Presumptions and Precarity: probing electricity infrastructure in Unguja, Tanzania

Colloquium | November 14 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Veronica Jacome, PhD Candidate, Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley

 Center for African Studies

"Modern energy for all", a broad initiative to connect poor populations to the electric grid, is generally thought to lead to reductions in poverty-induced vulnerabilities and is considered a primary strategy for meeting development goals. Indeed the main push for electrification projects in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) rests on the connection between the lack of electricity connections in SSA, and the prevalence of poverty. However, electricity infrastructure is a complex and costly system. Its dynamic physicality varies both spatially and temporally, and carries a diverse set of agents; these users, operators, engineers and policy makers embody conditions that are socially and materially produced and reproduced. Furthermore, the nature of reliability, or specifically (un)reliability - which can literally ‘leave [people] in the dark’ through outages, brownouts, or disconnections - compounds existing vulnerabilities by increasing uncertainty for already precarious populations. This talk explores the nature of precarity as it relates to "modern energy for all" and the intermittent nature of electricity connections to users and consumers. It presents research on the island of Unguja, Tanzania – where semi-structured, open ended interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2016, combined with detailed electricity-systems monitoring, and household surveys completed summer 2018. By combining an extensive understanding of the physical system, together with qualitative semi-structured interviews, and surveys, this work establishes a unique notion of the social and material conditions capable of heightening and adjusting to everyday uncertainties. Ultimately, the connection to an economically and physically constrained system versus infrastructure built on abundance has implications for the way users and the infrastructure interact, and how precarity is perpetuated.

Veronica Jacome is a PhD candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, and a student in the Critical Theory Program. She has a BS in Engineering Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Grounded in a rigorous understanding of electric power systems and critical social theory, Veronica’s research interests are basic service provision, and political economy; critical geography and common property resources; and technology and development. Currently, her research project focuses on the terms of access that underpin "modern" energy for all, namely, rates and reliability. Her recent work centers on pre- versus post- payment practices and the variance of electricity services in Unguja, Tanzania, investing how these aspects enable or hinder access to modern and affordable energy for all (Sustainable Development Goal 7). Prior to joining ERG, Veronica served as the Director of Development for NYC's Imagine Science and Films, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching A-level physics in Songea, Tanzania.

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 Nov 14 Event Flyer - Veronica Jacome