Lighting up Sub-Saharan Africa: Considerations for Increasing Electricity Access

Access to Electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)

Access to adequate and reliable energy is critical to the functioning of any modern economy. Economic productivity is understandably linked to the ability to do work with electrical energy contributing massively to the health of each nation’s economy in the digital age. Electricity not only powers means of production, but also a wide array of processes, amenities, and activities that have a direct bearing on the ability of people to be economically productive.

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The graph above illustrates the relationship between GDP per capita and access to electricity for countries across the world per the 2019 World Bank report on Electricity Access in Sub-Saharan Africa. The average access rate for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is depicted in red at just over 40%. There is a general positive correlation between the two. This indicates that, generally, economic productivity increases as the percentage of a nation’s population that has access to electricity increases. This positive relationship between access to electricity and GDP performance implies that there is a barrier to the economic prospects for the 67.2% of the SSA population that lack reliable access to electricity.

The chart above illustrates the electricity access rates among SSA countries, two-thirds of which provided access to fewer than 50% of their households. Only Seychelles and Mauritius provided near-universal access to electricity for their populations in the same period. Data from the IMF places Equatorial Guinea which has an electrification rate of 67.18%, at the top of the GDP per capita rankings (PPP). Seychelles is second with Mauritius, Gabon, and Botswana coming in third, fourth, and fifth respectively. The top ten countries in SSA by GDP (PPP) rounds off with South Africa, Namibia, Eswatini, Cabo Verde, Angola in order. Electrification rates are evidently not the only cause of national GDP, but it is worth noting that the top ten SSA nations by GDP (PPP) are among those with the highest electrification rates at over 50%. The outlier, Angola, has an electrification rate of 41.9%. Listing from the bottom of the GDP (PPP) rankings we have the Central African Republic (30% access), Burundi (9.3% access), DRC (19.1% access), Niger (20% access), and Malawi (12.7% access).

Electricity and Economic Development

Agenda 2063, the African Union’s blueprint for “the Africa We Want”, seeks to deliver Seven Aspirations for the year 2063, the first of which is prosperity for Africa. The first goal under this aspiration—a high standard of living, quality of life, and wellbeing for all—lists electricity as a basic necessity for life alongside water. Access to modern energy is vital as both a means for economic growth and as an end in a prosperous economy. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) characterise energy as an element of infrastructure that is essential to the attainment of several other SDGs, particularly the reduction of poverty and climate change mitigation. SDG 7 envisions “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” with a strong emphasis on bridging access gaps and the development of clean energy.

The World Bank report on Electricity Access in Sub-Saharan Africa identifies electrification as a foundational long-term investment for development. Electricity powers water supplies, telecommunication and healthcare services critical to the health and stability of a nation. It is essential in the operation of industries, commercial activities and financial services which provide employment. In households, electricity increases the efficiency in carrying out domestic tasks, freeing up more time for people—particularly for women—to work outside the home and generate income.

Delayed electrification has considerable opportunity costs that carry forward and leave Africa worse off in the future. As energy demands become greater, the effect of the current gaps will only become more pronounced. Without the expected economic growth from improving access today, the future electrification gaps will bear a much greater challenge than they do now. This leaves the continent vulnerable to progressively deteriorating service delivery in health, education, public service, and even how urbanisation evolves the continent. Adequate investment in the present is manifestly an investment in the future of the continent’s economy.

Meeting Africa’s Energy Needs

The Atlas of Africa Energy Resources indicates that Africa has the lowest per capita energy consumption in the world. In 2014, Africa consumed 483 kWh of electrical energy per person, which is slightly less than the amount of electrical energy needed to keep a 50-watt light-bulb lit for a year. The current electricity production supply capacity on the continent is not enough to meet demand, with over 600 million people either not being able to consume as much as electricity as they need or having no access at all. The combined grid capacity of the 48 SSA countries is comparable to that of Spain, and Africans have had to turn to alternative means of powering their lives.

