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Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge electricity problem – but with challenge comes opportunity

In Benin’s capital, Porto Novo, a woman sells contraband fuel by the side of a road. Maitre was told that the traders are nicknamed ‘Al Qaeda’ because the dangerous fuel has a habit of exploding In Benin’s capital, Porto Novo, a woman sells contraband fuel by the side of a road. Maitre was told that the traders are nicknamed ‘Al Qaeda’ because the dangerous fuel has a habit of exploding Pascal Maitre
22 Oct
Access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is the worst in the world, a fact that touches every facet of people’s lives there. But change can happen with the right policies in place

Sub-Saharan Africa has an electricity problem. While the world as a whole has made great strides when it comes to providing access to electricity (the world average is now 90 per cent with access, up from 83 per cent in 2010), southern and western African states still lag far behind.

According to Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report, produced by a consortium of organisations including the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, 759 million people were without electricity in 2019 and three quarters of them were based in sub-Saharan Africa. At just seven per cent, South Sudan had the lowest access figures; Chad, Burundi and Malawi were only marginally higher. What’s more, due to a combination of factors, the situation is getting worse. In total, the region’s access deficit increased from 556 million people in 2010 to 570 million people in 2019.

Being without electricity has an impact on every sphere of life. The Covid-19 pandemic only served to put this into sharper relief. Intermittent electricity meant vaccination doses that rely on cold storage were impossible to deliver and, as more than 70 per cent of the health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to reliable electricity, the problem was vast. But even without a global pandemic, having no power stymies opportunity in every field, from education to economics.

French photojournalist Pascal Maitre, who has spent much of his career writing about sub-Saharan Africa, wanted to document the problems faced by people in areas with no electricity. He thought particularly carefully about the location for his project. ‘First, I was thinking I could take images in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,’ he says. ‘But then I thought that if you chose a place that has war, it’s logical that electricity won’t really work. So, instead, I wanted to find a place that is quite stable. I decided to go to Benin, where they have a democracy. It is a good example of a country that’s not in really bad shape but where they still have this problem. Also, I didn’t want to go to a place that is very remote, where it is normal not to have good service. So I decided to go to a place around 50 kilometres from the capital that you can get to by road.’

Maitre visited several villages in the region, as well as making trips to Chad and Senegal, and encountered the full range of limitations engendered by the power shortage. From teachers struggling to conduct lessons in the dark to midwives forced to work with only the weak light from a phone, the situation was clearly unacceptable. ‘People were very, very, very upset,’ he says. ‘I conducted a lot of interviews in different villages and lack of electricity touches education, economy, business, security and also emigration, because people have to move to big cities or maybe to Europe to get jobs.’

Where once the situation might have been accepted as the norm, people today are fully aware of the ways in which they are held back by the lack of power. As Maitre remembers: ‘A guy said to me one day, “Do you think it is normal that last time my wife delivered a baby, the midwife had to hold her phone between her teeth in order to see what she was doing?” You feel very frustrated.’

He adds that the fact that most people now have mobile phones only highlights the hardship. ‘Before, maybe it was not so frustrating. But now, most of these people have cellphones. The cellphone company puts antennae everywhere so the phones work, but people cannot recharge their phones. They have to go to the market, where someone will come with a generator to recharge.’

Panos 00253098In Kokahoue village, Benin, a market takes place each night beneath a palavar tree, illuminated by candle light. It’s one of nine nearby villages that are off the electricity grid. Image: Pascal Maitre

Governments and global organisations are very aware of the problem across the world. Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) – one of the 17 goals set out in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly – was designed to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030. As part of this goal, international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean energy reached US$17 billion in 2018. As a result, some areas have seen huge improvement. According to the Energy Progress Report, in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, the advance of electrification has been enough to approach universal access. By 2019, in Western Asia and North Africa, and Central and South Asia, 94 and 95 per cent of the population respectively had access to electricity.

But these statistics only serve to emphasise just how bad the situation is in sub-Saharan Africa. As the report states: ‘While renewable energy has demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic, the unfortunate fact is that gains in energy access throughout Africa are being reversed: the number of people lacking access to electricity is set to increase in 2020, making basic electricity services unaffordable for up to 30 million people who had previously enjoyed access.’

Panos 00253172In Allankpon, Benin, the rural health centre is illuminated by oil lamps because it’s off the grid. Image: Pascal Maitre

The small silver lining is that if the situation is dealt with properly, the region could build a renewable-energy system from the ground up, rather than having to undergo the costly and complex transitions underway in developed countries. In rural areas, small-scale or off-grid renewable systems (mostly solar) are expected to play an important role in increasing access. In fact, solar panels are already used in many areas. In 2019, 105 million people had access to off-grid solar solutions, up from 85 million in 2016, and almost half lived in sub-Saharan Africa, with 17 million in Kenya and eight million in Ethiopia.

