Last month, the Africa Progress Panel launched its 2015 report with a very ambitious plan: to make electricity accessible to every single African by the year 2030. This means putting pressure on Western and African leaders to transform Africa’s energy system. Luckily we do not have to wait for long in this regard. Smart bottom-up initiatives are already making the African local community independent by providing solar panels for electricity.
Two thirds of the African continent’s population lacks access to electricity. Someone in the United Kingdom making two cups of tea already uses five times as much electricity than a Malinese person uses in a whole year. This so-called ‘African energy crisis‘ (which has even been defined by World Bank President Jim Kim as ‘Energy Apartheid‘) has a deep social and economic impact and calls for an ‘energy revolution’. Connecting people to electricity would enable small-scale businesses to expand, children to study after dark and reduce the incidence of illness associated with using firewood and kerosene ways to generate energy. Chair of the Africa Progress Panel and former secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, wrote in the Washington Post that ‘the global climate moment can be Africa’s moment to lead the world’.
According to the African Progress Panel report, called Power, People, Planet, Africa could lead the world when it comes to energy by leapfrogging over fossil fuels and moving straight to renewable energy sources. The Africa Progress Panel aims to change this by providing low-cost solar panels that would make energy accessible to the 621 million people lacking access to electricity today. The estimated amount of money needed is 55 billion USD. According to the Panel, half this amount could be generated from within the African continent by increasing sub-Saharan Africa’s tax-to GDP ratio by one percent of GDP. Another 20 billion would come from a new ‘connectivity fund’ of which half would come from Africa itself and another half from bilateral aid.
Connecting everyone in Africa to electricity and simultaneously making that electricity renewable is all easier said than done. According to a publication by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it is currently more difficult to obtain financing for renewable energy power plants than for fossil fuel plants. A lack of both knowledge of renewable energy technologies and project experience makes banks reluctant to lent money. John Mahama, president of Ghana, said that although Africa needs to leapfrog the ‘dirty power that brought modernisation to the West’ he won’t rule out coal. In order to become the energy hub for the African continent, in the next four years Ghana will double its 2,800 megawatts of capacity, of which only 10 percent comes from solar energy. The message from Ghana’s and most of African leaders is clear: in order to fix the absence of power in Africa, the continent needs to take pragmatic choices, meaning that it is open to embracing fossil fuels as well.
Kofi Annan’s aim to get the remaining amount of the 55 billion dollar seems to be thus the most challenging: making the African leaders quit their subsidies in fossil fuel explorations and investments in high carbon emission and unprofitable companies, and instead to invest in renewable energy. According to Kofi Annan, African leaders perceive natural resources purely as ‘political patronage‘ that spurs corruption. To them, providing energy that is affordable and accessible to all, is a secondary concern. With a score of 26 out of 100 on Transparency‘s corruption perception index, Uganda scores high on the list of most corrupt countries. Its government received a pay-out of 250 million USD from oil exploration and production company Tullow Oil following a dispute on tax , as one example.
Bottom-up Initiatives Taking the Lead
Since the African Progress Panel report focuses on seizing Africa’s energy and climate opportunities, it might be a relief to know that some of these are already being put in practice in various African countries. Many initiatives circumvent governmental intervention and don’t wait for leaders to change their minds. Instead, they have started providing solar panels for local communities themselves.
One such initiative is Mobisol. This German social enterprise offers solar home systems in low-income households. So far, they have installed over 20,000 systems in Tanzania and Rwanda alone. The solar panels are paid off through the use of the customer’s mobile phone, making them them the owner of the system after three years. So far, customers have positive feedback. They said with a personal solar system they are independent from the unreliable electricity grid and unhealthy kerosene lamps. Some say their income has increased as a result of using the Mobisol solar panel. It seems that the bottom-up initiatives are able to change the development game, combining a smart business model with new technologies and an inclusive approach.
Besides social enterprises such as Mobisol, similar initiatives are coming from – organisations. The Canadian organisation Energy for Opportunity (EFO), for example, aims to improve livelihoods by providing clean, sustainable solar energy. They have been active in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Uganda since 2008. And then there is a new initiative by renowned artist Akon. Launched the same day as the African Progress Panel report 2015, the Senegalese pop singer aims to ‘bring solar energy to 600 million people in rural Africa’ with his charity organisation called Akon Lighting Africa. If we have to wait for African leaders, the African ‘energy revolution‘ might never occur. But when we take a look at bottom-up initiatives being undertaken by social enterprises and non-profits (and even artists), we see that the revolution already started.