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Written on 7 Sep 2021 by Dr Tanya Filer, Jennifer Colville and Reina Otsuka

Digital, renewable energy and women: a virtuous cycle

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) partnered with the University of Cambridge to find a way to tackle the digital divide, expand solar energy coverage and transform the lives of rural women at the same time. Here’s what they found.

The Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) is a one-week group simulation exercise held in the Easter term to integrate the skills and issues that students of the MPhil in Public Policy have been working with over the Michaelmas and Lent terms. Students work in assigned groups and manage their own time and leadership structure to respond to a significant policy challenge presented to them by a partner organisation. This year, the PAE was run in partnership with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and focused on designing policy to address the intersection between renewable energy, digital innovation and gender in Iraq and Sudan.

The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare interconnected challenges that exacerbate inequalities, such as the challenges of access to energy, digital connectivity, and gender equality. These are closely intertwined: communities who do not have internet access are energy insecure; a reliable power source is fundamental to effectively bridge the digital divide; and in rural locations, women and girls are disproportionally disadvantaged in both areas.

This combination of challenges is particularly acute in the Arab States region. But as countries start defining pathways out of the Covid-19 crisis, clean energy is emerging as an investment opportunity that can trigger socio-economic growth while putting countries back on track to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Access to electricity brings new job opportunities, safety and digital connectivity as well as accessibility to new digital technologies: unlocking this joint energy and digital access for women can be a game-changer for gender empowerment across the region.

Pushing the frontier of integrated policy support

To seize this opportunity, UNDP working at the cross-section of Energy, Gender, Innovation and Digital, is launching a new initiative to support Country Offices in the Arab States region in designing ways to tackle the digital divide, expand solar energy coverage and transform the lives of rural women at the same time.

UNDP collaborated with the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy to design a Policy Analysis Exercise for students pursuing an MPhil in Public Policy. sis Exercise. The exercise focused on policy at the intersection of renewables, gender and digital and focused on challenges presented by UNDP in the Arab States, specifically in Iraq and Sudan where UNDP Country Offices already have programming in these areas.  The Cambridge students conducted research and developed recommendations about policies, partnerships and financing models associated with telecommunications companies' use of renewable energy and the role of women in managing such at local levels. The specific questions the student groups broached were:

Looking for examples from around the world that have contexts similar to Iraq/Sudan
  1. Explore to what extent telcos in developing contexts are using renewables as base loads, e.g., for what power needs (cell towers, manufacturing, etc.)
  2. Analyse effective partnerships among communities, telecommunications companies, renewables providers/vendors, and/or the public sector.
  3. Explore the extent to which access to digital services, including financial services, marketing, etc., by women can be used to improve livelihoods in remote locations.

The exercise presented a unique combination of interlinked thematic areas, pushing the frontier of integrated policy support both at UNDP and University of Cambridge.

Key insights included:

Use case studies as sources of inspiration, not replication. Case studies that tell a positive story are sometimes treated as sources of ‘best practice’ that can easily be copied elsewhere. They can become powerful narratives, shaping policy and governance far beyond the local environments for which the policies and programs they describe were designed.  But in the varied and complex environments in which we operate, where the challenges are specific and the environment fast changing and oftentimes ambiguous, it is advisable to examine case studies less for the ‘answers’ they offer, and more for the questions asked and the lessons learned.  One student team, for example, studied successes and failures from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Bangladesh, and in this way extracted insights from a multitude of contexts and developed a portfolio of options for testing what works in Sudan’s particular context.

Complex systems call for going beyond single point solutions. A team tasked with understanding how mobile money can contribute to address the digital and gender divides in Sudan, for example, examined various elements and actors within the overall system and the interaction and interdependence among them.  This led them to develop a portfolio of recommendations that ranged from the degree of agent density in rural areas, to ring-fencing and safeguarding funds, interoperability, and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements.

Tackling the renewables-gender-digital nexus requires rethinking business models. Traditionally, vertically integrated Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have controlled the full lifecycle of network deployment, including energy generation. Yet infrastructure-related business models and patterns of ownership are beginning to shift. The Policy Analysis Exercise made clear how pertinent this transition is if we are to address holistically the renewables, gender and digital nexus. In the case of Sudan, for example, there is a clear need for a better base load of renewable energy and greater telecommunications coverage, but new business models are needed to enable renewable energy sources to be deployed within the telecommunications industry, and to ensure women have a role not only as users, but as business owners. Teams explored models including community-led maintenance of telecomms towers, women-led cooperatives, and pay-as-you-go systems.

Decentralised business models and digital payments infrastructure could empower local communities. Many of the business models that the teams explored had in common a focus on decentralisation, or the distribution of daily operations and decision-making responsibilities to local communities to ensure their active participation in the development, operation—and benefits—of a shift towards renewables and an uptick in digital inclusivity. But decentralised models will not emerge or sustain themselves alone. They require high-level buy-in, with possible stakeholders including state- and military-owned telcos, as well as substantive upskilling at the local community level. The student projects indicated a need for substantive further investigation into the possibilities and challenges of decentralised models of renewables’ provision.

Unlocking systemic transitions to end energy poverty

2021 is a decisive year for action on sustainable energy. September’s High-Level Dialogue on Energy  – the first global United Nations summit on the topic in 40 years – will galvanize ambition and action to accelerate a just energy transition that delivers clean energy access for all and puts the world on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. To contribute to this global effort, UNDP, together with partners in the entire UN system, are working to help advance progress on universal clean energy access – Sustainable Development Goal 7. UNDP is stepping up its support to countries on energy where digitalization and innovation are two core pillars.


Case studies
  • About the author

    Dr Tanya Filer, Policy & Research Leader: Digital State

    Digital State Year in Review 2018-19   Learn more

    Tanya Filer
  • About the author

    Jennifer Colville

    Jennifer Colville is the Innovation Team Lead in the Arab States region with the United Nations Development Programme. With 17 countries in her portfolio, she promotes the use of new and alternative approaches to development with the aim of continuous learning and adaptation, ultimately leading to transformative change.

  • About the author

    Reina Otsuka

    Reina Otsuka is the Digital Innovation Specialist, Nature Climate and Energy with the United Nations Development Programme. She facilitates environment and climate change portfolio-wide digital transformation and technology innovation that contribute to inclusive green transitions.