Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2018 (PPEO)

Review by Christine Juta

Author: Practical Action
Practical Action is a development charity that uses technology to fight poverty by increasing the capabilities of the impoverished to improve their access to technical options and knowledge. The organisation works internationally and envisions a sustainable world, free of poverty and injustice, in which technology is used for the benefit of all.

Type of publication

Poor People’s Energy Outlook (PPEO) is one of Practical Action’s flagship annual reports and was launched in 2010 to shine a light on energy access from the perspectives of poor populations. The series challenges the energy sector's focus on large-scale infrastructure projects and energy resources. It asks for emphasis on the most relevant energy services to the poor.

This edition, published in 2018, considers how to deliver energy at scale without leaving anyone behind. PPEO 2018 (delivery) underlines the need to strike a balance between reaching energy access at scale in an inclusive way, simultaneously building on PPEO 2016 (planning) and PPEO 2017 (financing). These three publications set out a roadmap for bottom-up energy access. The report indicates that achieving SDG7 requires a variety of energy access interventions.  


The evolution of energy access has taken us through government-led approaches (1970s), energy sector liberalization (1980s) and recently, a combination (public–private partnerships). However, universal access remains out of reach. Energy access programmes that achieve scale leave the most marginalized communities behind. This is largely because scale implies standardization, which implies indifference to specific conditions and constraints. Frequently, these programmes disregard what communities have and what they really need. A large programme is costly, connecting marginalized communities presents the highest net per capita cost. Therefore, this is what a private or public planner is inclined to disregard.

On the other side, programmes that specifically target marginalized communities have found it difficult to achieve significant scale. There is a need for innovative and adaptable methods for achieving electricity and clean cooking access at scale. This is because understanding the causes of marginalization and finding a way to overcome them is a difficult task, whose cost is not justified by energy access only.

PPEO 2018 explores interventions linking sustainable energy and poverty reduction by highlighting the importance of solutions that integrate inclusivity and scale.

How did Practical Action face the task?

The starting point was a case study of 6 plans: 2 off-grid electricity, 2 cooking and 2 grid electricity programmes across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Interviews and workshops from the community to the national level provided each programme’s local conditions and the situation analyses. This was followed by an assessment of programme elements including policy, finance, supply and demand, as well as outcomes for scale and inclusion.        

Main statements by thematic areas

In this report, Practical Action recognises that “business as usual” has ignored billions of the world’s poorest citizens. Although large-scale grid extension programmes have contributed significantly to global figures, questions remain on reliability, affordability, and those still left behind.  

PPEO 2018 emphasises the need to strike a balance between reaching energy access at scale in an inclusive way. A mix of different energy access interventions must be pursued, to ensure no one is left behind in achieving SDG7. 

Off-grid electricity

The two case studies on off-grid electricity;

  • Nepal Rural Energy Development Programme, 1996–2011 (15 years)
  • South Africa Solar Home Systems programme, 1999–2018 (19 years)

Due to the remoteness and sparse population in rural communities, off-grid solutions have proven to be more economically viable. Despite the obvious need for rural electrification, private-sector companies will inevitably target the most profitable market segments first. Therefore, public finance for subsidies remains crucial in targeting the poorest. The success of these programmes hinges on multi-stakeholder processes and decentralized decision-making. Nepal was slow to take off because of lack of coordination and standardization. This illustrates the effect of standardization on achieving scale while involving the community to ensure inclusivity.

Community ownership of electrification projects allows a higher level of decentralization as it also builds local capacity and skills.

Clean Cooking

The two case studies on clean cooking;

  • Ghana Clean Cook Stoves programme, 2002–07 (5 years)
  • Kenya Biogas Programme, 2009–18 (9 years)

Both cases bring out the gender dynamics of access to clean cooking, as women are the most affected. This is due to the numerous barriers to inclusion, such as the high upfront cost of buying a better stove.  Social and cultural constraints in these patriarchal communities deny women access to consumer finance. In most cases, women lack savings and do not own assets. As a result, women may not have control over household decisions on the purchase of costly household items.

As such, programmes must be designed with components that address the barriers to women’s participation. It is important to develop economic activities related to the provision of clean cooking technologies, as this ensures sustainability of the programmes.

Grid Electricity

The two case studies on grid electricity;

  • India Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana programme, 2005–15 (10 years)
  • Peru Rural Electrification Project, 2006–13 (7 years)

While there has been progress on electricity access, through grid extension programmes, the quality of service remains far from satisfactory. This is because public programmes are less inclusive due to the large scale in which they are implemented. In the initial phases of the project, villagers were not consulted, which caused errors in design and cost estimates. It is important to understand fully, what the consumer has and what they really need. This highlights the need for effective mechanisms for policies and programmes to adapt to changing circumstances.


There has been progress in increasing electricity access, largely through grid extension programmes, yet quality of service remains far from satisfactory. There is no one solution but rather, a mix of programmes considering both scale and inclusivity is required. Planning and delivery models need to integrate grid, off-grid and clean cooking solutions. Planning demands an understanding of the total energy access service needs of rural communities, as well as a mapping of the framework in order to offer a range of appropriate delivery models. 

Enabling the full participation of women in the attainment of SGD7 hinges on the adoption of gender-sensitive and transformative solutions. These have the potential to boost company bottom lines, and at the same time achieve programme success which should reflect not just numbers of connections, but aspects of remoteness, poverty and gender.   

There remains a need for innovative ways of scaling up programmes, while retaining the richness and quality of smaller scale initiatives. It is important to approach scale holistically, addressing not only the quality of supply, but also blockages in finance, weak demand and policy shortcomings.