For our first edition of 2021, we spoke with Ayu Abdullah, the Co-Executive Director of Energy Action Partners (ENACT). Along with colleagues, Ayu co-founded ENACT in 2014 to rethink the energy access paradigm and prioritize the involvement and role of local communities in developing and managing their own energy resources. The organization focuses on building collaborative and participatory tools for energy access and community development. Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, Ayu has BSc and MSc degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University, and an MSc in Engineering Systems and Management from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
What has been your career path?
I initially studied aerospace engineering in the United States. After my first two degrees in aerospace, I went straight into a PhD program. But one year into the program, I realized that a career in aerospace R&D wasn’t for me and I wanted to try something else. At the time, I didn’t quite know what. My graduate research focused on space dynamics, and at the time, had little application on Earth. I did know that I wanted to spend more time learning from and working with people (and not just technology), so I left the program.
I wanted a job that would allow me to travel, so I started out in Oil and Gas working as a Field Engineer for Schlumberger in China. That didn’t last long either, but it was a fascinating job where I worked outdoors a lot. I really enjoyed that - I enjoyed working outside and working alongside people.
My work at the Institute was focused on understanding the links between community development and mini-grid systems, and how you could design engineering systems differently to incorporate community development objectives. I felt like I had spent enough time studying the engineering side of things, I wanted to get creative and merge all these learnings from other non-engineering fields into engineering systems. Using the tools that we know in engineering systems and architecture, and incorporating methodologies from social sciences and anthropology. The idea was simple and definitely not new, if you looked at a system and expanded the boundaries to include all the non-engineering aspects of it, you would get a much more comprehensive system. The challenge was translating those aspects into engineering requirements that don’t dismiss the people factor.
I spent some of my field research during my program at Masdar going back to the micro-hydro community in Sabah, Malaysia and learning from the local organization, TONIBUNG, a HPNET member. Based on my time with them and studying mini-grid development and the whole project cycle, I realized that key decisions were being made in the initial community engagement process that communities may or may not have total understanding of, especially for new micro-grid communities. Decisions on system sizing, tariffs, management structures. These questions are challenging for communities, and require some capacity building and relationship building, which not all practitioner organizations have sufficient time and resources for. So that became what I wanted to focus on, hence was born: The Minigrid Game, to help project developers and practitioners, and communities to engage and partner with each other more meaningfully, and lead to better projects and community development.
By the end of my time at Masdar, I was committed to the work that I was doing with community energy and wanted to take The Minigrid Game further and build it out. In 2014, with my graduate advisor and another colleague who has since left, we co-founded Energy Action Partners. In Energy Action Partners’ early days, we continued with the work we had been doing around community energy systems with The Minigrid Game, and short field-based courses for students and young professionals on energy access, community development, and social entrepreneurship. These early programs gave us the opportunity to partner with other organizations, while building up The Minigrid Game. Fast forward 6 years later, The Minigrid Game is now COMET - Community Energy Toolkit, and is very much our core program. COMET is a software tool that simulates a mini-grid system. It’s used in field-based mini-grid planning workshops to inform and engage communities through meaningful collaboration. Among other things, COMET helps communities and developers make better decisions around system sizing, tariff-setting, and demand-side management.
After receiving funding from Wuppertal Institute’s WISIONS, which enabled us to conduct our first Minigrid Game (now COMET) community deployments in 2017, we started seeing interest in COMET from other organizations. Last year, we received funding from Innovate UK’s Energy Catalyst, which gave us the support we needed to take the software tool to the next level and turn it into COMET, a robust community-driven demand exploration tool for mini-grids. With our team working from home this past year, we’ve had the time to develop new features and rethink our plan to grow COMET.
Our approach is based on our values as an organization, heavily inspired by the Human Capability Approach from Amartya Sen. To us, community development is 1) defined by the community and not by anybody else, and 2) a set of capabilities and opportunities that communities want for themselves. Development should always be defined by the communities and not by an external entity telling them what development should look like. Our values guide us to develop micro-grid systems that meet those desired opportunities. If a community, for example, says that their set of capabilities includes wanting to be more politically active and to access more education, then the micro-grid system should enable that. It should enable television, telecommunication services, internet and all that they need so they can further their intended capabilities. And everything else may become secondary - if a system doesn’t run reliably 24/7 but still fulfils the community’s objectives and goals then that to us is still a success. Essentially, we define the objective of a system slightly differently than how others may view things, where it’s about making sure that the electricity system runs the way it was designed. I mean that’s definitely a positive, but what’s more important is the community actually achieves what they wanted to in the first place. That is key to our approach and values, and what we want to achieve.
