Investigating pro-poor, low carbon development

Solar installation in Zambia

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


Despite widespread recognition of the potential development and climate change benefits of facilitating more widespread access to low carbon energy technologies in developing countries, past policy approaches have tended to frame the problem in ways that fail to appreciate the context and needs of poor countries and poor and marginalized people therein. This project seeks to look beyond the received wisdom that the problem is one of needing to finance low carbon hardware.

Drawing on insights from innovation studies and socio-technical transitions thinking, the Pro-poor, low carbon development: Improving low carbon energy access and development benefits in Least Developed Countries (LDC) project reframes the issue adopting a more holistic perspective; understanding technological change as a process of long term capacity building and appreciating the uptake of new, low carbon technologies as a process that takes within niches (e.g. solar lighting) that must seek to influence dominant regimes of energy service provision (e.g. kerosene). This also emphasizes the co-evolutionary nature of social practices that energy services facilitate and the technologies which make this possible.

The project has a specific and deliberate policy focus. It responds directly to demand from the Government of Kenya and broader international demand for research that can inform more effective policy approaches to facilitating the uptake of low carbon energy technologies in low income countries. In particular it is interested in informing recent developments around the idea of Climate Innovation Centres as a delivery model, both in Kenya and internationally (including recent initiatives under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, initiatives led by DFID and InfoDev and initiatives by various regional development banks). At the heart of the project is a normative commitment to poverty reduction and social justice, and a focus on supporting development pathways that deliver against the human development needs of poor and marginalised people whilst simultaneously responding to the challenges posed by climate change.


The project focuses on a case study of successful uptake of a low carbon energy technology (the market for off-grid solar electrical services in Kenya) in a specific country (Kenya). This provides a useful case study due to the enormous success of this market – second only to China in terms of annual sales, making it the most successful in the world on a per capita basis. Building on our conceptual framework rooted in innovation studies and socio-technical transitions thinking (the latter operationalized via Strategic Niche Management theory) we therefore seek to test the following hypothesis:

H1: The successful market for solar home systems and other off-grid solar electrical services in Kenya was due to a range of capacity/innovation system building activities undertaken by key actors over time (activities that could be replicated by policy initiatives such as Climate Innovation Centres)

This is translated into the following overarching research question:

What factors can explain the success of the off-grid PV market in Kenya?

… and the following sub-questions:

  • What role has hardware financing played in fostering the success of solar home systems (SHSs) in Kenya?
  • What technological capacity and innovation system building activities can be identified?
  • Can “innovation system builders” (i.e. key actors undertaking the above activities) be identified?
  • How can this inform policy (especially Climate Innovation Centres)?

By testing this hypothesis and answering these questions, the project concludes with a range of policy recommendations together with empirical and theoretical insights of relevance to future research in this field.

To answer these questions the project focused on developing an in-depth historical account of the development of the market for off-grid solar in Kenya. Building on Douthwaite and Ashby’s (2005) innovation histories method, we set out to develop a detailed timeline of how the market evolved with a focus on identifying key events and key actors. This was pursued via engagement with stakeholders, initially via a workshop and then by a number of semi-structured interviews. Contextual background was also provided via a review of the relevant policy environment in Kenya and a critical review of past and emerging approaches to financing solar home systems in Kenya.

The project then adopted the analytic categories of Strategic Niche Management to interrogate the findings and draw lessons for theory and policy.


  • Full details of the project’s methodology are available on the project web page.
  • Read the detailed briefing note on the project’s adaptation of the innovation histories method.
  • Read the full report on the innovation histories workshop conducted as part of the project


Douthwaite, B., & Ashby, J. (2005) Innovation Histories: A method for learning from experience. Institutional Learning and Change (ILAC) Initiative, Brief 5, Retrieved October 31, 2012