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The Fight for Power

13 June 2016

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently the most electricity-poor region in the world with two out of three Africans having no access to electricity. We only need to consider how reliant we are on electricity in our own daily lives to realise that much of our modern lifestyle assumes continuous access to power. According to campaigning and advocacy organisation ONE, the average American consumes 0.5kWh of energy when watching 2 hours of TV which is more energy than the average Kenyan uses in a day! Similarly, the World Bank estimated that, with the exclusion of South Africa, the total installed generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is 28 gigawatts (which is equivalent to that of Argentina – a nation over 20 times smaller than the region). The problems caused by energy poverty are therefore obvious. In fact, I very recently read two heart-breaking reports linked to energy poverty on the continent. The first stated that an entire family in Nigeria had died in their home due to inhaling toxic fumes generated by burning firewood and dung. The second, equally devastating, focussed on a woman in Ghana who was transported between several hospitals to finish a procedure due to the erratic electricity supply.

Knowing this, it has been encouraging to see that many private businesses, among which are many budding young entrepreneurs, have developed initiatives designed to revolutionise the continent's economic outlook and shape the destiny of the region. It also seems to me that more than ever, African policymakers are showing enthusiasm to tackle the issue at hand and whilst there is still a lot of work to be done, don't allow the rapid population growth to deceive you as to the steps towards improvement that are taking place.

In particular, there seems to be a growing interest in the exploitation of solar power – one of the world's most untapped renewable energy sources. One reason behind its popularity might be the fact that solar power modules are increasingly affordable and can be modified with relative ease to fit the needs of the environment depending on it. Given the inefficiencies and high costs associated with alternative power sources, it's not difficult to see why entrepreneurs and policymakers alike see the use of solar power as a no-brainer.

One such example of its use in business is the "Lighting Africa" project – an initiative co-founded by the international musician, Akon; political activist, Thione Niang and entrepreneur, Samba Bathily. The project hopes to spark an energy renaissance in Africa by providing isolated communities (often the worst affected by energy poverty in Africa) with access to clean and affordable electricity via solar energy.

Also notable is the work of Juabar, which operates a network of solar charging kiosks in rural parts of Tanzania, with a view to eventually providing energy platforms which provide connectivity services for East Africa.

There is a lot of interest and investment from overseas governments as well. Obama's Power Africa programme has seen the development of a range of renewable energy projects that will connect to the national grid including the first wind power project in Senegal and solar farm in Rwanda. Similarly, in the UK, the Energy Africa campaign – to which Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda and Somalia have signed up – intends to accelerate off-grid solar power for households by galvanising private investment in these nations. In recent months, the UK and US projects have also co-operated to address more specific issues on this topic such as the need for shared power across borders, resources for geothermal power and strategies to encourage an increase in the number of women participating in Africa’s solar industry- check out the amazing work of the Barefoot Solar College.

The impact of the work done to-date may only be incremental but the changes have the power to unlock untapped potential across the continent and, more importantly, transform the lives of many by providing jobs and a means through which both local and foreign businesses can continue to function, grow and thrive. The future is bright (literally!) and it's very exciting that the issue of being "resource rich but energy poor" should eventually be a paradox of the past.

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