Rachel Kyte is currently serving as the 14th dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the USA, but her CV is long. She was previously CEO of the UN-affiliated Sustainable Energy for All (SeforALL), as well as the World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading the run-up to the Paris Agreement. According to her, a focus on renewables is absolutely essential, both for wider efforts to tackle climate change, but also for the people of sub-Saharan Africa. ‘The fossil fuel industry has said it will just extend the centralised fossil-fuel power systems that we have today to reach these people,’ she says. ‘Well, no. It’s 2021 and it has never happened. And it’s not going to happen now. If it was too expensive before to extend the power line out from a coal-fired power station in the capital city, then why would it change now, without massive government subsidies. We now have the technology and the means to get decentralised, renewable energy to these communities, quite quickly and much more cheaply.’

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Panos 00253147People collect water from a public fountain illuminated by a solar-powered street lamp in a village not connected to the main electricity grid. Image: Pascal Maitre

Although it’s a relatively stable democracy, Benin ranks among the world’s poorest countries and corruption is reportedly rife. Patrice Talon, the president since 2016, was previously forced to flee to France after being accused of involvement in a plot to poison the previous president, Boni Yayi. A former businessman, Talon is known as the ‘king of cotton’ – appropriate given that Benin is one of Africa’s largest cotton producers.

The country is experiencing rapid population growth. Although the birth rate has been falling since 1980, it still stands at 36 births per 1,000 people, twice as high as the world average.

Benin is probably best known in the West as the original home of the Voodoo or Vodun religion, which was brought to the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas by enslaved Africans during the 16th to 18th centuries. Today, around 12 per cent of Benin’s population are thought to practise voodoo.

Off-grid solar systems don’t come without problems. It’s easy to assume that anywhere with plentiful sun is suitable for solar, but the infrastructure requires a lot of upkeep. This is something Maitre witnessed during his time in Benin. ‘Solar takes a lot of work,’ he says. ‘You need to clean the solar pan, you need to take care of them and in the places I visited, it’s not possible because you don’t have large-scale cleaners. When you go to a village where they used to have a big solar programme, you see that after two to three years, nothing is working anymore because of the dust, because of the battery, because the rain is too heavy.’

What’s required is the imposition of regulatory frameworks for such systems (these are increasingly common) and, crucially, innovative funding mechanisms. As the authors of the SDG7 report assert: ‘In this context more than ever, energy service providers – including utilities, mini-grid operators, and off-grid companies – require access to low-cost working capital and project finance with lengthy repayment periods.’

Panos 00253027In Selecky, Senegal, women socialise beneath a solar-powered street lamp. Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo all provided free electricity to poor households for several months in 2020. Image: Pascal Maitre

‘It means three things,’ says Kyte. ‘One: the development aid and support from developed countries need to be there. Two: African countries, and all countries, need to invest their own resources in this. There are lots of equity funds and debt funds and pension funds in Africa that could be involved in their own energy future. We should allow African countries access to capital markets at a reasonable rate so that they can borrow to invest in their power structures. And then you’ve got to have African leaders who see that as a priority.’

Regarding support from developed countries, she feels that Western leaders have already fallen behind. ‘Over the past ten to 15 years, China has been by far the largest investor in energy infrastructure in Africa. The West needs to put a massive offer on the table to invest in African renewable energy and the systems that go with it. There is no sense in a position of just trying to choke off the burning of coal and then trying to stop methane leakage and other emissions if you’re not going to help countries build the alternative, because otherwise you are condemning them to energy poverty.’

Part of the problem is that the currently available finance isn’t spread evenly. According to SeforALL’s most recent Energizing Finance report, just four countries received 88 per cent of total electricity finance commitments in 2018: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Tanzania. Countries such as Angola, Burkina Faso, DRC, Niger and Sudan received minimal or zero financing. SeforALL also points to the importance of private finance reaching the countries that need it most. This will require donor governments and international development banks to scale up their support to private lenders through risk-mitigation instruments and guarantees.

There are countries that can already be held up as positive examples. According to SeforALL’s report, Rwanda has witnessed a significant transformation of its energy sector in recent years, partly because it has managed to attract additional financial resources. Access has increased from ten per cent of the population in 2010 to 35 per cent in 2018. Crucially, expansion of the national electrification plan to encompass off-grid options was an important part of this success.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that in sub-Saharan Africa, the goal of universal electricity access by 2030 isn’t going to be met. The access rate would have to more than triple between now and 2030 for that to happen. Even where progress has been made, rapidly growing populations have resulted in net increases to those without electricity. But substantially improving the lives of millions of people is still possible if governments and international institutions manage to maintain momentum for SDG7. What’s more, bringing electricity to the people of sub-Saharan Africa can go hand in hand with efforts to curb CO2 emissions.

‘This can be done,’ says Kyte. ‘This is not beyond our capability as a species. But it requires us to focus on delivery a little bit. People don’t want to move, they don’t want to be displaced, they don’t want to have to seek out a better life elsewhere, but as climate change ravages parts of Africa, if we don’t provide reliable, affordable, clean energy, then more and more people will be forced to move.’

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