Energy access and poverty: An African Perspective

Globally, 75% of people without access to electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa. From the climate equity and energy access perspective, this is a great injustice to the people of the region. If unaided, pushing their systems further for the sake of mitigation targets might just mean that the citizens from these countries would continue to remain in grim poverty and the eradication of poverty would be an unaccomplished dream. However, this dismal situation can have a turnaround with the push for green investments, decline in prices of renewable power along with the availability of critical metal reserves in Africa. All of these will help facilitate access to energy and would change the future of these nations. Perhaps the world leaders meeting for COP 26 at Glasgow should explore the avenues for low-cost access to energy.

Access to energy plays a pivotal role in the development of society. Various benchmarks for ensuring development of society like the Human Development Index show a direct relationship of access to energy with quality of life.  Important points for defining energy access are affordability and continuity of supply. Both these points are critical for sustaining any transition as households might benefit from financial support for the initial investment into these technologies, but for ensuring long-term sustained use managing operational fuel costs are key. Therefore, there is a need to look into access to energy holistically.

Africa as a continent is one of the least developed when compared with other parts of the world, and it performs poorly on the energy access front as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has been monitoring the data for the electrification and access to modern fuels for almost two decades. The following table presents the data for access to clean energy for the world, developing countries and the African continent.

It is evident from the table that till 2018, 71% of the African population relied on non-clean sources of energy for cooking. The lack of cleaner fuels has drastically affected the health of African household members. The alternatives for traditional sources for cooking are the usage of electrical energy or gas-based cooking. Both of these require a massive investment in the infrastructure. Also, fuel switching will not be an easy task as the usage of non-clean fuels sources is deeply entrenched into cultural traditions. Massive education drives and campaigning are required to make the switch socially acceptable.

Another important parameter defining the access to energy is access to electricity. Apart from its household use, electricity access opens avenues for employment with the industrialization and mechanization of various processes crucial to economic development. The data maintained by IEA shows that between 2000 to 2015, in a span of 15 years, access to electricity in Africa increased from 36% to 49%, while in developing Asia it rose from 67% to 96%. While Africa has achieved urban electrification of 81% till 2019, a major amount of work is required to push for rural electrification as it stands at 37% till 2019. This is abysmal when compared against the global figure for rural electrification coverage of 85%.

The intent of this blog is not just to show the stark differences in energy access in Africa vis-à-vis the world and provide a call to action. But also, to highlight that Africa is a very resourceful continent. It has over 10 TW of solar potential, 350 GW of hydroelectric potential, 110 GW of wind potential and an additional 15 GW of geothermal potential, and large deposits of critical minerals (cobalt, platinum, etc.) that will help light up the globe for generations. The energy policy paradigm in Africa, therefore, needs to leverage this resource potential for achieving its own developmental goals. Additionally, it also needs to elevate itself from being a primary resource provider to the world, to being able to use its resources for driving its industrial and other value addition capabilities.

However, this transition to renewable energy needs to be smooth as a sudden shift from the traditional sources to renewable energy could be very devastating for economies. It seriously ignores the quickly deployable, efficient, economical and catalytic potential of coal and gas-based power for development in the medium-term. For example, countries like Ghana have invested in the Tema LNG regasification terminal, to address their developmental needs. The access to global gas market, will facilitate transition to a low carbon economy while addressing the economical requirements of fuel supply. It is also helping other countries in the region with a stable and cheap supply of gas, and Ghana with finances. The other west African countries have adopted the same model for empowering their economy. Kenya has also used the traditional path to provide universal access to its citizens. In its National Energy Strategy, it has targeted the production of 100,000 barrels of oil per day by 2022 and to balance the energy mix in the long run it targets for development of two 275 MW geothermal capacity plants. Ethiopia where the massive investments have been diverted towards hydro base power to achieve a capacity of 13.5 GW   and also plans to expand solar and geothermal based energy to 45% by 2040. Rwanda in its Rwanda Energy Policy – 2015 used the policy framework as a tool and launched an incentive-based scheme where subsidies are provided on the installation of the solar water pumps, LED lamps, industries undertaking energy efficiency audits and incentives on the energy-efficient building.

Collaborative effort like New Deal on Energy in Africa by African Development Bank is the way forward for the development. This effort seeks to develop energy in the continent and to give all its residents the universal access to energy by mobilizing the domestic and international financiers. It also provides the much-needed help to its member countries for drafting their national energy policies and regulations Given the example of other African and also certain South Asian nations, countries should focus on the existing stocks of resources to empower the economy and with time make a shift to renewable based energy by utilizing the finances generated within the boundaries of the nation and various other international finance mechanism as in the case of Morocco and Algeria. Each country is different in itself with its fossil-fuel and renewable potential, strength of economy and development requirements. The experience with Rwanda has showed that the policy framework and incentive-based mechanism will increase the pace of electrification and mechanization of industries and better policies will also help secure energy efficiency.

The development of most of the country has been carbon intensive, and given the status of the economy and living conditions in Africa, the responsible use of fossil-based energy will help improve living conditions and change the socio-economic conditions in the continent. The COP is the best platform for countries to express their concerns to the world regarding the popular narration scripted by a few developed countries. It is the time when the developing and under-developed countries come together and focus on their cumulative emissions and joint approach towards carbon budgeting to curb down the emissions.

In the run-up to the COP 26, every country was expected to submit its Net Zero targets. The target setting will be more of a challenge to the African countries as they have to strategize their decarbonization pathways without reaching their peak emission levels. Studies show the timeline between Net Zero and peak emissions is of three decades. Given the status of poverty, the immediate requirement of any government is to push for economic well-being of the region. This translates into a big dilemma for the African countries, on one hand they have to cater to their domestic needs, and on the other hand they have to be prepared for the upcoming catastrophe which will affect their life severely in future. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of ICRIER.

Published by Ankit Pal

"Ankit Pal has an academic background in Mathematics with B.Sc. from Fergusson College and M.Sc. from University of Pune. He also holds a master’s degree in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, where he worked on Climate Change Models like NASA-NEX and canESM to make future projections on climatic parameters, Statistical evaluation and downscaling of the model’s data. His interest area includes Index Development, Analysis and Modeling of Climate, Energy and Agricultural Data. In the past he worked with Finance and Investment Banking organisation's where he was with the Data Quality Team for developing Python scripts to ensure the quality of Scope emissions, TCFD and Green Revenues data."

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