Powering Africa

When we think of what people in Africa need most, we immediately think of food, water and humanitarian aid, but while all of these resources are, of course, important, the chronic lack of electricity has not gotten the attention it deserves. If you could look over the world at night from space, you would see no lights in Africa, or at least as much as in empty Siberia. Despite accounting for a sixth of the world’s population, Africa only produces 4 % of the world’s electricity output. Those statistics, however, are misleading because South Africa and a few Northern African countries consume 75 % of that 4 % of electricity. Indeed, according to the World Bank, over 1.3 billion people live without electricity, and, of those people, 550 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that generates around as much electricity as Spain. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, Sub-Saharan Africa has a total electrification rate of only 30.5%, and a dismal 14.2 % rural electrification rate.  

Some countries have it worse than others. In Liberia, the total installed electrical capacity for 4.1 million people is less than what Cowboys Stadium uses during an NFL game. According to Liberia’s President, a mere 1 % of urban residents have access to electricity, and, somehow, that number is even lower for rural residents. Likewise, Nigeria’s power supply is best described as “epileptic”. Chronic power outages leave Nigerians with only a few precious hours of electricity every day. In fact, Nigeria, a country with over 167 million people, has a generating capacity of only 4,000 MegaWatts. In contrast, the generating capacity of New York City is 13,000 MegaWatts, more than triple, for only 8 million people. Nigerians have therefore renamed their national power supplier – the Power Holding Company of Nigeria – the Please Have Candle Nearby company. But, who can blame them – South Africans use 55 times more energy per head, and Americans 100 times more. And so, if we don’t act now, Africans will continue to stay in the dark.

In the first-world, life never stops, even after dark. If you want to read, you can just turn on your night-light. Likewise, if you want to play football, you just have to wait 35 minutes until the back-up generators turn the lights back on. For those without electricity, however, life is much more difficult, as the lack of electricity has dramatic educational, social, economic, and health impacts as well. Without electricity, poor African families are forced to use firewood, charcoal, and kerosene resulting in indoor pollution that causes over 3.5 million deaths every year, which is more than double the number of deaths attributed to malaria, or HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, since electricity is not reliable, and very costly, patients are treated in dangerously under-equipped hospitals, and valuable life-saving vaccines and medications are thrown out everyday because they can’t be refrigerated. In fact, proper lighting and electrical devices in hospitals would reduce infant and maternal mortality by 70%. In terms of education, electricity can be the difference between a student staying in school and dropping out. Sometimes, I have to stay up really late to do homework; I don’t like it, but at least I have light. Students in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t. And so, imagine being punished for not doing your homework, when it’s not your fault but rather because you have no light to study with at night. Indeed, 90 % of children attend primary schools that lack electricity – that means no fans for the scorching heat, no computers, and no lights for night classes. The lack of electricity, however, is most harmful for girls and women. Girls spend much less time than boys in school because they are forced to spend all day searching for fuel and firewood, which is partly why while 7 in 10 men in Africa can read, only half of women can do so. For women, lacking a proper education means that women cannot enter the workforce, empower themselves and, most importantly, further gender equality. Worst of all, when the sun goes down, without any streetlights or telephones, women and girls are left extremely vulnerable to violence and abuse in the darkness. At home I have a thirteen-year-old sister. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing my sister would be at risk of rape and even death because my country wouldn’t be able to provide us with electricity. And so, in places without electricity, women are essentially imprisoned in their homes under this “curfew” once the sun goes down. That’s not fair. And, we need to start making sure women and girls are not put in that position any longer.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, finding solutions to the lack of electricity therefore needs to become a priority. The first step, of course, is bridging the funding gap. It is estimated that 435 billion dollars would be enough to provide electricity to everyone in the dark. Although that number might seem like a lot, it represents less than 3% of total global energy investment. The money needs to be raised through international aid, multilateral financing, climate change financial mechanisms, and government and private sector investments. Mr. Obama’s latest “Power Africa” initiative, which pledges 16 billion dollars, is proof that raising money is possible. Once we have the money, we can then look at what we can do on the ground in Africa for people living in either urban or rural areas. For urban residents, the most important thing is extending national electricity grids for the power supply. Meanwhile, in rural areas, we need a combination of grid energy for people near transmission lines and an off grid electricity supply for those who aren’t. The off grid electricity supply should consist of decentralized renewable energy, like micro hydro and solar PV. We also need to provide safe cooking fuels to rural residents to stop indoor air pollution, like biofuels or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). In both areas, however, improving and extending grid-based power supplies is absolutely critical to bringing electricity to the poor, and thus reducing poverty as well. We also need to look towards renewables, as Africa has vast renewable energy resources, the costs of renewables are actually falling, and there is a case to be made for long-term development based on renewable power.


Karl Valentini