Addressing Africa's Energy Gap for Economic Development

29 July 2013

The Huffington Post

One of the key issues for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSAfrica) is bridging the energy-infrastructure gap the region has and the impact of these sectors on the region's overall development.

Yes, we have all heard the stories that 7-8 of the fastest growing economies in the world today are in Sub-Saharan Africa. This growth is project to remain high for 2013, according to both the Economist and World Bank, and over the next 20 years, with GDP rates between 5.8-7 percent.

But what does this mean to the average African person who still lives on less than $1.00 a day - a good bit of that poverty is due to both a lack of access to adequate energy options, and attendant infrastructure problems.

The way I like to think of this is: "energy-infrastructure-development are three legs of the same stool."

There is no full economic progress unless these three legs are addressed, and addressed together. According to the UN, despite all the good news on economic growth, the per capita increase from 2011 to 2012 was only 2.7 to 2.8 per cent.

There are a number of fundamentals that are part of the energy-infrastructure link that are key to putting in perspective in order to better appreciate the enormous task ahead.

First it is important to link the energy-infrastructure issues to the demographics of today and what they mean for both issues, and for the future development of the Continent. The single most important demographic that affects SSAfrica's energy and infrastructure sectors and attendant development challenges is population.

Right now the region is slated to reach a population of 1.9 billion people by 2030 (providing growth rates remain the same), with the billionth person having been born on the continent in December 2011. As noted by the UN Economic Commission, 60 percent of Africa's population is under 25 years of age (this will rise to 75 percent by 2015), and nearly half of that 1.9 billion population figure will be women according to a May 2013 France24 TV newscast. 
So, how do these demographics relate to energy infrastructure?

If you think the gap is bad now, if not addressed now more effectively, these population demographics are just going to further widen the gap - leaving those in poverty now, in poverty, but also adding another one million people who could yearly entering the poverty matrix. Let's not forget the issue of job creation and the negative impacts lack of adequate energy and infrastructure have on Africa's employment now.

The problems in these sectors will be further exacerbated with the population numbers described above.
Thus, despite all the good economic news coming from the region, addressing the energy-infrastructure link is critical to helping many change their quality of life. Think of energy-infrastructure link in terms other than the important components of electricity, power generation, and roads and you will get a better perspective on what needs to be done.

The Energy-Infrastructure Link is also about connectivity -- rail, bridges, air. It is about water sanitation, and agricultural development, trade, and access to health services, education, and job creation -- all fundamentals of sustainable development. If the Energy-Infrastructure link is not there, and if any of the elements in the development chain are missing, sustainable development and forward movement will always be hindered.

Small and medium enterprises (SME), and the African Diaspora are also important elements in all of this. SMEs and the African Diaspora are needed for development and growing Africa's middle class. However, for them to grow and prosper, they will need both energy and infrastructure to develop their businesses, which will expand Africa's current middle class past the 331 million mark.

Here are some factoids to ponder: Only 1 in 4 Africans has access to electricity, inter-African trade is about 10 percent of total exports, and only about 30 percent of the region has paved roads or working railways. The entire installed generation capacity of the 48 countries in SSAfrica is 68 gigawatts, and 25 percent of that capacity is unavailable because of aging or non-functioning plants and poor maintenance.

A good example that makes the energy-infrastructure link so stark for the Sub-Saharan region is that Spain alone produces more electricity for its population than the entire SSAfrica region does for its population. Last but not least, we cannot forget renewables in this discussion, which need to be focused on alongside of clean fossil fuel uses.Given the population demographics already mentioned, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives are a must, particularly for the rural areas without electricity. Here are some things to think about and some recommendations: 

  • It will be important for African nations to start now to develop renewable energy plans
  • Rural areas using renewable energy will likely be cheaper to support than trying to connect every area to a national grid. A report by the European Joint Research Center actually mapped out why types of renewables work best where and what would be cheaper where. 
The European Joint Research Center report also noted a few interesting things to consider when identifying renewable options for the African Continent: 

  • Wind energy is good for North Africa;
Solar for SSAfrica and the Sahara belt

  • Small hydroelectric power plants would be best for Equatorial Africa given high populations closer to river systems than the national grid.

Furthermore the Solar Energy Society of South of Africa further highlighted the job creation aspect of renewables:

Photovoltaic can create 62 jobs per gigawatt hour of electricity; 

  • Wind can create 12 in comparison to less than one job in the coal industry for the same energy output.

In the end the message is: We need to keep in mind the link between energy and infrastructure and the attendant issues of population and demographics, particularly as SSAfrica continues to grow to 1.9 billion people. Job creation needs increase as a result. Africa's efforts to pivot its focus, resources and talent toward addressing in a more comprehensive, effective, and efficient manner its energy infrastructure gap is paramount to sustainable economic development.

Maintaining the current economic gains or economic boom, and changing the lives of the millions who live in poverty is dependent on these changes.

Original article written by Amb. Robin Renee Sanders. U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria & ECOWAS (2007-2010)

Category: Energy

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