The hidden struggle: Exploring the impact of energy poverty in Uganda

By Nangayi Guyson

The hidden struggle: Exploring the impact of energy poverty in Uganda

Energy poverty is a pressing issue that affects millions of people around the world, particularly in developing countries. Uganda, located in East Africa, is one such country grappling with the challenges of energy poverty, that is, the lack of access to modern energy services including electricity and clean cooking fuels. With a population of over 40 million people, the country faces significant barriers to enable all to access reliable and affordable energy sources. According to the International Energy Agency, as of 2019, Uganda ranked seventh among the top 20 access-deficit countries, with 26 million people lacking access to electricity. Access to electricity in rural areas was reported at 35% while in urban areas this was 72% in 2021. This means that the majority of Ugandans, particularly in rural areas, still lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.

The low electrification rate is primarily due to the limited infrastructure and high costs associated with extending the power grid to remote areas. As a result, many households rely on traditional biomass fuels such as firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating.

In addition to low electrification rates, the quality of the energy supply in Uganda is also a concern.

“Even among individuals who have access to energy, the supply is frequently unreliable,” stated Paul Mayina, an Executive Director for the Bududa Action Plan and an environmental activist.

Power outages and voltage changes are rife, disrupting daily operations and impeding economic progress.

“The inability of important services such as healthcare facilities, schools, and businesses to operate successfully is further hampered by a lack of reliable electricity. Addressing these concerns is critical for improving Uganda’s overall energy access situation,” Mayina noted.

Furthermore, a study conducted by Pro-Biodiversity Conservationists in Uganda (PROBICOU) states that the high cost of energy in the country – US$0.189 per kWh – contributes to energy poverty. The majority of the population, especially the 12.3 million people (30.1%) living below the poverty line of US$1.77 per person per day, cannot afford the upfront cost of installing an electricity connection or purchasing modern energy technology.

How energy poverty impacts the daily lives of Ugandans

According to a study published by Nature under its Scientific Reports, energy poverty in Uganda affects daily life including health, lighting, cooking and access to information.

Traditional biomass fuels such as kerosene lamps and candles pose health and safety risks while cooking results in problems such as indoor air pollution and deforestation. Limited access to clean water also affects personal hygiene and increases the risk of waterborne diseases. Inadequate electricity also hinders healthcare facilities, affecting the health and well-being of Ugandans, especially in remote areas. Schools struggle with proper lighting, modern teaching aids, and internet connectivity thereby limiting students’ exposure to information and technology. Energy poverty also impacts economic development and livelihoods, affecting productivity in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and small businesses. Farmers struggle to irrigate crops, and businesses rely on generators or face power outages, therefore increasing production costs and reducing competitiveness.

Efforts by the government and organizations to address energy poverty

PROBICOU noted that “inadequate” government policies and regulatory frameworks also play a role in exacerbating energy poverty in Uganda. The lack of clear and effective policies to promote renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and rural electrification hinders progress in addressing energy poverty. Insufficient regulation and enforcement in the energy sector can also lead to inefficiencies, corruption, and limited private sector investment. Without strong government support and appropriate policies, it becomes challenging to overcome the barriers to energy access and alleviate energy poverty in the country, PROBICOU concluded.

Against this background, Uganda’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Development, Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu, said the government and numerous groups are working together to alleviate energy poverty in Uganda.

“One noteworthy initiative is the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) which was established by the government in 2001,” Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentam said.

“By undertaking electrification projects, the REA hopes to improve access to power in rural areas. It collaborates closely with communities, local governments, and commercial sector partners to identify needs and provide long-term solutions. Thousands of households and companies have received access to power as a result of its efforts, increasing their quality of life and economic potential.”

Another important organization working to address energy poverty in Uganda, according to the energy minister, is the Uganda National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Alliance (UNREEEA).

“UNREEEA is a coalition of government agencies, NGOs, and private sector entities that collaborate to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency practices. They provide technical assistance, capacity building, and advocacy to support the adoption of clean energy solutions. Their efforts have led to the installation of solar systems in schools, health centers, and other public facilities, ensuring access to reliable and sustainable energy sources,” she said.

Furthermore, international organizations and development partners have been actively involved in addressing energy poverty in Uganda. The World Bank, for example, has provided financial support for electrification projects and renewable energy development. It has also worked with the government to improve the policy and regulatory environment for the energy sector. Similarly, the United Nations Development Programme has supported initiatives to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency, particularly in off-grid areas. These collaborations have helped to mobilize resources and expertise to accelerate progress in addressing energy poverty in Uganda.

Although there is still much to be done, these steps have however led to some improvements. The percentage of the country’s population with access to electricity climbed from 11% in 2010 to 24% in 2019, and the price of electricity for extra-large and large companies fell slightly from US$ 9 cents and US$ 16 cents in 2013 to US$ 8 cents and US$ 9.8 cents, respectively, in 2018.