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Sustainable Energy Access in Mozambique: Socio-Political Factors in Conflict-Laden Urban Areas

September 2017 update

By Shaun Smith

The British Academy project Sustainable Energy Access in Mozambique (SEAM) addresses energy challenges at a politically tumultuous time in Mozambique. Despite progress in the last decade, electricity access in 2014 stood at only 20.17% of the population,[1], with levels dropping to 5.97% in rural areas still lacking access to the formal electricity network. The average electricity access rate in urban areas is 54.5%. However, most households lack access to modern fuels, with the majority of households relying on firewood in rural areas, and charcoal in urban areas.

Yet, Mozambique boasts a staggering amount of energy resources. In June, the Mozambican government signed a multi-billion-dollar agreement with Eni to exploit the newly discovered offshore gas deposits in the Rovuma basin. There is talk of Mozambique becoming one of the world’s leading gas producers. This adds to its coal reserves and the long tradition of hydropower production as the country hosts Cahora Bassa, one of the largest dams in Southern Africa. At the same time, Mozambique is struggling to manage a financial crisis that followed a debt scandal due to illegal loans upwards of USD$2 billion intended to develop the tuna industry. This is a complex political context and yet one which is full of opportunities to make a difference in terms of understanding the barriers to sustainable energy access for ordinary Mozambicans.

Dr Vanesa Castán Broto and Dr Domingos Macucule give a presentation to ‘secretários de bairro’ from across Maputo. A secretário de bairro is a neighbourhood level administrative representative familiar with the socio-economic challenges faced by residents in each neighbourhood and should be consulted before making research in their area of responsibility.

 The project focuses on different ways to understand energy access, and relies on a multi-site, multi-methods study of the case. In April, Dr Idalina Baptista visited Maputo to conduct interviews and continue dialogue with a key research partner – Electricidade de Moçambique – the country’s national electricity provider. In July, Dr Joshua Kirshner visited Mozambique to understand geographical differences between different cities, comparing Maputo, the capital, and Beira, the second city of the country. At the beginning of July, Dr Vanesa Castán Broto, Dr Shaun Smith, and Dr Domingos Macucule with assistance from colleagues at Eduardo Mondlane University ran a workshop attended by neighbourhood ‘secretários’ from across the city of Maputo. This meeting aimed to communicate the research aims, seek consent, and gather the experiences and knowledge of these local area representatives concerning key energy challenges.

A lively discussion ensued with the meeting held at the “Kaya Clínica” centre in the George Dimitrov neighbourhood of Maputo. ‘Kaya’ is the Changana[2] word for home and the centre is an initiative run partly by Eduardo Mondlane University, to offer housing advice and improvements for residents. This initial engagement set the basis for a 4-month period of ethnographic fieldwork in different neighbourhoods of Maputo to understand how the built environment conditions energy access.

Fieldwork was led by Dr Shaun Smith who conducted face-to-face interviews with residents from across four different neighbourhoods of Maputo with the support of Milousa Antonio, an urban researcher based at the Eduardo Mondlane University. At the time of writing, September 2017, the fieldwork is in its third month, having explored different experiences of energy access in the bairros of George Dimitrov, Costa do Sol, and Polana Caniço A. George Dimitrov (also known as Benfica) is a rapidly urbanizing, relatively prosperous area which has seen numerous improvements to their living conditions. The Bairro dos Pescadores in Costa do Sol is a very poor settlement in the northern boundary of the city.  Polana Caniço A is an historic neighbourhood marking the boundary between the old colonial city and ‘reed’ settlements which developed along its border.

Shaun Smith and Milousa Antonio conducting an interview with a resident of the George Dimitrov neighbourhood.

 Emerging themes

The ethnographic research maps residents’ own accounts of energy histories to understand the energy transitions occurring, and how they unfold within a particular urban context.  Local residents are welcoming and willing to share their experiences of energy access and document the challenges relating to energy that they face. Key emerging themes include:

Energy, financial crisis and fuel poverty – Following the debt scandal in 2016, Mozambique experienced an economic crisis. There were far reaching consequences of this crisis including a devaluation of the currency (Metical) and rise in inflation.  Residents felt this acutely as the rise in petrol costs linked to inflation put increased pressure on an already vulnerable charcoal industry. Due to deforestation surrounding Maputo, charcoal is transported long distances to reach the city meaning the cost of fuel is already high but also volatile. Residents in Maputo sometimes pay 10x the national average price. The price of charcoal spiked for Maputo residents from mid-2016 until early 2017. The effects of this are an increase in fuel poverty for low-income Maputo residents, pressure on tree cover as residents turn to cutting down trees for firewood, and transitions to alternative fuels for cooking such as electricity and gas.

Charcoal is the fuel of choice for many residents in Maputo. However, it takes comparatively longer to cook with charcoal (than gas/electricity) as the ‘vegetable charcoal’ must come to temperature. Due to widespread access to electricity and the increasing price of charcoal many residents are using alternative technologies such as this electrical probe for heating water.


