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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Energy access and poverty alleviation through self-improvement in rural South Africa

This dissertation helps to incorporate the experiences of people working in the development space and those living in poverty to shed light on how energy access, affordability and reliability aids in poverty alleviation whilst considering the broader sustainability implications of different kinds of energy sources. Previous literature has established the link between energy poverty (access) and a number of development outcomes such as healthcare, education, reducing poverty, and improving equality across gender and wealth. However, their findings are sometimes inconclusive and are often built on macroeconomic models and quantitative analysis, without considering the causal mechanisms behind the energy access and development outcome relationships. Although this is an important lens from which to explore this topic, they often lack the narratives, experiences and qualitative data to ground the findings.

This project aims to establish how a lack of access to reliable and affordable energy is a barrier to people in alleviating themselves from the multiple dimensions of poverty through self-employment whilst considering the sustainability implications of different kinds of energy sources.

This will be achieved through (1) the analysis of Greenlight Movement’s poverty survey data and narrative paragraphs, and (2) through semi-structured interviews with professionals in the development field and self-employed people using electricity in their business. The data collected through the interview process is rooted in grounded theory and this data along with narrative data is analysed using the qualitative technique of thematic coding with the help of ATLAS.ti. From this, a framework is developed which draws the link between different sources of energy and the quality of energy access (including affordability and reliability and accounting for load-shedding). Broader sustainability implications of different energy sources are also considered. This framework helps to identify the issues with energy faced by self-employing people in rural South Africa and identifies recommendations on how to deliver electricity schemes more effectively.

The results suggest that certain self-employing occupations cope better with load-shedding than other businesses. Businesses often rely on electricity theft to compensate for energy poverty. Overcoming the electricity access and safety barrier is crucial. Electricity is necessary yet insufficient to alleviate poverty and co-developments such as education and support for mental barriers are necessary. Recommendations include revision of policies such as Free Basic Electricity (FBE) to aid in making electricity more affordable and curb electricity theft as well as suggestions to make off-grid technologies more affordable to low-income groups.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.