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Driving a Sustainable Future Through Empowered Frontline Communities

In energy development, context matters and local analysts are a must.

Rose Mutiso speaking at a TED Talk. (Photo Courtesy of TED)

Think about it: an American family’s refrigerator consumes more electricity in a year than the average personin Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal or Ghana.

Californians use more electricity playing video games than the entire country of Senegal.

And of the one out of 10 people globally who still lack access to electricity, more than half live in sub-Saharan Africa.

These points underscore that “whatever is left of our global carbon budget should go to lower-income countries for their development,” said Rose M. Mutiso, research director for the Energy for Growth Hub, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The data also highlights the urgency of transforming our approach toward a just energy transition by infusing global energy policies with local contexts that center frontline communities.

“When it comes to energy development, context really matters,” Mutiso said. “Solutions parachuted in from a distance, often divorced from the reality on the ground, can end up hurting more than helping.”

This is why Energy for Growth Hub is developing a 10-year initiative, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, to back African research and analyst teams pursuing longer-term projects that add to the evidence base around energy target-setting.

  • Rose Mutiso speaking at a TED Talk (Photo Courtesy of TED)
    Rose Mutiso speaks at TEDSummit: A Community Beyond Borders. July 21-25, 2019, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Often on the global stage, “Africans are basically rendered invisible in their own policy discussions,” Mutiso said. “We have to end this unworkable status quo. African research and expertise are not optional.”

The support comes in the form of a flexible fund that is intended to allow teams time for deep thinking and context-based innovations. “We will offer deadlines and criteria, but we don’t want to over-prescribe,” Mutiso said.

“When we think about energy transitions, we have to think about what we are transitioning from, as well as what we are transitioning to,” said Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President, Power and Climate, at The Rockefeller Foundation.

  • Fighting climate change means we can’t continue business as usual. But we also have to center global equity. That involves involving frontline communities, especially those experiencing energy poverty. That’s why Energy for Growth Hub’s work is so important.
    Ashvin Dayal
    Senior Vice President, Power
    The Rockefeller Foundation

From Ozone Layer Coloring Books to Energy Fellowships

Mutiso grew up in Nairobi, the youngest of six children. Her mom was a civil servant at the Ministry of Environment and her father a university geography professor. She received early exposure to environmental issues; for example, an ozone layer coloring book was a childhood gift.

She was also exposed to global news. “At a weirdly young age, I was immersed in the goings on in global feminism, and it really inspired me,” she recalled. At age 9, she closely followed the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where Hillary Clinton declared “women’s rights are human rights.”

“It planted a seed,” Mutiso recalled. “I was part of something happening in the world with women.”

Rose Mutiso inspects solar panels in Amboseli National Park in Kajiado County, Kenya. (Photo Courtesy of Rose Mutiso)

This led eventually to the birth of the Mawazo Institute, which Mutiso co-founded and formerly led as CEO. Mawazo supports the next generation of female scholars and thought leaders in East Africa as they find solutions to local and global development issues.

Mutiso’s focus on energy was fostered when she served as an Energy and Innovation Policy Fellow in U.S. Senator Chris A. Coons (D-Del) office after completing her PhD in materials science and engineering. There, she co-authored several pieces of legislation that later became law.

“Going from the lab to congress was a bit of a culture shock,” Mutiso said, “but it showed me how important it is for scientists to engage in policy because the problems our public institutions are trying to solve are getting more and more complex. We need more nerds in the room when decisions about our future are being made.”

Her interest in energy policy deepened during her time as a Senior Fellow in the Office of International Climate and Clean Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she led engagement around technologies and policies of energy access in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Critically, this experience enabled her to add a developing country focus to her work, realizing her longtime goal to use her scientific background to help solve problems with relevance back home on the African continent.

Rants and Raves

Mutiso also co-hosts “High Energy Planet,” a podcast on how to end energy poverty. Sometimes she asks guests, such as Ashvin Dayal who leads The Rockefeller Foundation’s Power and Climate program, to respond with a brief rant or rave in response to phrases.

Here are Mutiso’s own rants and raves:

  • Carbon credits: Massive rant. But it could work if we had a way to price carbon meaningfully and transparently.
  • Loss and Damage: Mixed. Poor countries are undeniably dealing with mounting costs, and rich countries who are responsible for the climate crisis should help share—it is a debt that is owed. So, in principle I agree with the loss and damage concept. But in practice, I am skeptical that it will come to fruition in a meaningful way as opposed to piling on to the long list of unmet climate finance commitments. Another challenge common to all forms of climate finance is that we actually don’t know what projects should be eligible, nor how to deploy funding meaningfully. So there’s a lot to figure out beyond just putting pressure on rich countries to pay up.
  • COP28 and future COPS: Mixed. In principle, a platform that includes lower-resourced countries and allows all countries to rachet up ambition and negotiate a global agenda is great. In practice, hard work and action on the ground is what we ultimately need. So perhaps we focus on fewer signature events, and more on actual implementation at the country and regional levels.
  • Environmental Justice: Rave. Environment—good. Justice—good. But the lesson for the future is how can we make all these terms actually meaningful for people on the ground. Otherwise, we are in buzzword land. See also: women’s empowerment.

Centering African Research for Africa’s Solutions

As part of its previous work, the Energy for Growth Hub has proposed raising the modern energy minimum for how energy poverty is defined, so that the goal is not just enough energy to meet basic needs, but enough to support productive sectors in developing economies.

Over the past two years, Mutiso and her colleagues at the Energy for Growth Hub have also been exploring the question of how African and other energy poor countries can set and implement energy transition strategies that align with their specific needs and ambitions, rather than deferring to generic prescriptions from donors and other external players.

  • Energy for Growth Hub Graphic compares energy use between U.S. cities and states and African countries (Photo Courtesy of Energy for Growth Hub)
    Energy for Growth Hub Graphic compares energy use between U.S. cities and states and African countries. (Photo Courtesy of Energy for Growth Hub)

They started by convening a monthly working group to explore what “net zero” – or the target of balancing greenhouse gas emissions with carbon absorption – meant for Africa.

“We focused on this idea of how a net zero target is set. There has to be hardcore analysis and modeling, a strong technical underpinning,” Mutiso said. “This technical work also has to be done in lockstep with policymakers and other local stakeholders, who should inform the underlying assumptions and questions explored via modeling and other technical work.

The group has so far produced two reports on this topic, together with commentaries published in the journals Nature and Science. One key learning: most African countries lack the human and institutional capacities necessary to produce robust and locally relevant energy-systems data, analysis, and transition planning – or to feed that analysis into actual policy decisions and processes. That led to the idea of the fund to support this ecosystem in Africa.

In low-resource countries, “big modeling and target-setting exercises centered on climate mitigation won’t have a big impact. Economic development and climate adaptation are the most important things, and our analyses should reflect this” Mutiso said. “To take local context into account, we want to support the building of more local independent expertise for research, data collection, and modeling.”

“How can countries pursue low-emissions energy transitions that enhance broader development goals, and on what timeline? What technologies and policies should be prioritized, and what data gaps must be filled? African researchers should be answering these questions.”

She also wants to continue to support women in these fields.

“In the energy sector, the analytics, infrastructure, and financial aspects are male-dominated. It can’t be that all of the smart people with good ideas are men. We need to invest more to bring women to the table, both because we need to put all the best brains at our disposal, and because how we design our energy future will have a significant bearing on women’s lived experiences.”

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