“Powering Africa” often means lighting up homes and industries. However, we must understand that the energy landscape is not just electricity for lighting; it covers all energy needs, from cooking to heating and, in this technological age, charging and powering electrical and electronic gadgets and equipment in rural and urban areas. Energy is the bloodstream of society.
With the exception of South Africa, Africa’s energy system is stuck in the 19th century. Between 75 and 97 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population depends on biomass in the form of wood, charcoal, and animal residue to meet their basic energy needs. Biomass is affordable, available, and reliable.
However, headlines today feature big money invested in big energy projects based on hydrocarbons and electricity generation (from hydro, geothermal, gas), which hope to power an Asian model of development for labour-intensive manufacturing. Any surplus electricity will be distributed through the Central, Southern, and Eastern Africa power pools.
This is a 20th century energy system that could bring big debts to sub-Saharan Africa while 59 per cent of the region’s people still live in rural areas. So, will these new electricity lines reach rural Africans and also be reliable, affordable, and sustainable? In short, there is a mismatch between energy needs and today’s investments, which usually follow the money on offer for damaging 20th century technologies rather than clean alternatives.
Lest we forget, the 21st century presents a world of limits. Our energy investments must now factor in not just the needs of a growing population, but also climate instability, decreasing biodiversity, less water, and more pollution. The Asian model cannot work in these circumstances. This leaves us with one option. Africa must invest in building a new, low-carbon model of modernity. We must leapfrog from the 20th century energy system directly into a more sustainable future, with an energy mix heavily sourced from renewables, both small and large-scale, both decentralised and centralised.
Fortunately, Africa has a significant potential in renewables. To tap into this potential, Africa must move beyond the central grid logic. If each African country were to invest in last-mile connectivity (as Kenya is doing), would all Africans have access to sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy for the next 60 years?
Energy poverty is not a connectivity problem; it is an affordability problem and often bears a very feminine face. So long as the alternatives are unaffordable, African women will continue to toil under a physically damaging 19th century energy system in many parts of rural and urban Africa. Any future energy investment must therefore consider decentralised, off-grid, affordable renewable solutions for powering homes and industries in rural areas and local economies.
Whenever a new big power plant plan is unveiled, the need to industrialise Africa or an African nation is given as a legitimate reason. However, the term “energy demand” raises two questions: “Energy for whom?” and “Energy for what?” – in that order. Energy investments in the continent must reflect the real demand from the African people before the needs of large industries. First, make sure that local economies are working by providing local people access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy. People can then use the energy to transform their own lives and develop the industries they need.
In late 2018, the Society for International Development (SID) in partnership with the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Nairobi office launched Energy for Whom? Scenarios for Eastern Africa. SID’s work presents three short energy pathways into the future. The first pathway, dubbed “Mitumba”, (Mitumba means “second-hand” in Kiswahili), describes a business-as-usual world where massive investments in 20th century energy technology feed a 20th century political economy that quickly fails in the face of 21st century challenges. The second pathway, “Markets”, sees the region building a large-scale, low-carbon energy system for the 21st century. However, this energy serves an economy of foreign investors and rarely reaches the majority of Eastern Africans. The third pathway, “Struggles”, is a story of tough times, with big changes in small places as urban professionals move into rural cities and invest in social innovations and a smaller scale distributed energy system. It is, however, a time of frequent crises caused by climate change, disease, and political uncertainty.
Although written in the context of the Eastern Africa region, with focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, these future energy scenarios are useful for debating the issues around powering the continent and its population. It is not enough to think of energy as an industrial, economic tool; it must also play a transformative role in making local economies more vibrant, local ecosystems more resilient, and local people more secure.
The author is a programme officer leading the Sustainable Energy Futures Programme at the Society for International Development. Email: [email protected]