The metaphor for describing Africa as a “dark continent” has varied in time and space. In the 1970s to 1990s, Africa’s relative underdevelopment with high levels of poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, disease, etc was used by the Afro-pessimists like Joseph Konrad to qualify Africa as the “heart of darkness.” However, with the Africa ‘rising’ story, the energy crisis, precisely the provision of electricity, is now used to qualify the continent as a “dark continent.” When an aerial picture of Africa is taken at night via the satellite, the image that suffices is undoubtedly one of a continent in utter darkness, with little twinkles of light, far in between.
The facts are daunting and the storyline is very bad. Over 60 per cent of the population of the continent estimated at about 612 million people, do not have access to basic energy. Sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa generates less electricity than Spain. The energy used in the city of New York is up to, if not more than, what the entire Sub-Saharan Africa consumes. Yet, electricity is the lifewire of a modern economy and society, without which human potentials, and economic development will be severely impaired. Firms cannot operate optimally, jobs cannot be created, the informal sector cannot grow, the learning environment for our children will be harsh and inhospitable, and households will grumble all the time. That is the fate of Africa today. The promise of industrialisation and economic transformation will be far fetched for the continent if the energy infrastructure is not provided in Africa.
The energy challenge is now a major policy priority for the continent and the World Goal number seven (7) of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to achieve affordable and clean energy. The Progress Panel headed by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan made energy the focus of its 2016 report entitled: Power, People and Planet, while the African Development Bank (AfDB) made it the subject of its annual board meetings which took place recently in Lusaka, Zambia from from May 23-27, 2016 on the theme: Energy and Climate Change.
Akinwumi Adesina, the new president of the AfDB, decked in a slim-fit suit and his trade mark bow-tie, spoke brilliantly on why the continent must be lighted up, and quickly too, and why the fate of our young men and women fleeing the continent, should not be in the Mediterranean Sea, but in economic prosperity at home. Energy is key to creating jobs and opportunities for them, at home. As Adesina delivered his message to the audience with passion, commitment, and conviction, the urgency of the matter no doubt dawned on everyone present. The AfDB used the platform to launch its new initiative on the ‘New Deal on Energy in Africa’ through which it hopes to support African countries to overcome the energy challenge with billions of dollars in investments.
There are areas of good consensus amongst key stakeholders on what needs to be done to get Africa lighted up. African governments can no longer do it alone; public-private sector partnership is central in changing the ball game on energy in Africa. Massive investments and strategic planing are required in the sector which hitherto was not the case except for political rhetorics and high level of corruption. And finally, is that the reform of the energy sector is imperative if the goal of lighting up Africa is ever to be achieved.
An area where there seems to be a fairly differing undertone is what should be the strategy? Some argue that Africa must use all resources available to her to light up the continent including coal, fossil fuel, solar power, and nuclear. Others disagree that green electricity is the way to go, as it would define the future. As the world scales up its efforts to combat climate change, which is already badly affecting Africa, Africa cannot renege on the the new global compact on carbon emission agreed upon recently in Paris, and must look into the future rather than look back in addressing the energy challenge.
Those who offer the green energy option tend to place a lot of hope on the off-grid opportunities of solar energy that can light up remote communities and the rural areas instantly in Africa. This is good news, however, there are skeptics who view it as a short term measure, which cannot power industrialisation in Africa. The jury is still out on the route that Africa will take in consummating its energy revolution.
The critical gaping holes in providing clean energy for Africa will be technology and finance. If the world views Africa’s energy crisis as a global crisis that is fueling migration, poverty and indirectly terrorism, and invest in it genuinely, with required transfer of modern state of the art technology in green power, and support the financing mechanism, then Africa will overcome the problem much faster and with the right strategy. If Africa is left alone to define its path, it may take a fairly longer time and adopt the strategy it deems appropriate given its level of development.
The revolution in mobile phone use in Africa is used to draw a parallel on what the possibility could be on energy transformation in Africa. I am cautious about this. There are things yet unsaid about the mobile phone revolution in Africa. Considerable externalities still underpin the mobile phone revolution. Mobile phones are not produced in Africa but mostly in South Korea, China and the United States and its technology remains largely undomesticated. The energy sector, of the scale to drive industrialisation, will require quantum of financial resources far beyond what the mobile phone sector demands. The energy issue is a much bigger deal!
One major lesson which we learned painfully during the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in Africa is the need to put the people at the centre of our energy plans. Issues of access, affordability and efficiency must be the guiding principles of our efforts. We should not provide a market driven electricity that would be beyond the reach of the average rural dweller and it must be an energy facility that must power industrialisation in Africa. As Africa leaps from darkness, it must do so into an age of industrialisation and structural transformation, not a tokenism that would provide little blinks of light that will still leave the continent backward, underdeveloped and in industrial darkness.
Prof. Adejumobi lives in Lusaka, Zambia and writes in his personal capacity.