Op-ed: Tackling Africa’s energy deficit must be a priority for the continent

Access to electricity is key to Africa’s future. It is the springboard to increased prosperity and a better quality of life. Without it, children struggle to study, ideas won’t be transformed into thriving businesses and the continent will never completely plug into the global economy.

But as many as seven in ten Africans can’t depend on reliable power. This is a huge brake, both on their ambitions and the continent’s development. Unless we can overcome this energy deficit, Africa’s economic and social progress will be crippled.

The scale of the challenge is clear. Only 60 per cent of properties in sub-Saharan Africa are connected to an electricity grid. Rural areas, in particular, find themselves cut off from power.

Millions of Africans know, connection itself is by no means a guarantee of reliable supply. Blackouts are a fact of everyday life across much of the continent.

In Ghana, Afrobarometer found that, while 87 per cent of homes are connected to a grid, less than half enjoyed reliable power. The African Development Bank discovered that manufacturers lose an average of 56 days a year of production because of power shortages.

And when energy does arrive, the price can be three times more than consumers pay in other regions – even in those countries with similar levels of economic development. When businesses or families have to rely on diesel-based generators, costs can be even higher.

With Africa’s population forecast to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, the continent is set to make up nearly a quarter of the global workforce. Managing the mismatch between power supply and demand requires urgent action. This is why providing the power Africa needs ranks among the most important global challenges.

Africa does not lack energy resources. The continent has vast fossil fuel reserves, and will be powered by renewable energy in the longer term. Its climate in large parts provides ideal conditions for solar and wind power generation. Only a fraction of Africa’s hydroelectric and geothermal potential has yet been exploited.

Innovation, investment and partnerships are needed to harness this rich energy potential, and ensure the continent’s communities and businesses can prosper.

Since 2000, investment in sub-Saharan African energy supply has more than doubled. But it is still nowhere near enough to meet the shortfall in generation capacity and, critically, to put in place the infrastructure to get electricity to the entire continent.

Official estimates show that sub-Saharan Africa will need $450 billion in power sector investment within the next 20-30 years. Most of this will have to come from outside our continent.

This is why partnerships are so critical to overcoming Africa’s energy challenge. We need the courage to forge new partnerships and show investors the rewards of working with African governments and companies, to drive growth within the continent. In turn, governments will have to work hard to provide the stable conditions to attract investment.

We also need to take a regional view. One successful example is the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). SAPP connects 12 countries across the region. This means that power coming from a new gas-powered plant in north-east Mozambique won’t just help get electricity to the 70 per cent of the population in that country without access. It also offers the possibility of sending it to places it is needed, such as Malawi or Zambia.

Just as we have adapted mobile technology to leapfrog the need for fixed phone networks, Africa can also lead the world in innovative energy solutions.

These solutions must also be combined with initiatives tailored to local conditions and communities, using the resources available in those places. In some areas, small-scale solar power combined with biomass technology can meet the needs of rural villages without expensive power lines having to be put in place.

Solutions must also be affordable for the consumer. For example, replacing charcoal with more affordable and environmental friendly briquettes saves consumers money, as well as the environment. Great Lakes Africa Energy is take a lead in such initiatives.

Tackling Africa’s energy deficit must be a priority for the continent. But it should also be high on the global agenda. Providing access to reliable and affordable energy is key to Africa’s prosperity. And a prosperous Africa is key to a strong global economy in the decades ahead.

*Humphrey Kariuki is Chairman of Great Lakes Africa Energy and the Dalbit Group

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