Electric Urbanism: the Governance of Electricity in Urban Africa

This project, led by Idalina Baptista, examines innovative energy practices adopted in rapidly urbanizing areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. It seeks to develop knowledge about the challenges of accessing utility services in the Global South through a case study of the prepaid electricity system in Maputo, Mozambique. This research will identify the dynamics of transition to an electric economy and the prospects for sustainable and socially just forms of urbanization. This project is funded by a grant from the John Fell Fund, University of Oxford, UK.

The project uses an exploratory case study of the prepaid electricity system in Maputo, Mozambique to examine how prepayment may be a socially and politically acceptable model of service delivery in poorly resourced and highly informalized urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).There is now a considerable debate about the conceptual and practical challenges that African urbanization raises to mainstream urban theory, planning, and governance. The challenges are evident in the shortcomings of programmes for slum-eradication and the provision of utilities such as water and sanitation.Electricity is considered the lifeblood of the economy but, unlike water and sanitation, only recently made its way to the agenda of governments, international donors, and private investors in SSA.

Prepaid systems are increasingly popular in the delivery of urban services in SSA. In one stream of research, scholars highlight the a priori advantages of prepayment to service providers and consumers. These findings largely underpin the hopeful ambitions of policymakers seeking to address the continent’s urban crisis in the face of weak governments, scant infrastructure planning, unclear land tenure, and persistent poverty. In another stream of research, scholars scrutinize the inequality and social controls imposed by prepayment on low-income citizens. They critically analyze governments’ attempts at instilling a commitment to an energy system in individuals whose social life rests on a sense of provisionality. Research in this vein pays particular attention to how urban infrastructures, and the technologies associated with them, are usually invested with a specific sociality and politics about who its users are, what kinds of lives they lead, and their political subjectivity. As a result, popular resistance against prepayment of urban services is often mobilized by scholars as expressions of the model’s social and political undesirability in contexts of poverty.

The adoption of prepaid electricity in Mozambique’s urban areas offers evidence that stands in stark contrast to these latter observations. Mozambique has high levels of urban poverty and slum dwelling, low levels of electrification (16% of the population, EDM estimates), and surprisingly high levels of adoption of prepaid electricity (78% of users, EDM estimates). The reasons for this popularity remain understudied and merit further investigation in the wake of the country’s efforts to substantially expand the energy grid, reshape its land policy, and alleviate poverty. In no small measure, the reception and political success of the prepaid electricity system will hinge upon the capacities of public (or private) enterprise, planning and land regularization policies, and the improvement of conditions of urban living.

This project contributes to knowledge about the urban condition in SSA by paying attention to the links between energy policy, infrastructure governance, land regularization policies, and everyday livelihoods.