Power grids that work at a fraction of the scale of a traditional utility have gained support from banks and developers as a way to bring power to the 620 million people across Africa that lack access to electricity.

From Kenya to Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania, companies including Italy’s biggest utility Enel SpA and General Electric Co. of the U.S. are building minigrids that distribute power to villages instead of whole nations.

A plunge in the cost of renewables has opened a new source of power for minigrids. While these smaller electricity networks deliver only a trickle of electricity, they’re demonstrating a way to bring energy to the poorest areas without lifting pollution. Institutions including the African Development Bank are supporting them as a way to balance goals on economic growth and global warming, promising the industry will expand beyond a few pilot projects.

“If you go back 130 years in Europe, electrification started with a minigrid,” Francesco Starace, chief executive officer of Enel, said in an interview. “There was a rich man, his house, his factory and a small power plant. Eventually his workers got hooked up, and then transmission lines were laid. Slowly we got the system we have today. We don’t see any reason why Africa shouldn’t do the same.”

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