In beautiful Lisbon in early May, over 700 delegates come together from all corners of the globe to discuss and learn about collective progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 7, and to plan ahead. SDG7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; a heady goal which we only have 12 years left to reach. The general consensus at the conference was that we are not on track to meet either aspect of the goal, clean cooking or electricity access, although progress on the electricity side is much quicker and some efforts - especially through solar pv - are scaling up rapidly. There are still 17% of the world’s population – over 1 billion people - without electricity access and almost treble that without access to clean cooking.

I travelled to Lisbon with a colleague, Joel Chaney, with advanced knowledge of the headline figures that were to come out of the conference. Having worked with Practical Action on their ‘Poor People’s Energy Outlook’ for the past 2 years I am well aware of the global trends and what is and isn’t working from an end-user's perspective, and have been working with many of the long term data sets that were presented by the World Bank and others for several years. However, what I found most interesting about the conference were the more nuanced trends that are occurring in the sector. So called ‘de-integration’ is a trend that many speakers talked about, describing a market that has larger businesses within it as well as more and more specialist companies. There is a clear move from businesses that provide ‘one-stop-shop’ solutions, e.g. a solar home system with appliances, software platforms and after sales, to modular offerings in which companies utilise specialist appliances, software and after-sales companies. This is an interesting change which reflects a maturing market with greater expertise and competition.

The second major trend surrounds technology transfer. At a recent event at DfID in London a presenter from the Shell Foundation showed a slide which tracked investment flows in off-grid solar. An astonishing 90% of finance has gone to the leading 10 companies. The energy access market is at risk of creating its own equivalent of ‘the big 6’, a term that is used to describe the major electricity companies in the UK – often in a pejorative sense. These leading 10 companies are, for the most part, American and European (with the very notable exception of M-Kopa) and operate in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, India etc as foreign companies. To my mind, there is a very narrow line between social enterprise and extractive enterprise, and as a sector we need to be careful with which horses are backed. Indeed, this is noted by many funders who often find themselves between a rock and a hard place in this regard. In Lisbon there were genuine calls for funders, technologists and trainers to transfer capital, technology and knowledge to local stakeholders throughout the Global South.

Of course, these two major trends are exactly what Connected Energy anticipated and requires for its own success. Joel and I came away from the conference enthused at the state of the market and also excited at the positive feedback on our emergence and positioning as a technology partner to local organisations. We believe that the future of energy access is open, collaborative and truly local.

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