New Research Agenda: India in Sub-Saharan Africa

India in Sub-Saharan Africa

Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) solar lamps 
in an Indian village. The project initiated by 
an Indian NGO, in India, has now operation 
in many Sub-Saharan African countries

As part of a new research agenda I am developing on India’s growing role in the field of energy developments in Sub-Saharan Africa, I am about to start two small separate but related projects. 

India has been working to acquire a prominent role in the energy sector in developing countries. It is leading major international initiatives like the International Solar Alliance (launched at the Paris Climate Conference), extending aid and promoting locally developed technologies. These new developments come on the back of India’s long and complicated colonial and post-colonial relationship with many African countries, in addition to the historical presence of Indian diaspora in this part of the world.

The first project is titled ‘Between post-colonial solidarity for sustainable energy transitions and neo-colonial extraction: Investigating India’s role in East African energy landscape’ and is funded by the White Rose Collaboration Fund and India-UK Development Partnership Forum. It will run from November 2020 to August 2021. This project is in collaboration with Dr Joshua Kirshner and Dr Gerard McCann from the University of York, Dr James Van Alstine and Dr Lata Narayanaswamy from the University of Leeds, Dr Enora Robin from University of Sheffield, and Dr Emma Mawdsley and Dr Jonathan Balls from the University of Cambridge. The project will involve a number of workshops with various opportunity for participation. Watch this space!

The second project is titled ‘The Politics of Quality and Standards: A cultural economy of Indian solar products in East Africa’ and is funded by India-UK Development Partnership Forum. This project will run from December 2020 to August 2022. This is in collaboration with and Dr Jonathan Balls from the University of Cambridge. 


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Between post-colonial solidarity for sustainable energy transitions and neo-colonial extraction: Investigating India’s role in East African energy landscape 

The last decade has seen an increasing attention on South-South co-operation in infrastructure development, especially on the growing role of BRICS countries in Africa (Mawdsley, 2012).

India and China are positioning themselves as leaders that can share knowledge, finance and technology with other global South countries to ‘help’ their energy transitions (Power et al., 2016). This activity is built on a history of cultural exchange and ideas of South-South and post-colonial solidarity, in addition to the argument that India and China have tackled the kind of infrastructure gaps that currently exist in Sub-Saharan African countries. As India and China grow their respective economic and political footprints, they also look towards raw materials, markets and geopolitical interests beyond their shores (Mohan and Tan-Mullins, 2019). 

Questions related to China’s role in extraction, land acquisition, debt-trap and neo-colonialism have received much scholarly attention over the last 5-8 years (Mohan and Tan-Mullins, 2019; Shen and Power, 2017; Bräutigam and Tang, 2014). Less attention has been given to India’s growing role in Africa, where the historical presence of an Indian diaspora and its complicated colonial linkages give India a different entry point than China (Modi and Taylor 2017). Therefore, this project will focus on India’s role in the energy sector in East Africa and ask if it is predominantly generated by post-colonial solidarity to support countries’ transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner forms of energy and extend access to ‘modern’ energy for their citizens, in accordance with UN SDGs, or extraction of resources and exploitation of local markets.

These issues give rise to the following research questions:

1. How do critical historical perspectives on the relationship between India and East Africa shape our contemporary understanding of the drivers and implications of India’s engagement in African energy transitions, extractive economies and local energy markets?

2. What are the implications of this interdisciplinary dialogue for our understanding of energy transitions in the context of climate crisis and global pandemic in East Africa and beyond?


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The Politics of Quality and Standards: A cultural economy of Indian solar products in East Africa

Bi-lateral and multi-lateral organisation have put a lot of trust in the power of markets and private capital to upscale humanitarian and development interventions and deliver many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There has been a shift from financial flows being in the form of overseas development assistance to support for markets and private interventions (Mawdsley, 2019). People are understood as customers of goods and services that are critical for life – education, health, and livelihoods. The SDGs market, in turn, is considered as a significant opportunity for private companies (IFC, 2012).

'Made in China' Solar products in an Old Delhi marketplace


The project examines how ideas of quality and quality-standards help and hinder products to circulate and establish in the off grid solar market. It aims to excavate the discourses and knowledges Indian, Chinese, Western, and African firms employ in East Africa when marketing their products in competition with each other. Overall, this project is driven by three key discourses that are apparent in reference to off-grid solar marketization: first, on the importance of high-quality, accredited solar products for marketization and quality standards that promote their circulation; second, around cheap and poor quality products damaging trust in solar technology and undermining the sustainability of marketization; third, on India having been the laboratory for product development, but Africa being the new market. On the basis of these, this project addresses the following questions, with an empirical focus in East Africa:

1. What are the different ideas of quality associated with and employed by Indian, Chinese, Western, and African solar products in comparison to each other in East Africa?

2. What work do different quality-standards do for the everyday life of different off-grid solar products?

3. How do findings from Q1 and Q2 help us rethink the role of quality-standards in market-based development interventions?

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