Africa’s opportunity for a bright and sustainable future


Picture of Arthur Contejean
Arthur Contejean

Energy Access Analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA)

Picture of Laura Cozzi
Laura Cozzi

Chief Energy Modeller of the International Energy Agency (IEA)

Picture of Timothy Goodson
Timothy Goodson

Energy Analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA)

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

Developing and emerging economies face a complex challenge when it comes to their energy infrastructure: they must meet the needs of growing populations that still lack access to basic services like water and electricity but – the climate crisis front and centre – they must also be part of the solution by answering the global climate emergency through innovative efforts to ensure a low-carbon future.

The Paris Agreement, which will officially enter into force in 2020, asks that each country contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Setting it in motion requires collaborative efforts in the field of social, technological and financial innovations as well as the strong commercial development and application of solutions. In this regards, Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, and while the number of people without access to electricity fell to below 1 billion in 2017, there is still a long way to go.

In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened the Climate Action Summit to mobilise political leaders, economic actors, and climate activists around the implementation of the Paris Agreement. With only ten years left to achieve the SDGs, and national governments offering less-than-inspiring solutions to a global crisis, Friends of Europe has brought together some of the key actors from the private sector, think tanks, development agencies, and supranational organisations, to highlight some of the stories of progress on the provision of clean sources of electricity, and the effect it has had on living conditions in a number of economies.

Articles in this discussion paper are published online on a weekly basis, beginning on the day of the United Nations Secretary-General Summit on Climate Action and ending at the time of COP 25 in Santiago. The articles, and the recommendations from the publication, aim to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve SDG 7 well before 2030, and inform the next EU mandate on actions to take. The European Green Deal has a duty to go beyond Europe, and help nations around the world to transition towards sustainable economic and energy growth.

Africa’s population is expanding and urbanising at an unprecedented rate. Whether demographic changes pay dividends will largely depend on the availability of reliable and sustainable energy to support development, and the expansion of modern energy services to those currently lacking such access. Unsustainable use of wood dominates sub-Saharan Africa’s energy use today; less than one-in-two people have access to electricity, and less than one-in-five have access to clean cooking solutions. Yet Africa’s energy future is not tied to its past: the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) – to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” – are within reach, and renewables offer the least-cost pathway for most.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has long monitored Africa’s energy sector closely. Throughout the past two decades, it has tracked energy access, notably through its World Energy Outlook series. The recently released, Africa Energy Outlook 2019, explores possible energy futures for Africa, with a particularly granular focus on sub-Saharan countries. Africa stands on the cusp of a unique opportunity to become the first region in history to develop its economy primarily by combining energy efficiency, solar, wind and natural gas. Supported by the right policies, the vast potential of these resources could underpin achievement of universal access to modern energy by 2030.

Africa has seen impressive progress in improving access to energy in recent decades. Supported by robust national electrification plans, access rates across North Africa now exceed 99%, while in sub-Saharan Africa the share of the population with access to electricity has nearly doubled from 25% in 2000 to around 45% today. Two decades of effective policy measures in South Africa and Ghana have increased electricity access rates to some of the highest levels in the region.

However, in many other African countries, access to electricity has struggled to keep pace with population growth. The number of people without access across the region has increased by almost 100 million since the year 2000. As a result, residential electricity demand in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa averages less than 100 kWh per person per year, compared to well over 2,000 kWh in advanced economies.

Africa is the first continent with the possibility to apply clean energy solutions to underpin access to energy and economic development

Looking forward, the access challenge becomes even more acute. With over 40% of Africa’s population under the age of 15 and the world’s fastest population growth rate, one-in-two people added to the global population between today and 2040 are set to be African. By 2023, Africa’s population is on track to surpass that of both India and China. Urbanisation in Africa is also proceeding rapidly. It is estimated that the population of Africa’s cities will increase by more than half a billion people by 2040, a number that exceeds the scale of urbanisation in China during the last two decades of its massive economic and energy expansion.

Access to reliable and sustainable energy to feed, power, house, move and cool Africa’s expanding population is the foundation stone for Africa’s sustainable development. Yet the momentum behind today’s policy and investment plans is not enough to meet the energy needs of Africa’s population in full. Without further action, 530 million Africans will remain without access to electricity in 2030, and the number of people relying on inefficient and polluting cooking solutions could increase to almost 1 billion.

Yet the picture is not uniform and universal access to electricity is in reach for several countries. Detailed national electrification plans coupled with adequate funding see Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda achieve universal access before 2030, with Ethiopia alone providing access to 70 million by 2030. Outside of East Africa, South Africa, Ghana and Senegal are all on track to achieve universal access before 2030. While achieving universal access to electricity for Africans by 2030 requires considerable additional effort, these examples highlight that SDG 7 remains achievable.

Africa is the first continent with the possibility to apply clean energy solutions to underpin access to energy and economic development. Falling technology costs, local resource endowments and the success stories of African peers provide the opportunity for Africa to leapfrog to a reliable and sustainable energy system accessible for all. Energy efficiency is the first port of call, helping to improve the affordability of energy services and increasing the competitiveness of local industries. A handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa are already leaders in energy efficiency when it comes to the residential appliances that accompany decentralised models of electricity access.

A reliable electricity supply for all would require an almost fourfold increase in power sector investment

Africa has the richest solar resources of any region, yet today is home to only 5 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity, less than 1% of the global total. With the right policies and financing, solar PV could become the continent’s top electricity source by capacity. While solar PV is set to expand most rapidly, all renewable technologies are needed to support energy access and development, especially an expansion of hydroelectric capacity. Over 40% of global gas discoveries in recent years were in Africa and, if used locally, this gas has the potential to complement electricity generation from renewables and support industrialisation. All such resources could help bring about a much less carbon-intensive development trajectory compared to other developing regions.

Tapping Africa’s potential for energy efficiency, renewables and domestic use of natural gas is crucial to put all African countries on track for universal access to reliable electricity by 2030. To achieve this goal, over the next 12 years, the average number of people gaining access to electricity each year would need to triple from around 20 million today to over 60 million people. More decentralised and modular technologies, mainly based on renewables, are now available and they are reducing the length of time it takes to provide access to electricity and cutting the costs of doing so.

According to the IEA’s latest geospatial analysis (developed in collaboration with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology), while grid expansion and densification will remain essential, mini-grids and stand-alone systems could provide power to more than half of the population who need to gain access by 2030, or almost 450 million people.

A reliable electricity supply for all would require an almost fourfold increase in power sector investment, averaging around $120bn a year to 2040, half of which is needed for networks. Mobilising this level of investment is a significant but achievable undertaking. It will require policy and regulatory measures to improve the financial and operational efficiency of utilities and to facilitate a more effective use of local and international public funds to catalyse private capital.

Investment needs go hand in hand with the need for clear electrification planning and regulation adapted to national specificities and constraints, allowing in particular grid and decentralised-based infrastructure to complement each other. Long-term comprehensive strategies have already been designed in many countries, such as Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda. Supporting and implementing similar initiatives in other countries across the diverse African landscape will be the cornerstone of the efforts to reach universal access by 2030.

Other pieces from the discussion paper include: 

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