Greener Africa: Powering the Sahel with renewable electricity

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Greener Africa
Ángel Losada Fernández
By Ángel Losada Fernández

EU Special Representative for the Sahel

Maman Sambo Sidikou
By Maman Sambo Sidikou

Head of the Permanent Secretariat of the G5 Sahel.

Mamman Nuhu
By Mamman Nuhu

Executive Secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Commission

Mohamed Ibn Chambas
By Mohamed Ibn Chambas

Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel

Pierre Buyoya
By Pierre Buyoya

Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for Mali and the Sahel

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2020 20:18, updated on Thursday, 1 October 2020 19:36

Ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, the issue of a greener Africa was getting underway. But while many think the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into those efforts, others say it might just be the right catalyst to push forward greener energy. In this first part of our series of exclusive opinion pieces, we look at the Sahel and the quest for solar energy.

Updated 22 September 11:30pm Paris

This is part 1 of a series.

Across the West Africa sub-region, roughly half the population lacks access to electricity and, including the Sahel, only 3% of households  use standalone solar power. For example, Niger is one of the world’s sunniest countries, but less than one-fifth of its population  has access to electricity.

With the COVD-19 pandemic and the climate emergency aggravating already difficult conditions, it is more urgent than ever to harness the immense solar potential to boost economic activity and ensure peace and security across the Sahel.

This will help create decent jobs for the youth and help to stem migration (including to Europe).

Immediate attention required

While the current discoveries and exploration of oil, gas and gold wealth in the Sahel need to be factored into longer term development plans, agriculture needs immediate attention as it employs most of the working population and contributes nearly half of gross domestic product.

READ MORE Role of climate change in Central Sahel’s conflicts: not so clear

Solar-driven electrification has important implications for food production and access to water for farmers and herders alike who have only known erratic rainfall, spells of floods and drought and creeping desertification.

Diminishing access to land and water has contributed to local tensions and broader armed conflicts that are destabilising the region, displacing millions of people and destroying their livelihoods.

With growing international recognition of the links between climate change and human security, several programmes and projects have addressed the economic nexus over the years. One approach is the Great Green Wall Initiative for the Sahara and the Sahel launched in 2007.

READ MORE Sahel’s Great Green Wall: It’s not just about planting trees

This United Nations backed pan-African initiative has focused on diversified actions for reforestation and environmental conservation, plant resource management, protection against overgrazing, community gardens managed by women and other income-generating activities.

Other multidimensional approaches

The United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) is another multidimensional approach launched in 2013 on the pillars of governance, security and resilience.

Turning the Sahel into a solar powerhouse might hold the key to peace and security in the region.

It was recalibrated and reinforced in 2019 with the United Nations Support Plan for the Sahel (UNSP) which stresses the priorities of cross-border cooperation, climate action, crisis prevention, women and youth empowerment, economic revitalization and renewable energy.

READ MORE Lumos plans solar power expansion in West Africa in 2021

Specifically tackling energy, the Desert to Power (DtP) initiative was launched in 2018 by the African Development Bank and supported by Power Africa, the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund and the European Union. This aims to build 10 gigawatts of solar generation capacity by 2025 and connect up to 250 million people with electricity across the Sahel region. It will also promote cross-border electricity trade in furtherance of the aims of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Key to peace and security?

Turning the Sahel into a solar powerhouse might hold one key to peace and security in the region. In order to get there, Africa must strengthen partnerships both within the continent and at multilateral and bilateral levels.

The Sahel Alliance provides an excellent framework to carry out long-lasting and quick impact project in priority areas under the guiding principles of ownership, coherence cooperation, subsidiarity, pooling of resrouces and accountability.

On the other hand, the European Union Green Deal comes at an opportune time to expand support for a green transition in the Sahel in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

READ MORE Africa needs to green its growth plans

The EU Green Deal could help mobilise domestic and international private sector investment in the energy sector, by expanding access to clean energy – not only through big projects but also mini-grids in rural areas – to facilitate economic activities that create jobs for the youth.

Bottom line

Greening the Sahel is essential in order for African governments and people to capitalise on available assets for faster socio-economic development. This requires rapid investment in financing, capacity building, and technological tools to unleash the economic potential of the Sahel.

In this era of COVID-19 and climate emergency, it is vital to replace the conditions that favour conflict and insecurity with tangible prospects of a meaningful future, especially for the youth.

*This Op-Ed is part of a series of pieces produced for a United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA) project on Green Transformation in the wake of Covid-19 recovery, in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the African Union Commission (AUC), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and other partners. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the institutions involved in the project.

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