Op-Ed: Technology is at hand to achieve sustainable energy for all

As Africa’s population expands rapidly, energy demand is expected to grow at twice the rate of the global average over the next two decades. But based on current trends, experts warn that Africa may not be able to meet this rising need for power.

Multiple obstacles must be overcome to achieve universal energy access across Africa – especially while a rural-urban electrification divide persists.

Agriculture is a key part of rural life, delivering essential nutrition and income-generating opportunities for households, but also requiring a significant amount of power – the majority of which is still fulfilled by manual labour.

The cost of financing Africa’s agricultural energy revolution is estimated at $1.3 trillion, which when combined with low investment, poor maintenance and frequent droughts, makes this seem like a nigh on impossible task.

Technology to the rescue

The continent’s burgeoning technology scene is the light at the end of the tunnel. With the emergence of decentralised, bottom-up energy solutions over the past few years, we must continue investing in these “leapfrogging” innovations to meet Africa’s power demands.

By adopting modern technologies, designed around sustainable and context-appropriate power generation, Africa can make energy gains without resorting to outdated, non-renewable energy systems. To achieve sustainable energy for all, both large- and small-scale improvements need to be made.

For example, while grid extension programmes continue to gain momentum, innovations like off-grid and mini-grid technologies for hydro, wind and solar power are already disrupting energy landscapes across rural Africa – enabling consumers to leapfrog outdated, pollutant technologies and improve their living situations.

With small-scale generators, a distribution network and sometimes energy storage systems, despite fuel and maintenance costs, these decentralised solutions are often faster and cheaper than grid extensions.

Plus, by tailoring these small-scale solutions to the needs of farmers, additional services can also be integrated to improve efficiency, functionality and affordability – such as remote monitoring, Uber-like scheduling and pay-as-you-go models.

Living examples from S.Africa and Kenya

With mini-grids now providing electricity to around 15 million rural people throughout Africa – and 140 million expected to be connected by 2040 – the potential afforded by off-grid innovations will be instrumental in achieving universal energy access.

For instance, South Africa’s Integrated National Electrification Programme actively brings off-grid electrification into the wider energy network, with a focus on providing small-scale solar power systems for rural areas. By using alternative approaches to grid extension and embracing alternative power sources, huge progress has been made in expanding electricity access across the country.

Between 2002 and 2014, the programme saw more than 80,000 households benefit from off-grid technologies. Improved electricity access did not just enhance the productivity and lifestyles of rural communities, but also boosted employment rates amongst women by almost 10%.

The private sector is also playing a key role in delivering energy access, so that Africa can leapfrog slow, inefficient and unreliable public utilities.

As well as developing and delivering small-scale technologies to improve energy access amongst remote communities, start-ups and businesses are creating pro-poor financing models to make these solutions more affordable to rural households.

One such example is SunCulture, a Kenyan social enterprise. Alongside selling solar-powered water pumps and customised irrigation systems, the organization provides customers with access to finance and training. Specialist financing schemes such as the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund also provide essential support for start-ups to innovate within the agribusiness and renewable energy sectors.

Indeed, governments, multilateral initiatives and private sector schemes are making significant investments into the implementation and scaling out of small-scale, decentralised solutions. But crucially, on a larger scale, cross-border innovations are enabling great progress to be made in connecting rural areas to energy sources.

Crossing borders to reach Africa’s goal

Regional, cross-border power pools, such as the West Africa Power Pool (WAPP), have already been established across Africa, providing incentives for countries to increase the diversity and stability of energy sources, improve efficiency and make systems more robust.

Studies show they could also reduce annual capital spending by more than $40 billion – enabling consumers to leapfrog energy poverty and save nearly $10 billion a year in bills by 2040.

Still in their early stages, these pools are mainly benefitting smaller countries so far. But with technical and governmental support, innovative financing and private capital, they present an opportunity for regional economic integration as well as enhanced stability.

The path to fulfilling Africa’s energy demand is riddled with obstacles – including a growing population, climate stresses and economic barriers, to name just a few. But as outlined in the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s new energy report, there are reasons to be hopeful.

With the African tech sector and its innovations growing by the day, these new solutions provide promise that rural communities can be reached with stable and sustainable energy access.

The more we continue to support and invest in start-ups, agribusinesses and other innovators, the brighter the future looks for Africa.

By Muhammadou M.O. Kah, Vice President of Academic Affairs/Provost and Professor of Information Technology and Computing at The American University of Nigeria, Yola.

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