Purpose This paper aims to present a new master's programme for promoting energy access and energy efficiency in Southern Africa. Design/methodology/approach A transdisciplinary approach called participatory integrated assessment of energy systems (PARTICIPIA) was used for the development of the curriculum. This approach is based on the two emerging fields of multi-scale integrated assessment and science for governance, which bring innovative concepts and methods. Findings The application of the PARTICIPIA methodology to three case studies reveals that the proposed transdisciplinary approach could support energy and development policies in the region. The implementation of the PARTICIPIA curriculum in three higher education institutions reveals its ability to respond to the needs of specific contexts and its connection with existing higher education programmes. Practical implications Considering energy issues from a transdisciplinary approach in higher education is absolutely critical because such a holistic view cannot be achieved through engineering curricula. Deliberate and greater efforts should be made to integrate methods from multi-scale integrated assessment and science for governance in higher education curricula to train a new breed of modern-day energy planners in charge of coming up with solutions that are shared by all relevant stakeholders. Originality/value This paper presents an innovative higher education curriculum in terms of the attention given to energy access and energy efficiency that affect the southern Africa region and the nature of the methodology adopted to face these issues.