Africa needs more energy

African countries south of the Sahara are losing the energy supply race. As a recently published report explains, it could end up the only region in the world in which the number of people without access to a modern energy supply will rise. A fund to finance green energy should help. Anne Gonschorek reports from Cape Town.

Thanks to inexpensive solar panels, more and more people in Africa have access to electricity. (Photo credit: CIFOR, flickr)

Thanks to inexpensive solar panels, more and more people in Africa have access to electricity. (Photo credit: CIFOR, flickr)

Parts of Africa suffer from inadequate power supply, leading the Africa Progress Panel chaired by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, to call on the West to support sub-Saharan African countries. The panel proposes setting up a new USD 20-billion-dollar fund to finance inexpensive solar panels and provide two-thirds of the continent – which has been sitting in the dark until now – with energy.

Green energy is the solution

More than 600 million people in Africa lack access to energy. Excluding South Africa, which generates half the region’s electricity, sub-Saharan Africa uses less electricity than Spain. It would take the average Tanzanian eight years to use as much electricity as an average American consumes in a single month. But instead of the situation improving in the future, the number of people in Africa without access to modern energy is predicted to increase by 45 million in the next 15 years, according to a new study from the Africa Progress Panel, which examined the poorly managed energy infrastructure on the African continent.

The annual Africa Progress Report takes the position that the African content should avoid fossil fuels and make immediate use of low-carbon energy resources. But to accomplish this, the current fossil fuel subsidies would have to be abolished.

One could even argue that the use of renewable energy is rather a necessity than a mere possibility: an estimated 600,000 people die each year in Africa from household air pollution, half of them children under the age of five. And this is hitting the poorest the hardest: due to a lack of electricity, 700 million people cook with highly toxic wood or coal-burning stoves. And this will only get worse: by 2030, around 184 million more people will be using these unhealthy stoves.

Energy is expensive

“Africa’s poorest households are the unwitting victims of one of the world’s starkest market failures,” according to the report. “We estimate that the 138 million households comprising people living on less than USD 2.50 a day are spending USD 10 billion annually on energy-related products, such as charcoal, candles, kerosene and firewood.”

Corrupt power utilities, wasteful subsidies and poor political decisions have resulted in Africa boasting some of the highest energy prices in the world. While the average cost for electricity per kWh in the United States is 12 cents, an African household spends around USD 10/kWh on lighting. And yet the continent’s energy grids are in such a poor condition that up to a quarter of them are constantly out of service.

Fight against climate change

All of this could be addressed through a fund proposed by the Africa Progress Panel, which calls for investments of USD 20 billion annually to ensure universal access to energy by 2030. Half of that money should come from Africa governments, while the other USD 10 billion would come from the wider international community in the form of concessional development finance, supplemented by aid.

Annan makes clear that financial assistance must be seen as part of the overall fight against global climate change, making Africa’s energy problem one of the key challenges of the 21st century. And this affects Africa’s elite first and foremost: “For too long, Africa’s leaders have been content to oversee highly centralised energy systems designed to benefit the rich and bypass the poor,” the report insists.


Photo credit: CIFOR, flickr/Creative Commons


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