Complex energy transitions – Partly linked to the above is the increasingly complex nature of energy use in Maputo. Conventional wisdom assumes that places progress unproblematically up an ‘energy ladder’ towards cleaner, more efficient, ‘modern’ fuels. Moreover, it is also often assumed that most low-income residents in Maputo use charcoal as their prime cooking fuel. Our findings contradict this. There appears to be a progressive differentiation of energy use occurring along a horizontal axis. Residents are transitioning to electricity and gas as cooking fuels, but not in an absolute fashion, rather as part of a range of different options used simultaneously. Many people now have a gas/electrical stove alongside charcoal stoves and use both depending on multiple concerns including the weather, fuel availability, money, who cooks in the family, hours of work, the time it takes to cook etc. 

The energy transitions occurring in Maputo are complicated and non-linear. This stove is a dual electrical/gas stove and this resident uses both fuels (as well as a charcoal stove) depending on the price of that fuel for any given month. Gas prices can fluctuate, and charcoal is highly volatile. Electricity offers a reliable, more stable alternative but is often more expensive to cook with.



Changing distribution of energy – Fuel sellers have long been a feature of the urban energy landscape in Maputo. On almost every street corner or in every row of shops can be found small-scale charcoal sellers selling a meal’s or a day’s worth of charcoal. Such sellers are often ordinary women and men supplementing their livelihoods. Such sellers typically buy from larger sellers (sacks) who are also static. Increasingly, however, static sellers are finding life difficult as trucks which can carry larger amounts of charcoal are selling on a door-to-door basis. These trucks have the advantage of being able to undercut the prices of static sellers, delivering directly to people’s houses, and take advantage of upgraded roads in some neighbourhoods. The transition to gas (typically centrally distributed at petrol stations or in small-scale depots) and electricity (directly in people’s homes) is also proving important in this change.

Energy use has become highly differentiated in Maputo's neighbourhoods. This resident had been gifted a solar panel from his boss from the business he works for in South Africa. He uses the solar panel once every three days to charge the light.


In conclusion, Maputo is now at a time of enormous change, alongside the whole of the country, and this is felt directly by residents, particularly with respect to basic services. While there has been progress towards electrification, this has been slow. The situation with respect to access to fuels is even more discouraging. We hope that a deeper understanding of the dynamics of energy access in urban Mozambique will contribute to understand the limitations of current policy and reimagine alternatives towards sustainable energy for all.

[1] Data from the Global Tracking Framework, 2017.

[2] The language spoken in Southern Mozambique.


July 2017 update

Dr Castan Broto and her team have written an article published in The Conversation: Maputo's residents can now use gas. But dropping charcoal is proving hard.


Sustainable Energy Access in Mozambique: Socio-Political Factors in Conflict-Laden Urban Areas

Principal Investigator: Dr Vanesa Castan Broto, University College London

This project aims to understand the social and political conditions that constrain universal energy access in urban areas in Mozambique, focusing on the underlying conflicts related to energy provision. According to the Global Tracking Framework[1], 1.05 billion people worldwide did not have access to electricity in 2014. The figures for access to clean cooking are even more discouraging. Over 3 billion people still lacked access to clean fuels and technologies in 2014. Current strategies for improving energy access focus on increasing investment and extending electricity and fuel supply networks.

Despite having up to 10% growth per annum in the period from 2003-2012, Mozambique is still very poor by most standards. It also has some of the lowest electrification rates in Africa, with the national grid currently reaching about one fifth of its 23 million inhabitants. The Energy Strategy developed by the Ministry for Energy and Natural Resources (MIREME) aims to reach 50% grid connectivity for the population by 2023. Improving energy access can support economic development and the eradication of extreme poverty. However, dominant strategies focus on investment, rather than in understanding the actual constraints for energy demand.

Mozambique has abundant fossil fuel and hydropower resources and a nascent renewable energy industry. There are also business models, such as the prepaid electricity system, that enable poorer people to access energy in urban areas in unprecedented rates. What then explains the persistence of energy poverty? Why do some populations lack reliable sources for basic needs such as lighting, cooking and heating water?

Previous research demonstrates that extending the electricity grid is not a sufficient condition to guarantee energy access. Energy access is also limited by wider structural issues, from regional differences in access to energy to the political economy of energy resources. Vulnerable people concentrate in informal settlements in urban areas, where lack of services is compounded with limited livelihood opportunities and exposure to health and environmental risks.

Achieving universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy requires dealing with socio-political constraints. The revelation of undisclosed loans and debt, the worsening conflict between the ruling party FRELIMO and the former rebel group RENAMO, and the pronounced drought in the south and centre regions of the country all challenged development prospects in Mozambique in 2016. The country faces a growing debt burden that will affect future generations.

These conditions frame uneven geographical patterns of energy access in Mozambique. They also shape the political economy of energy investments, in relation to decisions about the location of new energy generation projects and access to energy by local populations affected by conflict. Finally, these conditions result in management practices in service provision and energy use which may be associated with instances of symbolic and material violence and the reproduction of inequalities in service provision.

This project brings together an interdisciplinary team from University College London, Oxford University, the University of York and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, to investigate the social and political conditions that shape energy access in Mozambique. The project follows a methodology of knowledge co-production, combining traditional quantitative and qualitative methods with processes that integrate the knowledge of infrastructure managers and communities through participatory and co-design workshops.

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