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Energy can power Africa’s recovery from pandemic and recession

Dr Fatih Birol
By Dr Fatih Birol

Executive Director, International Energy Agency

Mouhamadou Makhtar Cissé
By Mouhamadou Makhtar Cissé

Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Senegal

Posted on Friday, 26 June 2020 15:30

A 50 MW solar power farm in Garissa, Kenya. The plant, designed and built by the EPC contractor China Jiangxi Corporation for International Economic and Technical Co-operation (CJIC), in conjunction with Kenya's Rural Energy Authority (REA), is one of the largest photovoltaic electricity stations in Africa.
Aerial photo taken on Dec. 13, 2019 shows the 50 MW solar power farm in Garissa, Kenya. The plant, designed and built by the EPC contractor China Jiangxi Corporation for International Economic and Technical Co-operation (CJIC), in conjunction with Kenya's Rural Energy Authority (REA), is one of the largest photovoltaic electricity stations in Africa. (Xinhua/Xie Han)

Too often in human history, access to reliable and affordable energy has been a privilege for the few when it should be a basic right for all. This has been especially true in Africa where – despite remarkable progress in recent years – hundreds of millions of people still have no electricity.

Now, a global pandemic is further threatening vulnerable populations in Africa and across the world, and its effects are pushing millions of people towards extreme poverty.

Economic development starts with access to modern energy. It underpins vital food supplies, powers homes and hospitals, and enables people to work, study and travel. But the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 crisis threaten to make it increasingly difficult to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal of bringing affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy to all, according to the latest data.

READ MORE Reliable electricity needs fourfold increase in investment: IEA

We recognise the huge progress that has been made in recent decades. In Senegal, for example, 69% of citizens now have access to electricity – up from only 26% in 1993. Across the continent, many other countries have made similar gains. But the injustice of energy poverty is still far too prevalent, most starkly in sub-Saharan Africa where 595 million people, or 55% of the population, still lack basic access to electricity. This is unacceptable.

Alongside government-led efforts, young and dynamic populations across the African continent have a unique opportunity to contribute and develop their economies in smarter, more innovative ways. Entrepreneurs are leveraging digital technologies and renewable energy to create jobs and provide clean energy services. They include Akon, the Senegalese-American music icon and business owner who launched a pan-African initiative to provide energy via solar power, and Nthabiseng Mosia, a South African-Ghanaian businesswoman who co-founded the energy company Easy Solar in Sierra Leone.

READ MORE Concern mounts for South African electricity utility Eskom

Many African economies were among the fastest growing in the world in recent years, but like those in other regions, they are suffering heavily from the disruption caused by the Covid-19 crisis. In 2020, sub-Saharan Africa is set to experience its first recession in a quarter century.

One of every two people born worldwide between over the next two decades will be African, making the continent the youngest and most demographically dynamic in the world. These new global citizens deserve access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy in order to have the best chance of pursuing healthy, prosperous lives for themselves, their families and their societies. Their success will be critical to the future of Africa – and of the world as a whole.

But unleashing this dynamism will require energy. Africa’s surface area has 40% of the world’s potential solar resources, but it currently houses just 1% of global solar capacity for generating electricity. With smart policies and efficient implementation, solar power could become the continent’s top electricity source. Along with hydropower and other key sources that Africa has in abundance, solar can be tapped to bring electricity to millions of people who currently go without.

READ MORE Ghana: Lessons to be learnt from excess electricity shambles

Some countries are better placed to take advantage of such opportunities than others – and the economic and financial strains brought about by Covid-19 crisis could make it significantly harder for governments and companies across the continent to move forward with many energy projects.

That makes it vital for African countries to work together – and with the international community more broadly – to overcome these obstacles. This is why we and other global leaders will be focusing on the challenges Covid-19 has created for Africa at a virtual ministerial roundtable meeting hosted by the IEA and the government of Senegal on June 30.

The rest of the world has a profound responsibility that particularly affects Africa’s young and growing population. While Africa is home to 17% of the world’s population, it has produced just 2% of global energy-related carbon emissions to date. But the continent is disproportionately on the front line when it comes to the damaging effects of the world’s changing climate.

READ MORE Brazil provides model for urgent African electricity reforms

Those countries and regions least responsible for climate change are home to people who are the most vulnerable to its ravages. This is why we all need to step up and tackle our collective climate challenge by putting global emissions into a strong decline this decade. And the economies that produce the bulk of emissions have the greatest scope to make a difference.

Out of any crisis can come moments of clarity – and opportunity. The entire world today faces the challenge of overcoming the damaging blows of pandemic and recession, underscoring the need to work together to spur rapid and sustainable recovery – and to support those who have been most impacted.

Africa can emerge from the pandemic with renewed momentum. The international community should work with African countries in their efforts to develop secure, affordable and sustainable energy – especially for their most vulnerable citizens. The energy sector can (em)power Africa’s young, dynamic population to achieve its huge potential, to the betterment of the entire world. That is both our shared moral challenge and our shared economic opportunity.

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