Africa will require an unprecedented effort to meet the UN’s target of electricity for all by 2030
IN MOST PARTS of the world energy demand is growing too quickly to keep greenhouse-gas emissions within international targets, according to a report released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a think-tank. Many in Africa, however, worry about the opposite problem: the acute shortage of electricity. The continent is home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, but accounts for less than 4% of global electricity use. North Africa enjoys near-universal access to electricity, yet more than half of the sub-Saharan population—600m people—live in the dark (see map). This can hinder the provision of basic services. Half of secondary schools in sub-Saharan Africa do not have power; many clinics and hospitals in the region also lack access to reliable electricity.
Poverty is part of the problem. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than $2 a day. The IEA report notes that paying for the electricity needed to power a few basic appliances would eat up a tenth of earnings for poorer households. Rural areas are hit particularly hard. Whereas nearly three-quarters of households in cities have access to electricity, in rural places the figure is closer to one-quarter.
Progress has been painfully slow. Since 2013 the number of Africans without electricity has fallen from 610m to 595m. Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia have performed particularly well. In 2013 roughly a quarter of Kenyans had access to electricity; today three-quarters do. But development is still too slow, if the continent is to reach the UN’s sustainable-development goal of access to “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030. On current plans, the IEA reckons, 530m Africans will still lack access to electricity in 2030. To achieve the target, Africa will have to expand the provision of electricity faster than China and India did (see chart below).
The IEA says African countries should focus on two groups. One is people who live “under the grid”—in informal urban settlements near a supply of electricity—but face cost or other barriers to using it. Offering poor residents reduced connection fees and instalment-based payment plans can help bring them onto the grid. The second group comprises people who live far from existing transmission and distribution systems. Here, the IEA points to the use of decentralised methods, such as home solar-panel systems, as an efficient and cost-effective way to provide energy to rural areas which would otherwise rely on polluting and inefficient sources of energy (such as wood for cooking).
“Africa has a unique opportunity to pursue a much less carbon-intensive development path than many other parts of the world,” says Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. For instance, he notes, Africa has “the richest solar resources on the planet”, yet has installed just 1% of the world’s solar electricity-generation capacity. As with much else, Africa has a long way to go to reach its potential.