Energy Solutions for Africa

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Access to modern energy services is an important element for reducing poverty and improving the lives of the world’s poorest. Africa trails behind all other regions in terms of modern energy access and consumption, with its citizens relying heavily on traditional biomass such as firewood, charcoal and dung. Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) has the lowest electrification rate in the world: nearly half a billion people – almost 70% of the population – are without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest “energy gap” (the percentage of people using little or no electricity, see map), and great potential for renewable energy supply, yet most opportunities for renewable energy options remain unexplored.

Figure 1: Energy gap on the African continent. Source : Cowlin et al, 2008.

Electricity consumption in Africa is characterized by large disparities among countries (Table 1), ranging from 50 to 4000kWh per capita per year.

In addition, enormous national disparities occur among the urban poor, rural people, and high-income groups. In most countries, energy infrastructure operates below optimum due to lack of repair and maintenance.

More Africans rely on traditional biomass energy than anywhere else in the world. Many countries depend on such fuels for most of their energy use, and a few are very heavily dependent: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Burundi have over 90% reliance on traditional fuels. The high use of traditional fuels creates major health problems. Deforestation is another serious impact of cooking over wood fires. Ethiopia, for example, has cut down all but 3% of its original forest cover.

Many development specialists and multilateral development banks use Africa’s low levels of modern energy consumption to rationalize investment into large-scale, centralized energy developments such as huge hydropower and fossil fuel plants connected by high voltage transmission lines to urban and industrial centers.  While there is clearly a huge need for the expansion of modern energy services, Africa cannot afford to ignore the serious drawbacks of this approach, which include long-lasting social and environmental damage, climate risks, and large debt loads.

The key challenge for Africa is not merely to increase energy consumption, but to also ensure access to cleaner energy services and sustainable consumption so that future generations will not pay the price for poorly planned energy developments. An energy future based on total energy access and a more equitable balance between decentralized and centralized energy investments is a better path for reducing poverty and meeting poverty-alleviation targets such as the Millennium Development Goals. Many are now arguing that Africa should be helped to leapfrog directly from traditional to sustainable energy options, bypassing the reliance on unsustainable types of energy developments that characterize Northern nations’ development path.

Table 1: Electricity  consumption per capita per year for some selected countries in Africa


Electricity Consumption kWh/capita/year

World  Avg


OECD countries


Africa Avg


















Cote d’Ivoire
























South Africa


Source: International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics, 2011.


Africa has world-class solar potential, a vast belt of clean geothermal reserves, strong winds, and great potential for micro hydro and no-dam hydro.  The solar potential is especially huge, with an average of 325 days of sunlight for the majority of the countries and 80% of land in Sub-Saharan Africa receiving almost 2000kWh per square meter per year of solar energy.  A 2012 report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre found that, for huge swaths of the continent, it would be cheaper to use solar power than to expand the grid. The continent’s wind power potential is also tremendous along its large coastline, especially in the North and South. The estimated wind energy potential is 40,000MW per year, yet only 9MW have been installed.  Geothermal energy is also abundant along the rift valley countries that include Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Geothermal potential is estimated at 15,000MW and currently less than 3000MW is being exploited. Micro-hydro plants are another good option for large parts of Africa. More rural Africans live closer to a river than to the grid, and communities themselves can build and manage small-scale hydro. The Joint Research Center found that nearly 30% of Africa’s population lives in areas where mini-grids based on mini-hydropower projects would be the cheapest source of electricity.

Renewables also offer good potential for permanent job creation, which large infrastructure projects do not. According to the International Solar Energy Society (South Africa), Africa photovoltaics and wind energy can, respectively, create 62 and 12 jobs per gigawatt hour of electricity produced, compared to less than one job in the coal industry for the same energy output. Given Africa’s looming youth unemployment crisis, this is a very valuable added bonus.

Although there is a huge need for technology transfer, R&D and training, development of clean renewable energy is also being held back by the lack of political will. Another constraint that Africa needs to overcome is the cost of accessing clean energy by the poor. Clean renewable energy will remain expensive for people who are living on less than US$1 per day. There are several initiatives that African nations can take to increase their clean energy portfolio while also reducing energy poverty. These include:

  • Improving access to electricity for the urban poor, possibly using pay-as-you-go meters. The meters encourage efficient use of electricity, and make revenue collection much easier.
  • Providing government guarantees for banks that offer investment loans in generation of clean renewable energy.
  • Removing import duties and production taxes for renewable energy systems.
  • Resolving structural issues in Africa’s energy markets, where monopolies keep out new players and stifle innovation. Governments should adopt policies that decentralize the market and ensure easy access for new renewable energy producers.
  • Increasing the availability of renewable energy finance, such as microcredit programs to enable the poor to purchase solar panels and solar lanterns, and to help renewable energy providers expand their businesses to Africa. The multilateral development banks should establish distributed clean-energy funds for Africa. 
  • Governments should adopt feed-in tariffs to level the playing field for clean energy sources.
  • Global climate finance funds should be made available for clean energy projects that reduce energy poverty in Africa (Christian Aid refers to this as a “Leapfrog Fund”)
  • In many African nations, energy subsidies are mostly assisting industrial users and better-off households, who are the ones using the great bulk of electricity. Such subsidies need to be analyzed and possibly reworked to ensure they are effective in reducing poverty and increasing energy access for the poorest.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for meeting Africa’s complex energy needs. The options should be tailor-made for each region and country and should include energy efficiency at household and industry level, improved technology for use in the home and by industry, wider dissemination of renewable energy resources and technologies and development of diverse energy sources. The continent can no longer afford development setbacks;  there is need for political will at the local level, and technical and financial support at the global level to choose priorities that address the majority of Africans’ needs.

More Information

Practical Action 

“Energy [r]evolution” by Greenpeace 

“Low-Carbon Africa: Leapfrogging to a green future” by Christian Aid 

"Renewable energies in Africa” by the European Commission Joint Research Centre 

Africa’s Energy Situation

Africa's Untapped Potential

WorldWatch's EmPower Africa program

LuminaNet is a social network for the global off-grid lighting community


International Energy Agency, 2011: The key world energy statistics report.

Cowlin S., Heimiller D., Bilello D & Renne D. 2008 . Innovation for our Energy Future – Technical Potential of Solar Energy to address Energy Poverty and Avoid GHG Emmissions in Africa. Paper presented to International Congress on Renewable Energy (ICORE) • October 16–17, 2008 • NREL/PO-6A2-44259