I am doctoral student who is extremely passionate about her research area of renewable energy. This passion translates into multiple conversations about the need for an overhaul of the energy system in Africa. With my fellow Africans, regardless of nationality, I am confronted with baffled expressions and the general misunderstanding of the necessity of this area of research in Africa. The generally held view appears to be that Africa needs health-care, financing, even water but that energy and particularly renewable energy belongs to the global North. For a plethora of reasons including some of which I will discuss below, I believe that this preconception is majorly flawed.
Today, the attainment of an affordable and sustainable universal energy supply in Africa by 2030 is one that seems far-fetched under current realities. Not only does Africa currently account for one-third of the total number of people without energy access with over 650 million people lacking access to electricity, the continent also accounts for the highest number of persons, which pay more for energy supply. Consequently, this raises issues of equity and fairness in the global energy supply chain. However, energy poverty as an issue in Africa has been traced to numerous factors, such as poor infrastructure, pricing, investments as well as political commitment. I will not be dwelling on these issues, as my current aim is not to explain why they exist— but how best to tackle them. How then do we tackle energy poverty in Africa while ensuring sustainability? My answer to this is simple Sustainability, Political commitment, Research and Innovation, Change in Socio-Cultural Practices and Energy Pricing (SPRICP)
First, the continent must tackle the issue of energy access within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. This potentially serves as a baseline for the attainment of the other sixteen goals. Nevertheless visioning the attainment of a universal energy access based on current fossil fuel resources will be a highly flawed plan.Based on evidence from numerous studies from organizations like the IPCC and Oil Change International, two third of current fossil resources must remain underground in order not to overstretch planetary boundaries. This reinforces the need for Africa to articulately align its energy visions and goals in tandem with sustainability.
Second, Africa’s commitment to a sustainable energy transition would include a shift from a fossil fuel dominant energy use to that of renewables. While this transition has begun to take place in some countries, more than two third of African states still rely on the use of conventional fossil fuels. Hence there is a more urgent need to facilitate a quicker diffusion of low carbon technologies on the continent. However, a sporadic diffusion of RETs would be primarily tied to the degree of political commitment at regional, national and local levels. Political commitments in promoting the diffusion of low carbon technologies will include the enactment of sustainable policies on renewable energy (auctions, feed-in tariffs, net metering, public investment, loans or grants, tendering, and electric utility quota obligation / RPS) as well as a reduction in government spending on fossil fuel subsidies. Once there is a political commitment at the national and sub-national levels in reducing energy poverty this would in turn foster the adoption of a polycentric governance structure to energy generation and use.
Third, there is a need to invest in Africa’s technological research, learning and development. Current energy advances in industrialized countries have been credited to extensive scientific research and learning. This is currently missing in Africa where total GDP spent on R&D are often below five percent. As such, the entire technological space on low carbon technologies in Africa is currently lagging behind with the exception of a few countries like South Africa and Kenya. While most African countries often advocate for the transfer of low carbon technologies from advanced nations as a short term answer to Africa’s energy poverty, this has also potentially slowed down diffusion of low carbon technologies. This is due to a number of reasons. (i) Low carbon technologies developed outside their society of use are often perceived or presumed as economically costly due to limited societal knowledge on their development. For instance in Europe technology development goes through uncertainties on knowledge generation, artifact competencies and societal feedbacks and these factors are put into consideration when developers roll out technologies. However, these phases of design are totally excluded when technology transfer occur, hence explaining the dismissive approach by most Africans towards RETs. (ii) Low carbon technologies transferred into Africa often face technical challenges as the required knowledge for installation and if need be redesign, are still very elementary in Africa. As such policy makers are often discouraged from actively investing in these technologies. For example cases of failed solar streetlights across Nigeria initially stalled investments in solar technologies by some state governments. However, these challenges can be solved when policy makers actively increase budgets on research and learning while collaborating with advanced countries in the deployment of low carbon technologies. Also, Africa’s investment in research and development would potentially increase the demand for local contents in the design of low carbon technologies while triggering communal oriented energy development (i.e. energy by us for us).
Fourth, Africa needs an active campaign on changes in socio-cultural energy practices. Current socio-cultural practices such as cooking, heating and lighting are built around fossil fuels. This is due to long historical ties to the use of conventional fossil fuel, proximity and affordability of polluting fuel wood. However, a grass root mobilization can increasingly create a shift in this embedded socio-cultural practices. Furthermore, the use of locally developed technologies, resources and a near accessibility to renewable energy technologies can accelerate a shift in cultural practices. Importantly through active campaigns at local and regional levels on energy efficiency a shift in socio-cultural practices and technological substitution can be attained. In this sense, citizens are potentially more inclined to change their socio-cultural energy practices as they are aware of their government’s political support.
Finally, there is a need for fair energy pricing. Current electricity prices in Africa do not reflect the true costs of electricity generation and transmission. The electricity system is currently underpriced and over-subsidized thus dissuading potential investors from financing electricity projects. This requires a malleable design, changes to technical, organizational and systemic configurations, in order to prepare the existing infrastructure for its new and emerging environment.
One thing is certain, in order to catalyze economic expansion, increase electrification rate and enhance the demand for low carbon technologies, there is a need for investments and emblematic strategies which are able to: increase access for urban and rural population, boost institutional, group and individual capacities in making use of fresh opportunities in the electricity sector. What is suggested at this juncture is an approach that promotes political inclusion and reintroduces our collective attention to the sweeping inquiry of desirable and possible solutions to Africa’s energy challenge.