CHOICES community energy project, South Africa


South Africa has made progress in low-carbon development, resource efficiency and climate resilience, but bringing communities into the energy planning processes will help to tackle poverty and improve sustainable development outcomes.

CHOICES project team

The CHOICES project (Community and Household Options In Choosing Energy Services) in South Africa's Eastern Cape seeks to enable communities to make sustainable energy choices that reduce energy poverty and stimulate local development. The project is led locally by OneWorld (South Africa), with research, communications and project management inputs from IIED, and additional expert contributions from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI, India).

I now know enough to engage the renewable energy space with confidence, thanks to the CHOICES-SA Project. The project has assisted me to execute my mandate on this subject with authority. Additionally my constituency is equally empowered to support me and hold me to account.

– Mr MK Mali, Ward Councillor and Project Steering Committee-Chairperson

Funded by the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), the project focuses on building local people's capacity to participate in identifying and exploring locally appropriate energy options with greater community benefits. A green economy needs to take root at the level of rural, outlying and poor communities if it is to transform society as a whole. Green economy thinking needs to be appropriate to the local context and relevant to citizens, incorporating their perspectives, needs and aspirations (notably their need for jobs).

The CHOICES approach is to work closely with communities. A local steering committee was first set up and a series of capacity-building workshops held with local community members to build understanding of energy access issues and opportunities, including example business models.

People were then encouraged to identify and prioritise energy access options for the community. This was supported with participatory energy access surveys at the community and household level. The overall aim was to identify a portfolio of energy investment options with community buy-in as a way to reduce investor risks, thus attracting appropriate investment partners.

CHOICES seeks to complement the current efforts of the South African government, and push to enable greater community involvement in their implementation. The government has provided policy support for independent power providers that has stimulated investment in the renewable energy sector and community development projects. South Africa's Green Economy Accord of 2011 and various economic development policies also recognise the importance of job creation and market-based opportunities. The Department of Energy has a target to ensure that all households have energy access by 2025 including with renewable energy.

CHOICES also seeks to stimulate investor-community dialogue via expert meetings and engagement. For investors, under-developed communities represent 'base-of-the-pyramid' markets with huge growth potential, but these markets are currently high risk with long-term/low return investment prospects.

Small-scale innovations that work at the community level show potential for broader adoption, but this will take time and proof of concept. Through research, training and awareness-raising, these innovations can be scaled up and replicated for high impact. Investors need to understand these markets better, while government and donors need to understand ways of stimulating these markets. One way to improve understanding is through detailed case study analysis and effective dissemination of findings in language that investors, governments and donors will understand.

OneWorld and IIED are now seeking funding to work with the Blue Crane Route Municipality to develop a business plan as a foundation for further engagement between community leaders, the Blue Crane Development Agency and potential public and private sector investors. This will include the Eastern Cape provincial government, which has shown interest in replicating the CHOICES approach across the Eastern Cape. At IIED, we are documenting the learning from the first phase of CHOICES on this web page and will use the experience in future projects. We are developing approaches for enhanced community involvement in decision-making and implementation of energy access projects. The dialogues in South Africa have much to say about why local participation is important and how it can encourage investment in sustainable energy access for low-income communities.


Exploring energy opportunities through dialogue, Emma Wilson (2014), IIED briefing

Driving new technology adoption in South Africa's energy sector, Simon Croxton (2013), IIED briefing