In Nigeria, the installed capacity of generators exceeds the national grid capacity as citizens seek alternative access to electrical energy. This power is very costly—on average double the price of on-grid power—with an estimated mean net cost of $1.6 billion per year. Furthermore, the gaps in access are key constraints to doing business in Nigeria that lose the economy $29 billion annually. Beyond using generators to supplement limited access to on-grid electricity, millions of the SSA population also utilise burn biomass fuels such as agricultural residues, wood, and dung which are inefficient and hazardous to their health.

The alternative sources of power that Africans have turned to present a challenge in themselves. Dependence on alternative energy sources create bottlenecks in the operations of hospitals and emergency services, compromise the educational and commercial sectors, and raise the costs of doing business. Small-scale power from burning fossil fuels and biomass is inefficient, produces black carbon and methane pollution, and is a significant driver of deforestation and desertification. This, understandably, bodes negatively on climate and sustainability objectives for SSA. The SSA region has a wealth of potential sources of clean energy such as hydro, wind and solar power. As efforts to improve electrification rates continue, clean energy ought to be a priority as investment in hydro, geothermal, solar and wind power generation is the best bet for future-proofing energy generation.

This as yet unmet need severely restricts the productive capacity of Africa’s people’s, particularly as the continent experienced stunted adoption of incipient digital technologies which use electricity to improve efficiencies across all manner of human activity. The AU Agenda 2063 Aspirations and the SDGs champion access to modern energy precisely because of the critical role it plays in people’s lives. Increased energy access leads to improvements in healthcare, education, life expectancy and economic opportunities. Thankfully, universal access to energy is an attainable reality as evidenced by the 2019 Energy Progress Report.

The report indicates that electrification rates have been outpacing population growth in the continent. It warns, however, that of the 650 million people across the globe without access to electricity by 2030, 9 out of 10 of them will live in SSA. Sustained efforts to improve access to electricity are needed to ensure that Africa is not left behind, and instead continues to prepare a greater portion of its population for prosperity in a modern economy.

Policy Considerations for Bridging SSA’s Energy Gaps

The challenge of access to electricity in Africa is, therefore, one that can be addressed, but it demands that we make a strong and sustained commitment. As SSA states connect more of their populations to electricity, they need to address broad challenges such as affordability, low consumption, sustainability, and equitable provision between urban and rural areas.

The focus of electrification needs to be on enhancing the economic capacity of communities on an equitable and sustainable basis:

  • States must recognise that electrification is a long-term investment for economic transformation. The true impact will manifest progressively as increased access is utilised to increase productivity in the private sector and in delivery of public utilities such as health, education, and administration;
  • Progress must address demand constraints at all stages of the electrification process, such as high connection fees and unequitable consumption tariffs affecting the ability of low-income consumers to pay. The increased use of smart meters and flexible electricity payments have had positive impacts on reducing the cost of accessing electricity;
  • Inter-sectoral cooperation can help identify priority areas to increase the efficiency of electrification efforts. Road infrastructure developments, rapidly growing settlements, and developing commercial areas indicate new loci of human activity for which electrification will bring a substantial benefit to large and growing communities.
  • Technological advancements that allow affordable and efficient solutions to the capacity deficit should be integrated into wider electrification goals. Energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances help decrease costs while maintaining utility. The same is true of solar solutions used to charge mobile phones and power low-load appliances with off-grid electricity

Experience indicates that the preparation and implementation of national electrification strategies is central to meaningful progress. These national strategies address the institutional, technical, sustainability, and financial challenges of providing electricity to a growing population. Kenya’s electrification progress, for instance, is one of the highest in the world with a 6.4% increase between 2010 and 2017 (while the world average was 0.8%). The prospects of sustaining this progress are buttressed by the 2018 Kenya National Electrification Strategy, which itself is a part of the larger Vision 2030 national development strategy. Proactivity is key to ensuring that today’s investments help chart the desired energy future for Africa. The World Bank, reporting on Electricity Access in Sub-Saharan Africa, recommends that states pay heed to trends such as urbanisation, technological change, regional integration, sustainability, and climate change while developing and implementing their strategies. These trends are help predict the most efficient ways of meeting present and future energy needs.