The State of Africa’s Energy Infrastructure

By: James Hawkins – AfricanBrains

Accra, the capital and biggest city in Ghana, was home to an estimated 1.6 million people in 2000, although the figure in reality is likely much greater than this. Despite its size, business plans can only be as concrete as the next electricity outage allows. The Africa Renewal, a magazine written by the Africa Section of the United Nations Department of Public Information, gives the example of Cyril Francis – a 36 year old businessman who produced canned fruits for export to Africans living in the UK to supply them with home comforts.

In July, 2004, food tins at his canning factory were carefully placed by workers on the production line, and filled with fruit. The final step of the process was about to take place – the lids of the cans would be sealed and then the labels glued on. However, without warning, the machines suddenly stopped. Cyril and his workers were plunged into darkness, and 30% of that batch was quickly left to rot in the fierce heat of an African summer.

Africa is a country blessed with great fossil energy resources. There are large oil and gas reserves in the northern, southern and western regions, and coal can be found in western and southern areas of the continent. These resources alone, on a technical basis, would be sufficient to meet every African nation’s energy needs. However, investment capital is required to make the most of these resources, and unfortunately, this capital is not so abundantly on offer – the reliance of Africa on aid money means that a large and long term investment in infrastructure is made very difficult, as donors change the conditions and levels of aid.

The way energy is currently used also has great potential for improvement. Investment in energy efficiency is common in other countries, such as the U.K.’s ‘Green Deal’ scheme, which will provide interest free loans for homeowners to buy energy efficiency products, such as boilers or double glazing. This also reduces energy dependence, and would be fantastic if it could be applied to Africa – if people use less electricity, there is less burden put on a struggling infrastructure used to deliver it. However, many consider such measures the icing on a cake which isn’t yet made.

Energy efficiency wouldn’t have worked in Cyrill’s case – according to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a blueprint for Africa’s long term development, only around 20% of the population have direct access to electricity, with the figure as low as 5% in certain areas, and demand is growing at 5% annually. Those with direct access still have regular blackouts, reducing the potential for business growth and manufacturing dramatically, even if on paper they have an electrical connection. Projects have been set up to tackle this specific issue – ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, aims to increase the percentage of energy from renewable resources to reduce the impact of oil price rises harming the supply available. Ghanaians now have access to hydro and thermal power and electricity generated through biomass techniques. Over the next 10-20 years, hopefully these sorts of technologies, passed from MEDCs fueling their development with generous government subsidies, will become available as their price of installation falls. If this can be combined with more investment in reducing electricity theft through more intelligent monitoring systems, then maybe Africa’s energy supply can be pulled out of darkness.