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Salvaging Africa’s economy with more energy use

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Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward Power lines supplying electricity by stated owned Eskom run through sugar cane fields on a Tongaat Hulett farm in Shongweni, South Africa April 29, 2018.

By Clara Nwadinigwe

Africa is currently responsible for less than 3 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions despite having nearly one-fifth of all people.

Yet, the continent is going through more severe climate change than most other regions and Africans are unduly suffering from decreased food production, an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, and slower economic growth, all of which are leading to mass migration and regional instability. A number of Africa’s energy systems are also being impacted, including the advancement of modern energy access.

Per capita consumption of energy in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) is 180 kWh, compared to 13,000 kWh per capita in the United States (US) and 6,500 kWh in Europe. The average energy consumption per person in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is equal to one-third of the global average. Only South Africa’s per capita energy consumption is higher than the global average, and throughout the continent there are substantial variations in consumption between urban and rural areas.

As population growth is outpacing ongoing electrification initiatives, the number of people in SSA without access to electricity is likewise increasing. The typical household in Africa uses very little electricity, and those who have access to the grid only receive it intermittently and in small amounts. Since many people cannot afford to pay for electricity, connections are frequently illegal, which costs power companies money. The business of providing electricity is not profitable without reliable customers, and the end user is, of course, the one whose electricity bills rise to some of the highest costs of power per kWh in the world.

Society sees the effects of this unsteady supply every day. Inconsistent supply impacts not only homes but also public institutions like hospitals and schools. A World Bank survey confirms that a barrier to industrial activity and enterprises in general is poor supply (limited accessibility, excessive pricing, shortages, etc.). Presently, only 35 percent of healthcare facilities have a dependable service, and over 60 percent lack access to energy, which makes it harder to ensure the continuity of medical procedures. Small amounts of energy are also used in the agriculture industry. This low consumption translates into low productivity levels since energy is a crucial input at every stage of the food value chain, including production (such as irrigation and fertiliser use), processing, storage, and transport.

Economic growth and energy are highly related. It is undeniable that increased GDP is linked to more power use, access, dependability, and affordability. Studies have found that without energy, there is ultimately no path to development. History provides a good illustration: before the industrial revolution, economies were controlled by the availability and use of organic energy sources. When innovation and technology made it possible to use coal as an energy source, a significant number of new production opportunities were made available, which sparked an exponential rise in output and economic expansion.

Demand for energy will keep growing rapidly; hence, maintaining affordability remains a major tool in increasing consumption. To grow economically, increase productivity, and end energy poverty in Africa, the continent must be prudent in the utilization of all its energy resources. Without this, the continent cannot have the future it needs and deserves.

Nwadinigwe is an advocate for energy systems integration.

This article is exclusive to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.