Often the recipient of international aid, Africa and poverty go hand in hand—the continent is home to 19 of the 23 poorest countries on earth. International agencies and many countries assert that developing Africa will lift millions out of poverty by slowing population growth and bringing the continent up to par economically with the rest of the world.
What is often overlooked is the infrastructure needed to make international aid effective. The American economy is strong because there is a reliable source of power. Businesses can be open eight hours a day without hesitation. The dependability is almost second nature.
But for the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, the power grid is undependable.
South Africa, which has the biggest power infrastructure in the region at 44 gigawatts, imposes blackouts, or “load shedding,” to cope with the power demand. The continent’s biggest economy, Nigeria, has only six gigawatts for 170 million people. In comparison, the United States has over 1,000 gigawatts for its 320 million citizens.
Most of the businesses only get power four hours a day from the national grid. Many run on private generators. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari lamented that the lack of energy security is “the biggest drag on the economy.”
Other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa are in worse shape. Encompassing 630 million people, 85 percent of Africa does not have access to any type of power infrastructure. The World Bank estimates the region loses 2.1 percent of annual GDP due to the unreliable power.
Yet there is opportunity here. As climate change becomes more evident, and carbon dependent infrastructures of the developed world give way to renewable ones, Africa can become a testing ground to prove that economies that run on renewables are not only sustainable but prosperous.
Since 2000, there have been efforts to bring reliable power to Africa. Two years ago, President Obama launched “Power Africa,” a $7 billion initiative aimed at bringing power infrastructure to the continent. China and some European countries, as well as private companies, have financed solar, wind and hydropower projects in numerous countries.
Kenya is in the process of building a massive wind farm. When completed in 2017, the Lake Turkana 310-megawatt project will supply 17 percent of Kenya’s power. The European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank financed the project. Kenya is already laying the groundwork for a 400-megawatt wind farm.
Last year, hip-hop artist Akon launched the Akon Lighting Africa initiative. The initiative focuses on bringing solar power to those who do not have it. But rather than simply installing solar technology, Akon implemented Solar Academy. The school teaches individuals how to install and maintain solar panels.
In an interview with Think Progress, Akon said this empowers people through education while building Africa into an economy that can compete on a global level. He would like the initiative to expand to all of Africa by 2020.
The International Energy Agency wants renewable energy to account for half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s power supply by 2040—an ambitious goal but achievable. With international investment, Africa can build a sustainable power grid while expanding economically, benefiting the millions still living in poverty today.
– Kevin Meyers