From the farm to the solar market: Elizabeth and Africa’s access to energy

Elizabeth Mukwimba, a smallholder farmer who grows maize and sweet potatoes in Magu, northern Tanzania, knows what it’s like to have to use kerosene and firewood for lighting and cooking. But today not only does Elizabeth have her home powered by solar energy, she is also one of the investors in solar energy in her community.

Elizabeth’s case was highlighted last month at a high-level meeting in London where the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) unveiled Energy Africa, an initiative to accelerate renewable energy access in sub-Saharan Africa.

To Elizabeth, “solar light is much more effective” and makes it possible for her grandchildren to study after the sun goes down.

Magu, close to Lake Victoria, one of the Great Lakes in East Africa, has huge renewable energy resources. But the town has not harnessed this potential to generate modern and affordable energy. This challenge is common across sub-Saharan Africa.

In this year’s Africa Progress Report Power, People, Planet, it is estimated that about 620 million people – 2 out of 3 people – in Africa do not have access to electricity.

UK’s Minister of State for International Development Grant Shapps, launching the initiative, said it will have “the power to help millions of Africans lift themselves out of poverty and transform the prospects of an entire continent

In an address at the launch of Energy Africa, Kofi Annan, chair of the Africa Progress Panel and former UN Secretary General, stressed that the continent’s huge energy deficit is “an injustice that robs millions of our fellow citizens of the dignity, opportunity and freedom that comes with access to modern energy”, adding that “this is intolerable, avoidable and profoundly unfair”.

The energy deficit is inviting more policy ideas from governments, non-governmental organisations, and bilateral and multilateral organisations at the national, regional and international levels. The African Development Bank’s new president, Akinwunmi Adesina, has declared that energy access in Africa is his number one priority and recently launched the New Deal for Energy Access in Africa.

Bob Geldof, a member of the Africa Progress Panel, said at the Energy Africa launch that he sees technology as a game-changer. He highlighted how existing technology gives enormous opportunity to electrify Africa: “This is the moment, this is doable, this is the moment where Africa powers up, switches on and goes for it”.

The London meeting brought together world leaders and politicians, including Kofi Annan, Bob Geldof, Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (chair of the African Union Commission), Kandeh Yumkella (co-founder of the Africa Energy Leaders Group), Yemi Osinbajo (vice president of Nigeria), Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke (prime minister of Somalia), and Henry Macauley (Sierra Leone’s minister of energy).

The spotlight was on Nigeria, where the new leadership faces the challenge of finding solutions to the country’s energy crisis. Nigeria is Africa’s energy export powerhouse but more than half of Nigerians lack access to electricity.

Yemi Osinbajo, vice president of Nigeria, mentioned that the lower costs of solar power have now made it possible to bring electricity to off-grid households.

“Nigeria has 96 million people without access to electricity,” Mr Osinbajo said. “Most use kerosene. The default energy source should be solar. That was not available 10 years ago. Now it is.”

Photo credit: DFID