Working group 4: Energy systems in the colonial continuum: decolonizing energy research in sub-Saharan Africa (Joshua Kirshner et al.)

Chairs: Henrice Altink (, Joshua Kirshner (, David Clayton (, Idalina Baptista (


In the past decade, Sub-Saharan Africa has received much international interest and investment in energy projects designed to address energy poverty and climate change mitigation. Nevertheless, the number of people without energy access in many African countries is increasing due to, amongst others, population growth, urbanization, and an increase in energy exports, while there is also ongoing exclusion of certain populations bypassed by public and private sector initiatives. 

There are various ways of defining and understanding energy transitions, but many scholars now argue that systemic changes in energy systems require transformations in social and ecological dimensions that structure and support social life, especially in urban areas (Baptista, 2015; 2018; van den Bold, 2021; Rutherford and Coutard, 2014). Apart from technical and financial dimensions, energy transitions pose important political questions regarding how and by whom they are managed and justified, and who may or may not benefit from them (Huber and McCarthy, 2017; Newell and Mulvaney, 2013). These systems and associated infrastructures have been shaped by distinct historical and political processes (Hart, 2018), which in African contexts involve colonial histories of settlement, planning, and market formation (Cox and Negi, 2010). Understanding energy transitions thus requires accounting for the historical path dependencies that are embedded in energy systems but to date these have received little attention. 

This working group aims to explore how we can further incorporate historical dimensions into the analysis of contemporary energy systems in Africa. At the outset, the working group will foster specific, cross-national and urban comparisons into the historical development of African energy systems, attending to colonial histories and planning policies, their impact on build environments and modes of finance, and how these might be uncovered, addressed and challenged through interdisciplinary and decolonizing research.

We will explore the possibility of creating a special issue in Journal of Energy History / Revue d’Histoire de l’énergie, or Energy Research & Social Science.


Baptista, I. 2015. ‘We live on estimates’: everyday practices of prepaid electricity and the urban condition in Maputo, Mozambique. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(5): 1004-1019.

Baptista, I. 2018. Space and energy transitions in sub-Saharan Africa: understated historical connections. Energy Research & Social Science 36: 30-35.

Cox, K.R. and Negi, R. 2010. The state and the question of development in sub-Saharan Africa. Review of African Political Economy 37(123): 71-85.

Hart, G. 2018. Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice. Progress in Human Geography 42(3): 371-394.

Huber, M. and McCarthy, J. 2017. Beyond the subterranean energy regime? Fuel, land use and the production of space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42(4): 655-668.

Newell, P. and Mulvaney, D. 2013. The political economy of the ‘just transition’. Geographical Journal 179(2): 132-140.

Rutherford, J. and Coutard, O. 2014. Urban energy transitions: places, processes and politics of socio-technical change. Urban Studies 51(7) 1353-1377

van den Bold, M. 2021. In pursuit of diverse energy futures: The political economy of electricity in Senegal. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, p.25148486211034808.



Decolonizing energy transitions: Infrastructure, race and pan-African empowerment in Ghana’s electricity history
Pauline Destrée (University of St Andrews)

History of solar energy in West Africa: From research to industrialization (1960-1987)
Jean Gecit (Sorbonne University)

Decolonial critique of the coal-based economy and climate delay in South Africa
Tara Nair van Ryneveld (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)
Mine Islar (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)