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Energy access to address the great divide

Africa’s lack of access to modern energy services has been thrown into stark relief by the appearance of COVID-19. In time, the pandemic will burn its way through the continent and the original problem of access to electricity will still be here.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 2-2020.
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The World Energy Council notes that only 43% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has access to basic electricity, less than half of the global average of 87%. The World Bank, in its report on electricity access in SSA, flips the script by foregrounding the idea that access to reliable electricity is even more important for African economies than the digital revolution.

If African cities want to transform their economies, then the issue of electricity access is paramount but only as a starting point. Expansion needs investment and for that to happen, utilities must make money. Therein lies the rub, because utilities across Africa are running at a loss.

The report posits that the issue isn’t power but poverty. It also states that reliability, affordability and coordination are what utilities need to become viable entities capable of expanding their client base. If the electricity supply is reliable, the consumer is persuaded to pay for a worthwhile service and more customers mean more revenue, thereby reducing the cost of producing the electricity.

The report highlights constraints and points out that solutions like flexible payment plans or smart metering are ways to adapt systemic problems and argues that access to electricity cannot be the sole goal – what is needed is to place productive use of energy centre stage.

At this point the report segues into all of the ways the World Bank wants to increase cross-sectoral coordination and hone in on large projects with meaningful impact, but the emphasis on productive use of energy is the important take away.

Advisory Board member of the annual African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference, Charity Wanjiku, holds the concept close to heart. She sees first-hand, as the CEO of Strauss Energy in Kenya, how the provision of energy can change lives but only if the potential off-takers of the energy are able to use it. In rural Africa, women are the primary energy managers of households and communities and can be powerful agents for change in the transition to sustainable energy and economic development.

Much research is being done into the role of women in decision-making and energy policy process on a community level. Wanjiku says there have been opportunities presented to overcome hurdles to enable electricity access through public-private collaborations. “However, renewable energy solutions must be scaled up in order to meet the energy gap. Lack of access to reliable electricity limits economic opportunities and hinders health care and education improvements. Industries like agriculture and technology all require access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy to stimulate much needed economic and social development,” she said.

Then there is the not so obvious, secondary consideration. As has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread across Africa, energy access has a direct influence on whether someone has access to running water. Matthew Matimbwi, Executive Secretary of TAREA, realises this every time he witnesses someone collect standing water from a leaking pipe in Dar es Salaam. When sanitising products prove to be too expensive, soap and running water is often the only option for managing hygiene, but what to do when even running water is absent?

Matimbwi points out that this challenge faces many sub- Saharan communities as anything between 40% and 80% of households do not have access to clean running water, with statistics varying from country to country. Thus when people talk about energy access they need to consider that it more often than not leads to access to running water. “We cannot address just one specific entity; even the private sector across Africa has an obligation. Many companies have social corporate responsibility budget lines. Now is the right time to also be thinking about investing in water,” said Matimbwi. ESI

The concept of ‘productive use of energy’ will not only be a huge theme of discussion at the African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference on 24-26 November in Cape Town, it is also a constant refrain running through discussions whenever any two or more people get together to talk about energy access. www.african-utility-week.com #AUW2020 #PGAF2020