Badly run networks deny electricity to rising number of Africans

Sub-Saharan Africa is losing the energy race so badly that it is on course to become the only region of the world where the number of people without modern supplies of power is growing.

About 600m sub-Saharan Africans lack access to electricity, a number that will grow by 45m over the next 15 years, according to a new report highlighting the crumbling and mismanaged state of the energy infrastructure.

Meanwhile, 700m people cook on heavily polluting wood or charcoal stoves — a number set to rise by 184m by 2030. Domestic air pollution is so bad that it is said to kill an estimated 600,000 people annually — half of them children under five.

“The waste of scarce resources in Africa’s energy systems remains stark and disturbing,” said the study, commissioned by the Africa Progress Panel, a group of prominent individuals chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general.

Corrupt utilities, wasteful subsidies and chronically bad policy making mean that Africans pay some of the highest prices in the world for an energy system so bad that, at any given time, up to a quarter of it is not operational.

The total grid-based electricity generating capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is about 90 gigawatts, of which almost half is in South Africa. This is less than the entire generating capacity of South Korea.

Barriers to connection mean that millions of the poorest Africans spend about $10 a kilowatt hour to light their homes with paraffin and candles. In the US, the average cost for electricity is $0.12 per kWh.

Boiling a kettle twice a day in the UK uses five times more electricity than a person in Mali uses on average in a whole year.

On current trends, it will take until 2080 for all Africans to have electricity, and the middle of the next century before clean, smokeless cooking stoves are universally available, the study said.

“[Sub-Saharan Africa] is the only region in which the absolute number of people without access to modern energy is set to rise,” the report concluded.

Bob Geldof, the musician and Band Aid founder who is on the Africa Progress Panel, highlighted the potential for companies willing to invest in the region’s abundant sources of energy.

“Once businesses see the opportunities they will be in there bidding like crazy,” Mr Geldof told the Financial Times.

Mr Annan conceded there were still private sector concerns about investing in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We hear it from a lot of companies,” he said, adding that he wanted to see the leading industrialised Group of Seven countries providing the guarantees needed to encourage businesses to invest.

“This is not a favour for Africa — it is an effort to fight climate change,” said Mr Annan, explaining that the region’s energy problem cut to the heart of one of the defining development challenges of the 21st century.

This is the need to prevent dangerous climate change while building the energy infrastructure required to sustain growth and lift millions out of poverty.

Countries such as Vietnam offer hope, the study says. While only 14 per cent of its population had electricity in 1990, today it has near universal access.

Africa could eventually “leapfrog” traditional fixed-grid power systems. Some countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana, are already building many new solar and wind plants.

There are some signs of progress, according to Kevin Watkins, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute think-tank and the report’s lead author.

He pointed out that the share of the population without electricity was falling. “But the absolute number is rising,” he added.

Published in: The Financial Times