Renewable energies, Africa’s new flower

Renewable energies, Africa’s new flower

The African continent is facing a huge development opportunity in which access to renewable energies plays a crucial role. Addis Ababa was the venue for the 16th edition of #EnelFocusOn, the first to take place in Africa: guests included David Pilling, Antonio Cammisecra (CEO of Enel Green Power) and Vera Songwe (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa)

In the Amharic language the name Addis Ababa means “a new flower.” The city, in fact, was founded in 1886 in the lush climate of the Ethiopian highlands at the behest of Empress Consort Taitù, wife of Emperor Menelek II. And this year, on 18 June, the Ethiopian capital was the venue for the first African edition of #EnelFocusOn, dedicated to access to renewables in Africa – the “new flower” enabling socio-economic development to bloom throughout the continent.

The continent is in fact already experiencing widespread economic growth. Last year, six of the 10 world’s fastest-growing economies were African (Ghana, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Senegal and Tanzania). Continental growth stood at 3.5%, and the United Nations has forecast growth of 3.7% for 2019 in spite of the slowing down of the continent’s three largest economies (Nigeria, South Africa and Angola).

While the economic growth figures highlight disparities, these differences are even starker when it comes to electrification. “Access to energy is low, even though it is improving,” explains David Pilling, the Financial Times Africa editor and author of the book "The Growth of Delusion: Wealth, Poverty and the Well-being of Nations", and keynote speaker at the 16th edition of #EnelFocusOn. He told the audience that “according to data from the World Bank, only 43% of Africans today have access to energy, compared with 15% in 1990. The highest levels are in South Africa, where 84% of the population has electricity, the lowest in South Sudan and Chad, with 9%. The disparity is even more disconcerting if we look at per capita electricity use: South Africa, the most industrialised nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, uses 3,900 kWh per person, Ethiopia only 65. To make a different comparison: every American uses 185 times the amount of energy used by an Ethiopian.”


The power of leapfrogging: the great leap forward

“In Sub-Saharan Africa there are 602 million people without electricity, and 72% of them are in rural areas. One of the main problems is the lack of access to energy, which represents a major enabling factor for economic growth. This situation can provide an enormous opportunity,” stresses Antonio Cammisecra, CEO of Enel Green Power. The great leap forward (leapfrogging) is possible because “renewable energies are particularly suited to the African continent: they are fast and easy to create (a wind or solar energy plant can be made operational within 8-12 months), they are cheaper than conventional technologies, and they can take full advantage of the great potential of African resources. They are also in keeping with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Africa therefore needs to considerably increase its installed capacity, especially in relation to two future challenges that make the continent’s potential economic development even more striking. The first of these is the matter of demographics: the African population is set to double by 2050 and quadruple by 2100, adding a further two billion people to the continent’s population. And then there is the challenge of urbanisation: in 2030 more than 50% of Africans will be living in cities (equal to a total of one billion people) and the United Nations estimates that, between 2018 and 2035, the world’s 10 fastest-developing cities will be African.

Cammisecra went on to say that “the average age today is 19.4 years. If Africa manages to rise to the challenge of economic growth enabled by energy development, the continent’s population will have access to a better quality of life and this means that the new generations will remain in Africa to contribute to lifting their countries out of poverty and ensuring prosperity.” He then added that “if this were not to take place, there would be a large global problem: the huge population growth will occur in any case and this enormous number of people may well decide to migrate to Europe and North America. Therefore this is not just an African problem, but a question of global peace and stability.”


The Seventh Sustainable Development Goal, and many other goals

“Affordable and Clean Energy” is number seven of the United Nations 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals, but there are many others that are connected to it. These include the Water, Energy, Food (WEF) Nexus, three elements that are closely interconnected and, at the same time, at the centre of growing demand in the African continent, especially in light of the future demographic developments.

“In the rural areas it’s impossible to be productive without electricity. Without adequate refrigeration it is not possible to produce food for resale, just as it isn’t possible to pump water,” explains Josefina Stubbs, a senior manager at RES4Africa and an expert in sustainable development and poverty reduction, who has developed numerous projects in the field on behalf of the World Bank, Oxfam, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “Electricity is fundamental not only for productivity, but also to create the jobs that the rural sector needs. The same argument applies – but in even more pressing fashion due to demographic growth and urbanisation – concerning industry, services and tourism. Africa must grow, and energy is the key to providing a future to the next generations, connecting them to the world. If this does not take place, there will be significant governance problems in many African countries: inequality in access to opportunities makes societies fragile and increases social and political pressure.”

From this perspective, access to energy also plays a fundamental role for democracies, rights and education. “Access to energy also means access to technologies. This is an enormous change for the young generations of Africans, not only in the way they communicate, but above all concerning the possibility to access information and to be able to express to decision makers their rights and their aspirations,” said Joy Doreen Biira, a journalist of Ugandan origin and the face of KTN, Kenya’s leading news channel. “For a very long time people in Africa thought that living in the dark was simply a condition into which they were born. But now they know that having access to electricity is a constitutional right, it improves health and education and ensures the right to lead a life worth living.”