Conventional methods involve finding a community and asking them about their needs. The question of trying to find out what they need is challenging, and depending on how you ask and who is asking, you can get very different results. For example, a conventional method for demand estimation is you engage with the community and conduct household energy audits, but as many of us in the sector acknowledge, this doesn’t always work. Demand estimation has been a tough nut to crack in mini-grid development. For off-grid communities, surveys and questionnaires don’t always make sense. Questions around what are you going to do with electricity and what things you want are very difficult questions to answer; they’re related to so many different things like income, who lives in the house, my kids are going to grow and what are they going to do, so all these questions are really difficult for people to answer directly. Some might think it’s overcomplicating the issue because electricity provision involves a technical question that can be answered with a technical solution, and that you are just trying to answer some questions with numbers; but when you are talking about electricity use, it’s about people’s behaviour, it’s not just about numbers.
I think unless you have a very strong relationship with the community where you really understand what they need and what they could potentially evolve into, you are more than likely to get the wrong answers to those very technical questions. At the same time, it is really hard for organizations to spend a lot of time and build that trust and relationship with the community. So these are some of the gaps I observed and wanted to work with.
There has to be some kind of process that would make it a meaningful exchange. That’s why I started looking at the field of anthropology and social science, and how they approach a community to obtain objective information. It also cannot be a one-way, extractive exchange because communities are going to receive this big piece of technology, so they are going to have to learn things, and change, and build their own capacities to manage and operate. So, it has to be a two-way exchange. The one-way process was part of the community engagement that practitioners or project developers conventionally do where they collect information and think in exchange, they will give the community electricity and that would be sufficient, but it’s not.
The community really has to engage with the process as well and from the very beginning. To me, it’s a no-brainer because you get a better designed system! If engaged, people are better able to tell you what they need, what they will do with the electricity, and they are more invested in it, which leads to a higher success rate. Also 10 years ago, we saw more abandoned systems because it was so easy to fall short on the design and mis-appropriately size the system. I think now because of technological advances, we’re getting better at it and there are more options available for electrification, but it is still very much through technology and not through a people-driven process.
I think the gaps and the shortcomings are the same both locally and internationally. Everybody recognizes community engagement is very important, very key, but I don’t think we invest enough in processes to do it robustly. There has been very little investment going into developing and researching new approaches to the community engagement side of mini-grid development. So far, we have seen research institutes and universities come up with frameworks or a process. But framework and processes are, while they provide useful learning and outcomes, still not easy enough to scale up and deploy. And that's why as an organization, we decided to develop a tool for community engagement, focusing on demand exploration for mini-grid developers.
There needs to be more effort into looking at community engagement and the opportunities, and asking ourselves how do we solve problems and gaps? We need to go further than the just fulfilling project requirements for community engagement. So far, community engagement has become the catch all phrase for any kind of engagement process but we know that there are different levels and outcomes to engagement. You can have engagement that’s one way and very extractive and you can have engagement that’s two way, but perhaps there is a lack of ownership, on the community side. What you really want is community engagement where there is ownership, there is two-way exchange, and there is capacity building happening on all sides. That’s the level of engagement we really need to push for in energy access and mini-grid deployments.
So I joke about this- In 2017, I was selected by the US embassy in KL to be in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). For my program, I was selected as a female leader in STEM and I went for a 3-week long program in the US inspired by the film Hidden Figures. I joke that that was the year I realized I was female – it took being explicitly told that ‘you are a female STEM person’, which I didn’t realize or at least think about before. I suppose before that I was kind of oblivious to the idea that I was not just an engineer, but a female engineer. To put it more specifically, before then, I didn’t have the language to describe all these experiences I had gone through and continue to have up to today. Every time I faced discrimination, it didn’t occur to me that I was facing discrimination because I was female. I just thought it was part of the job, and in that year that I realized I was a female engineer, it started dawning on me, the gender-based discriminations.
In our organization, we are trying to be more intentional about gender in our work. We are gender sensitive; but not transformative yet. We recognize that it happens and when the opportunity arises, we address it. But I would say that we are not gender transformative yet just because in our projects, we are still very cautious about how we approach gender issues. In our COMET work, we conduct all-female sessions to make sure that females have a voice. We also facilitate in a way that we ensure that there is inclusion from all different groups in the community, and not just from a male-female perspective but also in terms of age and social class, income levels – making sure that all marginalized groups are included. But that’s I think currently as far as we go, though we want to be more intentional about it.
I really like working with communities. I think communities, and especially rural communities, have such a special role to play in the world. First of all, regardless of what governments or anybody else tells you, rural communities are on the front line of renewable energy and the transition. Unlike urban communities, rural communities don’t have much of a choice. They use decentralized renewable energy systems because they have to, and remember, off-grid communities have been using these systems way longer than urban users. I feel like that’s something that people forget, or they don’t think of. That rural communities are on the frontlines of climate change issues and the transition. And the transition to renewable energy for them is a live or die situation for survival. I learn a lot from these communities and being able to work with them is what motivates me.