New energy for Africa?

The vast majority of people with no access to electrical services and clean cooking technologies is concentrated in the African continent.

by Nicoló Sartori
04 September 2019
7 min read
by Nicoló Sartori
04 September 2019
7 min read

Access to energy is one of the great existential challenges for progress in the African continent and for the socio-economic well-being of its inhabitants. Africa is in fact experiencing a series of epochal transformations - from a rapid urbanization process to the effects of climate change - which risk exacerbating some long-term problems across the continent, including very high poverty rates, uncontrolled population growth and gradual environmental degradation.

In this context, the energy sector plays a fundamental role: both to guarantee economic development and ensure social inclusion in a demographic context characterized by the growth of megacities and the gradual depopulation of the countryside, and to deal with and limit the effects of global warming on the population and the environment thanks to a transformation of energy consumption.

Slow process

Despite the fact that - both regionally and globally - various initiatives have been launched to address these critical issues and ensure universal access to energy to all African citizens and businesses, the data remains terribly worrying. The vast majority of people with no access to electrical services and clean cooking technologies on a global scale is in fact concentrated in Africa. Even today - the figure refers to 2017 - as many as 573 of the 840 million people in the world without access to electricity live on the African subcontinent: only 44% of Africans - almost one in two - regularly have basic electrical services available.

Added to this is the even more critical - though often underestimated - situation regarding clean cooking, with 890 million of the nearly three billion people without access to modern cooking technologies at a global level located in sub-Saharan Africa. 82% of the African population use biomass, charcoal and even domestic waste as fuel, with a devastating impact on health, especially for women and children. In countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, less than 5% of the population have modern and clean cooking technologies available.

Even more impressive is the gap that has opened up in recent years between African states and developing countries in Latin America and especially in Asia. In South Asia, for example, thanks to a surprising improvement in electrification rates, the number of people without access to electrical services has dropped to a minimum (though still critical) level of 178 million. A two thirds reduction compared to 2011, when the population without access to electricity in the region was around 600 million, as it was in sub-Saharan Africa, thus demonstrating the great progress made in Asia in recent years, but also the substantial immobility of the African context.

Regional nuances

Today, 68% of the world's population without access to electricity live in Africa, as do 80% of the urban population and 66 percent of the rural population without access to electricity services on a global scale. Even more dramatically, based on the current trajectories, in 2030 as many as 89% of the global population without access to electricity will be located on the African continent. Despite the immense energy resource potential, both conventional (14 TCM of natural gas) and non-conventional (300 thousand GW of solar, 7 thousand GW of wind energy), African countries remain at the bottom of all the rankings for access to basic energy services.

New electrification rates very often fail to keep pace with the extraordinary birth rates and population growth in the area, creating a perverse effect that is hard to reverse. Suffice to say that out of the twenty African countries with the greatest gaps in terms of access, as many as nine have annual electrification rates of less than 1.5%, far from the over 3% performance recorded by virtuous examples in Asia and Latin America.

Obviously - and this is the positive element - there are significant exceptions to these regional macro-trends which show that substantial improvements in the energy sector are feasible and sustainable. This is, for example, the case of Kenya, which together with Bangladesh and Myanmar has achieved the greatest progress in the last decade, with electrification rates among the highest in the world (over 6% per annum).

Another significant element of the electrification process in the African subcontinent is the great attention paid to urban dynamics compared to the rural context. In contrast with the main global trends, where electrification has and is taking place above all in the countryside and in sparsely populated areas (48 million, compared to the 'only' 22 million recorded in urban areas between 2015 and 2017), in Africa two-thirds of new accesses to electricity services have been recorded in cities and megacities. A peculiarity that clearly follows continental urbanization processes - in the next ten years, almost 200 million new inhabitants will populate African cities - and that obviously influences the development models of the energy sector at the regional level.

Tackling diversity

As mentioned, based on current policies and trajectories, by 2030 approximately 650 million Africans will still lack access to energy services. The efforts made so far to promote a rapid electrification process (and the spread of clean cooking technologies) are not sufficient to reach the goal of universal access set in the multilateral context.

There are many factors that have led to this situation - political risk, regulatory uncertainties, infrastructure problems, human and behavioral variables - which must necessarily be addressed to implement a clear change of direction at regional level. Given the great diversity between the areas and countries that make up the variegated African subcontinent, it nevertheless appears clear that the solutions needed to achieve the energy objectives must be multiple and multi-faceted, avoiding a one-solution-fits all approach, in order to address the region’s peculiarities and differences.

In this respect, the massive investments in the renewable potential of the African continent (solar, wind and geothermal) will have to go hand in hand with the development of adequate energy transport networks and infrastructure, but also with adequate solutions to support the explosion in the demand for energy - both electricity and clean cooking - in urban areas, through the use of natural gas and in the future also of biogas and hydrogen.

This is definitely not a simple challenge to face, but the urgency and criticality of its effects on people and the environment require a substantial change of pace by institutional actors (international, regional and local), the private sector, and citizens themselves.

The author: Nicoló Sartori

Nicolò Sartori is a Senior Fellow and the Head of the Energy Program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome. He is mainly focused on the European Union’s energy policy and on issues of energy security and specifically on Italian and European external energy policy. He has also worked as faculty advisor at the NATO Defense College in Rome where he carried out research projects on the role of the Atlantic Alliance regarding energy security.