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To close its energy gap, Africa should think clean

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A satellite image of the world at night (Photo: Beau Wade via Flickr).

For a continent determined to close its energy gap, Africa is poised to turn away from fossil fuel production and potentially bring clean energy to nearly 600 million people lacking electricity.

Vaccines unable to be stored without refrigeration, students closing their books after dark, and smoke-filled homes thanks to wood or coal burning devices are some of the issues plaguing 69 percent of sub-Saharan Africa due to the shortage of electricity across the continent. As African governments and international partners seek to remedy the electricity gap, huge potential for renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal, have investors from African countries and around the world considering a cleaner solution.

Experts believe the continent is an ideal place to establish renewable energy infrastructure due to abundant solar and wind resources, as well as a lack of infrastructure to process and use fossil fuels. Clean energy production already accounts for 15 percent of electricity production in Africa, compared with just five percent in the U.S.

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A Kenyan man lights a gas-powered lamp in his home (Photo:USAID Africa Bureau via Flickr).

More people die from inhaling smoke indoors from cooking and lighting their homes than from AIDS and Malaria combined says the ONE campaign’s U.S. Executive Director Tom Hart.

“The impact on the extreme poor, which is our mission, is what really got us involved in trying to get more electricity to Africa,” Hart said. “They’ve barely scratched the surface of their renewable energy potential. They’ve got huge amounts of wind and solar, geothermal.”

The ONE campaign is an international non-profit and advocacy group dedicated to fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.

The International Renewable Energy Agency reported in January that 19 countries in eastern Africa pledged support to meet their energy needs in a clean and sustainable way. The result, known as the Africa Clean Energy Corridor, is a commitment from those countries to invest in renewable sources including solar, wind, geothermal and hydro instead of opting for fossil fuels.

Early large-scale solar projects are already underway in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa. On January 16, the World Bank announced a $100 million solar development plan in Nigeria to diversify the country’s reliance on oil. Nigeria’s oil is the most-produced in Africa, the fourth-most produced in the world, and is the U.S.’s fifth-highest supplier. Outside investment is helping shape Nigeria’s energy future, but some worry internal corruption could threaten this progress.

In 2013, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 144 in corruption out of 177 nations. Nigeria’s corruption problem is often linked to its reliance on oil revenue, the so-called “oil curse” that plagues many energy rich countries with poor governance and weak institutions.

It will be difficult to reform Nigeria’s oil economy, but its experience serves as an example for why some hope to skip fossil fuel dependence altogether in developing African nations where cleaner energy may be available.

South Africa is also at the forefront of development of clean energy infrastructure. IHS, a global information company, recently identified South Africa as the world’s most attractive emerging solar energy country. South Africa is taking steps to fill that role with its latest solar plant, the 50-megawatt De Aar, due to come online this year.

Hart said he thinks the best solution to bridging Africa’s energy gap will be using a mix of both fossil and renewable sources, including tapping into Africa’s large reserves of natural gas in an “environmentally sensitive way as possible.”

“We really are taking the lead from Africa itself,” Hart said. “There are some African countries, like Ethiopia and Rwanda, whose energy plans are all renewable. Then there are some African countries, like Kenya and Ghana, whose energy plans are a mix.”

Romy Chevallier, a senior researcher on the Governance of Africa’s Resources program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, acknowledged the need for some African countries, especially its poorest, to use fossil fuels to help bring energy to those who are suffering the most. In an article for the Huffington Post, she said keeping Africa’s poorest countries “entirely from fossil fuel use in their immediate future” is “unfair and divorced from the reality on the ground.”

However, her position remains that Africa should go about closing its energy gap clean and sustainably.

“There is a need to urgently reconcile both human development energy needs while maintaining and upholding the need for environmental integrity and climate change mitigation,” Chevallier said.

Meeting this goal will probably not happen without large amounts of foreign investment.

Under President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, the U.S. pledged $7 billion over five years in hope of doubling the number of Africans with access to electricity. The first phase of the initiative will work with six African countries—Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania—to improve infrastructure across the continent in hopes of increasing trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

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(Photo: d willikers via Flickr)

When President Obama announced the Power Africa initiative last June at a speech in Cape Town, he described the need for access to electricity as “fundamental to opportunity in this age.”

“It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of global economy,” President Obama said.

The Electrify Africa Act, if approved by Congress, will complement the President’s initiative and make it “the policy of the United States to encourage access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.”  The legislation would direct organizations like USAID and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to provide first-time electricity access to at least 50 million people by 2020.

Whether its renewable or fossil energy, Hart warned that large projects developing electrical access could help industrial areas, but sometimes the poor and remote do not see the benefits.

“One of the long term hopes is that we believe that everybody in Africa has the right to flip a switch, just like we do,” Hart said. “Africans desperately want to get out of being aid recipients. They want economic growth, they want a level of prosperity and independence like we have in the west, and there is no question that energy access is a key part of that.”



Jordan Stutts

Jordan Stutts is a finance reporter for business journal PEI Media covering global infrastructure transactions, private investments in energy and transportation funding. He previously worked as an associate producer for FPA’s Great Decisions television series and covered local news in Charlotte, NC. You can follow him on Twitter @jwstuttered or check out his portfolio at