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Cultural and Social Anthropology

Chair for Social Anthropology – Professor Dr. Erdmute Alber

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Disruptive processes in the electricity sector of Guinea-Bissau - a history of electrification, de-electrification and re-electrification (1890 to 2020)




Förderung: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung

Laufzeit: 2022 - 2023

Betreuerin: Prof. Dr. Erdmute Alber

Stipendiat: Dr. Manfred Stoppok


This project analyses the processes, which enabled and disrupted the electrification of Guinea-Bissau since colonial times. A special emphasis will be given to the discourses and imaginations underpinning the process of electrification of the country.

From a western European perspective, electrification seems to be a unidirectional process of technological progress, which can only temporarily be distorted by war or (environmental or human) disaster. The case of Guinea-Bissau shows that periods of electrification can follow decades of de-electrification. In Guinea-Bissau, a period from the 1890s to the mid-1980s was characterized by a slow expansion of electricity to the country’s major marketplaces with decentralized local electricity grids. In the following three decades from the mid-1980s to 2000s those decentralized electricity grids collapsed completely. Only the capital Bissau remained with a rudimentary electricity supply. In the last 15 years development cooperation has shifted its focus to the provision of a stable and affordable energy supply. Thus, a process of re-electrification hast started with the provision of a more reliable electricity supply in the capital Bissau and beyond.

The project aims to reconstruct the historic phases of electrification, de-electrification, and the ongoing re-electrification in Guinea-Bissau. It looks at the ideas and promises made or to which electricity supply was connected. It highlights the disruptive processes electrification was faced with  and connects them to the academic discourse about the political economy of electricity supply and access in Guinea-Bissau.

The case study of Guinea-Bissau shows, that electrification is not a unidirectional socio-technical process, but contrarily a process which can oscillate in the one or other direction (electrification vs. de-electrification). I propose that this is the case until electricity is perceived as something which I will call a “standard technology” in a certain area. Hence, a technology fully incorporated into social and cultural practices – something which would be immoral to deny access to. The analysis of discourses and imaginations connected to electricity will show, how electricity was thought to be something for the industry, something for privileged colonial settlers and state administration, later on expressing the participation of urban life while only recently and partially being interpreted as something anyone should have access to.

Link to the Project Page

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