Geographies in Depth

Africa’s energy poverty is keeping its people poor

energy poverty in Africa

Eradicating energy poverty in Africa is critical to the success of global efforts to tackle poverty. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Caroline Kende-Robb
Senior Adviser, African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)
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Africa is undergoing a remarkable energy transformation. But African governments and their international partners have to accelerate that transformation if we are to achieve our collective ambitions and eradicate energy poverty. Access to clean modern energy, especially in Africa, where 620 million people have no electricity, is critical to the success of global efforts to tackle poverty.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted a year ago in New York, embrace the need for economic development that leaves no one behind and gives everyone a fair chance of leading a decent life. The seventh goal acknowledges the importance of “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. But energy is also essential for all the other targets, including eradicating extreme poverty, eliminating avoidable child deaths, and achieving universal secondary education, more inclusive growth, gender equity and sustainable land-use.

The SDG agenda also faces squarely our duty to protect future generations by limiting climate change, adopting renewable energy and managing resources sustainably. Climate change, in other words, demands that we rethink the relationship between energy and development.

Africa's energy poverty: a dilemma

A recent report by Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel, Power People Planet: Seizing Africa’s energy and climate opportunities, shows that we can prevent catastrophic climate change while building the energy systems needed to sustain growth, create jobs and lift millions of people out of poverty. As a global community, we have the technology, finance and ingenuity to make the transition to a low-carbon future. To break the link between energy and emissions, however, we need political leadership and international cooperation.

In Africa, while technology and ingenuity are revolutionizing the energy sector, the need for finance, leadership and cooperation is urgent. Two in three Africans lack access to electricity. Africa’s highly centralized energy systems often benefit the rich and bypass the poor. They are mostly underpowered, inefficient and unequal. Chronic under-supply of secure and affordable electricity is a barrier to growth, job creation and poverty reduction.

Energy poverty statistics across different countries in Africa
Energy poverty statistics across different countries in Africa

Lacking access to clean energy sources, over half of Africa’s population is forced to resort to biomass, such as firewood and charcoal – an option that is economically inefficient and environmentally devastating. Energy-sector bottlenecks and power shortages cost the region 2-4 per cent of GDP annually, undermining sustainable economic growth, jobs and investment.

Africa’s energy poverty reinforces economic poverty, especially for women and people in rural areas. Africa’s poorest people are paying among the world’s highest prices for energy. On current trends, the region will not achieve the 2030 goals – and in many countries numbers without access to energy are rising as a result of demographic pressures.

The potential to change this picture is enormous, however, and Africa is already rewriting the rules of the global multi-trillion dollar energy industry. Generation, storage and consumption are being disrupted in the positive sense of innovation and fresh ways of thinking. Consumers are becoming empowered and antiquated business models are being turned upside-down.

Africa’s renewables revolution

Fast-changing technologies are enabling the emergence in Africa of ‘prosumers’, people who are both producers and consumers of power. The monopoly power of national utilities that treat consumers as passive receivers is finally being challenged as the industry becomes ‘unscaled’.

Mini-grids, smart metering and mobile money have all arrived in Africa and are transforming the energy landscape for Africa today and the world tomorrow.

Africa’s renewables revolution is happening both on and off-grid. Off-grid solar power is serving a large and growing market of ‘first generation’ modern energy users. While the power generated is modest in kilowatt terms, it is transformative for people’s lives. Off-grid energy has the potential to reduce the epidemic of death and injury resulting from indoor air pollution, provide the light children need to do homework, and reduce pressure on forests. Off-grid solar power also has the potential to be scaled up for productive power, driving businesses.

Part of the revolution is happening at national utility scale. South Africa has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy, with wind-power now competitive with coal in terms of price. Other countries –Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and Rwanda, among them – are attracting large investments in renewable energy.

Sub-Saharan Africa also has some of the world’s largest (and least exploited) reserves of natural gas. There is a vast untapped potential in hydro-power. Unlocking that potential will require the development of regional markets. The Inga Dam development in the Democratic Republic of Congo could add an estimated 4GW of electricity to the national grid. The Grand Inga project – with an estimated generation capacity of 40GW could be transformative for the whole of Africa.

Energy poverty, transformation and climate risk management

We must now accelerate the pace of the continent’s energy transformation. Effective international cooperation can transform what is possible in Africa. Increased support for investment in renewable energy would greatly expand the scope for development of low-carbon energy.

To enhance Africa’s prospects for managing climate risk and delivering energy for all, the world’s hopelessly fragmented, underfinanced and often poorly governed climate-finance institutions need to be reformed.

Now, as never before, Africa must be part of an international community that delivers multilateral solutions to shared global problems. A good example is African governments’ wider dialogue on energy and climate that reflects the region’s capacity for leadership.

Africa’s leaders, for their part, must also take decisive action to reform inefficient, inequitable and often corrupt energy utilities that are failing to provide reliable power supplies. They must also be proactive in fostering energy innovation and development by establishing well-designed regulations and standards, and supporting research and skill development.

African countries have a huge opportunity to use the newest technologies and ideas to achieve universal access to clean, reliable, affordable energy. Energy, in turn, is the key to realizing the SDGs. Let’s make it happen.

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Geographies in DepthEnergy Transition
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