policy instruments, investor risk guarantees, and improved regulatory procedures have enabled this recent emergence. Such niche developments have occurred against various regime and landscape pressures.
The thesis highlights the important role played by higher levels of leadership (i.e. state and regulatory actors) in prioritizing and accelerating the development of solar PV projects. Further, the thesis explores the nature of the involvement of ‘rising powers’ in Africa, such as China, acting as technology suppliers, developers, and investors in the development of utility-scale PV projects, reflective of the growing importance of South-South cooperation in shaping energy markets. Finally, the thesis finds that the nature of global-local multi-actor relations and politics is crucial to shaping specific transition outcomes. Transnational actors act as knowledge and funding repositories, whereas national actors provide legitimacy and institutional embeddedness. Accelerating the process of decarbonisation of the energy systems requires political work, negotiations, agency and power to wield influence, strong political commitment, and willingness to adapt to or modify institutional structures. These insights provide useful lessons that could be used for outcomes in support of the Paris Agreement and SDG7.

Authors:Padmasai Lakshmi Bhamidipati
Published year:2019
Content type:Ph.D. thesis
File: Download
Orbit ID:2f1b7fca-9fe8-4f7e-b1e9-32666eae1885
Publisher:UNEP DTU Partnership
Is current:Current
No. of pages:194