Electricity in Africa – critical entity, not enough to go round

Electricity in Africa – critical entity, not enough to go round

Electricity supply in Africa is a growing concern. The continent has a serious electricity shortage problem. Whether one considers installed capacity, consumption or energy access, the fact remains that Africa’s growth and development is affected by power shortages. Most African homes do not have fridges, television sets and electric cookers. However, a single light bulb could change the lives of school going children. It could increase a family’s security at night. Mobile devices like cellphones, tablets and laptops have been shown to encourage economic growth.  While recharging these devices may seem like a simple task, in reality it is very difficult in Africa.

According to the latest World Bank data, 35% of sub-Saharan Africans have no access to electricity. This is a far lower figure than in any other region.

From an electricity-access point of view, sub-Saharan Africa’s situation is the world’s worst. It has 13 percent of the world’s population, but 48 percent of the share of the global population without access to power. The only other region with a similar imbalance is South Asia, with 23 percent of the world’s population and 34 percent of the people without access to electricity. This means that almost 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. Only seven countries—Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa—have electricity access rates exceeding 50 percent. The rest of the region has an average grid access rate of just 20 percent. Moreover, even when there is access to electricity, there may not be enough to go around.  McKinsey & Company


At least 90% of electricity access in Africa is in the cities. Here power is supplied by grids that were set in colonial times but which have failed to expand with urban growth. In most countries, there has been little to no expansion projects. In most cases the situation has been worse that it was 10 years ago. A look at reports by the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) illustrates the lack of progress in energy development. Projects have remained on waiting list for as much as 15 years.

Electricity in Afica
1. SAPP projects 1998
Electricity in Afica
2. SAPP projects 2005
Electricity in Africa
3. SAPP projects 2007


In June 2013, President Barack Obama launched Power Africa. The initiative a partnership among the U.S. Government, African governments, the private sector, international organizations, NGOs, and bilateral and multilateral partners. The goal, to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. In its first year, Power Africa made progress toward achieving its initial goal of adding 10,000 megawatts (MW) of power generation capacity and 20 million new connections in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In August 2014, during the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit (ALS), President Obama announced a tripling of Power Africa’s goals. Adding 30,000 MW and 60 million connections across sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside this announcement, the President pledged to support Power Africa at a new level of $300 million per year.

Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It‘s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power.



Africa’s current energy needs are met through a mix of biomass and fossil fuels. Biomass accounts for approximately half of Africa’s total primary energy supply. Coal and natural gas account for about 14% each while oil approximately 22%. Hydro-power represents about 1% of the total primary energy supply in Africa. The total primary energy supply of Africa has been increasing at an annual rate of about 3%. This is the highest among all continents. Africa’s energy mix has been constant for the last 30 years. .

electricity in Africa
Africa’s energy mix (Source: IEA, 2015)

The pursuit for sustainable energy continues to intensify all over the world. Africa needs firm commitment to modern renewable energy sources. Countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa are leading this effort. Smaller countries including Cape Verde, Djibouti, Rwanda and Swaziland have also set ambitious renewable energy targets. Others are following suit, and renewable energy is on the rise across the continent.


Africa has very good solar energy potential. The desert  regions of North Africa and some parts of Southern and East Africa have long sunny days. Solar energy has in the last 10 years gained popularity in Africa. This can probably be attributed to utilization at various scales. Solar is suitable from the household and community levels to industrial and national scale operations. While Solar energy has much potential, there has been much debate as to whether it is the answer Africa needs. Recently, while talking at University of Pretoria in South Africa, Bill Gates shunned solar energy. During the delivery of his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist identified that Africa, like the rest of the world, is in need of a “breakthrough energy miracle that provides cheap, clean energy for everyone.”

Despite all the debate, there is no doubt Solar energy will continue to play a major role in powering Africa.


Wind is converted into useful energy using wind turbines. These can be used to drive either electricity generators or machinery. East, North and Southern Africa have very good wind resources. Countries with especially high wind quality include all those in North Africa; Niger in West Africa; Chad in Central Africa; Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda in East Africa; and in Southern Africa Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.


Africa has abundant hydropower resources. According to IRENA and IEA-ETSAP 2015 report, around 92% of technically feasible potential has not yet been developed. Central Africa has about 40% of the continent’s hydro resources. East and Central Africa, each having about 28% and 23% respectively. The Congo River has the largest discharge of African rivers, followed by the Zambezi, the Niger and the Nile. Because hydropower is dependent on a reliable supply of water, droughts have negative effects on availability of hydropower stations. Such factors have to be carefully considered in hydropower implementation.


Estimates show a potential of 15 GW of geothermal energy on the continent. The Rift Valley, which runs from Mozambique to Djibouti has all of the continent’s potential geothermal energy. Kenya is the main hub of the African continent in terms of geothermal technology capacity building. In December 2014, power generation from geothermal sources in Kenya accounted for more than half of Kenya’s electricity output.


Most of the energy used in Africa is from woodfuel. Cooking and heating in homes and some industrial processes are at the top of wood use. Wood is used either directly as firewood or in the form of charcoal. Estimates show 20% of harvested woodfuel is converted to charcoal. With the high cost of electricity and the poor networks, firewood is the cheapest option for rural people. In some parts of Africa firewood is also a source of income. This high use of woodfuel is a major contributor to Africa’s deforestation problems. It is an unsustainable energy source which needs to be managed with much urgency.


Sub-Saharan Africa has more than 1 billion hectares of land suitable for rain-fed crop production. Of this, less than a quarter is being cultivated.  This is massive potential that remains idle. Biomass residues generated at various stages of agricultural and forestry production are used as bio-fuels. Some of these include;

  • Wood logging residue
  • Crop harvesting residues
  • Residues generated on animal farms e.g. manure
  • Agro processing residues

Production of biofuel in Africa is less likely to be as low cost as in other continents. However, unique opportunities exist to produce ethanol in Africa at very low cost from molasses, because of factors like feedstock having low opportunity costs.


  • Governments are at the forfront of driving development and sharing of Africa’s resources. The continent’s unique electricity needs require a shift from national interests to regional and continental interests.
  • Africa has polarized investments in Energy, ICT and Transport. In southern Africa for example, major investment are absorbed into South Africa. This negatively influences investments in other SADC countries. The continent needs to take an approach that is larger than national ‘energy gaps.’
  • Africa’s energy planning should include innovative ideas that reduce pressure on conventional energy resources.
  • There should be a strong focus on building base load power plants.
  • There is a need to get rid of political borders and take advantage of the cheaper resources anywhere in the region. Energy treaties and Memorandum of Agreements can be of benefit to all parties involved.
  • Base load power plants are not a commercial operation, they are any government’s obligation. All governments MUST understand this.
  • Governments should create conducive legal and regulatory environments
  • There is a need for implementation of cost reflective tariffs.

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