Two other experts in the field, Maximo Torero and Tanguy
Bernard from the International Food Policy Research Institute,
used this approach in a smaller randomized study in Ethiopia.
So far, these appear to be the only studies to attempt randomized impact evaluation on infrastructure development
with this tactic. Torero and Bernard’s work in Ethiopia exposed
another possible reason why: researchers have little to no
control over infrastructure delivery.
“The main problem we faced [in Ethiopia] was that, due
to technical reasons, 10 of the 20 planned villages could not
be electrified during the course of the study, affecting the
study’s overall statistical power,” the authors note in one of
their early reports.
This has not been an issue for the Kenya REPP so far, but
Podolsky says it is nevertheless a logistically and financially
intensive study that has exposed the challenges of research
on this scale in remote places. Podolsky reflects that had
they not been working in direct partnership with the Kenyan
government, the project would have been unfeasible.
“Even if this was not an infrastructure project where you
need the support of government, these interventions are not
easily done. It is a very pricey proposition to set everything up,
gather the surveys and analyze the data,” he says.
When the Berkeley REPP team began laying the groundwork
for the Kenya study in 2012, they had no intention of partnering
with the government—nor were they interested in studying grid
infrastructure at a national level. Instead, the RCT was meant
to focus on another type of technology: microgrids.
Microgrids—or small, decentralized power systems—have
been gaining traction as a way to improve power access to the
world’s energy poor, particularly as more infrastructure is being
privately financed. The team initially wanted to work with a
private sector partner to set up and record the impacts of 40
village microgrids. Six months into their field assessment,
however, they realized the project would not be feasible.
“The microgrids we wanted to install were best suited for
communities with high population densities,” Lee explains.
But density is sparse in rural Kenya. The team then found that
there were few truly off-grid villages; rather, villagers were
not connected to the many power lines nearby.
The team’s discovery of what they call the “under-grid” population compelled them to reframe their problem statement.
“The problem isn’t a dichotomy between on-grid and off-grid;
there are also people living ‘under-grid’,” Lee says. “We hope to
change the [way] we view the energy poverty problem because
the policy implications for [these] communities are different.”
By drawing from the limited research available, includ-
ing the Ethiopia study, the REPP team re-spun their project
to better understand what prevented rural Kenyans from
requesting an electricity connection. Hypothesizing that cost
was a critical barrier, the Berkeley researchers adopted the
voucher incentive approach with the intention of analyzing
cost-demand curves of connectivity.
“What started as an impact study on rural electrification
shifted to a project about cost and demand economics for
supplying access to energy,” Lee says.
This kind of rigorous analysis and insight could have a significant impact on the world’s least electrified continent and
beyond, particularly as population growth intensifies the need
for infrastructure development.
In Kenya, for example, the government announced a mass
electrification program to connect every household within
600 meters of a transformer by 2020. Its strategy will look
to replicate the REPP team’s model by connecting groups of
households at a discounted rate, which is more cost-effective
than line-by-line extension, Podolsky notes.
“Grid technology is not the most exciting, but it may well
be the most effective way to get power to people,” he says.
The REPP team hopes to be able to advise the government on
the best price point to do that.
Findings from this study could also affect other countries
in Africa, which view Kenya as a regional leader. Seeing
whether Kenya’s initiative achieves positive economic
benefits could motivate more informed (and speedier)
In a 2014 report on the impact of rural electrification, Torero
identifies “profit maximization” as one important area where
research could support infrastructure development. “That is,
taking into account that more remote areas might have high
productive potential that would be realized by electrification,”
he writes, ultimately making investments profitable.
Podolsky says that being able to present a clear picture of
the grid’s value proposition is exactly what the REPP team
hopes to achieve.
“It might prove that grid connectivity requires large investments, but if the benefits are there, it would be a net-positive
endeavor,” he says. “Or we may find that those impacts aren’t
there—that information is just as valuable.” •
JESSICA POTHERING is Demand’s Managing Editor. She is a New York-based
journalist focusing on economic development and social enterprise.
“Grid technology may be the most effective
way to get power to people.”