One of 2013’s highlights so far has been my visit to Tanzania, where I conducted research on solid waste management. During my visit, I also had time to explore energy issues in the country. This post is a little summary of what I learned.

Tanzania currently faces a variety of serious energy problems. To begin with, electricity is simply not available for the vast majority of the population. In 2009, the electrification rate was an appalling 14%, and this statistic hides the fact that power outages are almost daily in the country’s commercial center, Dar es Salaam (no, it is not the capital; Dodoma is). For comparison, India’s electrification rate was at 66% at the same year, and India is widely recognized as having a severe energy poverty problem.

The good news is that the market for distributed electricity generation is growing rapidly. Companies like Sunny Money, who were kind enough to meet with me despite their busy schedule, are planning to sell millions of solar lanterns in rural areas in the coming years. These initiatives could change the lives of millions, and I am really excited about following the development of this business.

Another major issue in Tanzania is charcoal. While charcoal’s environmental impacts in general are subject to a vigorous debate — see here for the Charcoal Project, an exciting Brooklyn-based initiative on the topic — in Tanzania the situation is unambiguous. The demand for charcoal is growing so fast in the urban areas, and Dar in particular, that the country’s forests are being degraded and destroyed at an alarming pace. The government’s open access policy for forests does not help either. At the same time, none of the specialists I met believe banning charcoal is a possible solution. The sector is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, employs hundreds of thousands, and provides for the cooking in the vast majority of urban households. Better forestry laws, effective regulations, and clean technology on the production and consumption side are a much better solution. Here’s hoping I can somehow contribute to this important policy formulation project!

One issue I did not familiarize myself with is natural gas. Recently, many companies have discovered large quantities of natural gas off the coast of Tanzania, as illustrated by Statoil and ExxonMobil’s recent finds. While Tanzania has yet to gain significant revenue from natural gas, the situation will probably change completely within a decade. This means that Tanzania will have to worry about the management of a lucrative natural resource. For Tanzanian government’s nighttime reading, I recommend Paul Collier’s The Plundered Planet. I have not myself done research on the “resource curse,” largely because so many others have, but it is clear that natural gas will dominate many Tanzanian policy debates for years to come.

So what else? One of the most interesting observations about Tanzania is how good the pizza there is. Who would have thought? Perhaps it is because of the use of charcoal in the pizza ovens. Seriously, have some if you find your way there!