Lack of access to electricity and modern energy sources profoundly limits economic development, constrains people’s life chances and traps millions in extreme poverty.

The Challenge

Lack of electricity in Africa remains one of the biggest barriers to the region’s development and prosperity, and continues to trap millions of people in extreme poverty. Nearly seven out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity or modern energy sources, with at least 30 countries in the region experiencing endemic power shortages. As a result, quality of life is severely diminished, resulting in needless deaths and wider economic impacts.

Insufficient energy access can limit GDP growth by 2-5% per year. Businesses cannot grow, neither can new jobs be created or critical services provided, without affordable and reliable access to lighting and power.

The majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa heat their homes and cook using traditional fuels like wood. Indoor inhalation of the smoke and fumes produced from wood burning results in over three million deaths per year, mainly among women and children.

The lack of electricity and modern energy access severely hampers health and education services – in sub-Saharan Africa, around a third of all health centres and primary schools lack any access to electricity, affecting 90 million school pupils and 255 million patients. In Africa, 60% of refrigerators used in health clinics have unreliable electricity so keeping vaccines and medicines cool is difficult. Hospitals are sometimes forced to operate with no lighting or power for equipment, putting people’s lives at serious risk. Children without domestic lighting struggle to do their homework in the evening, which can hold back their education and ability to fulfil their potential.  

Unless we actively takes steps to address this, almost 645 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will still not have electricity in 2030, that’s nearly half of the projected population.

The Opportunity

Political prioritisation and increased investment can change this. Some countries have demonstrated how this can be done. Thailand increased the share of the population with access to electricity from just 25% to almost 100% in just over a decade. The same can be done in Africa. Improved governance, strong economic growth on the continent, and technological advancements in the energy sector, combined with increased political prioritisation by African leaders, means there are increasing opportunities to scale up electricity and modern energy access on the continent.

Political momentum is building. Recognizing the importance of energy for sustainable development, the United Nations (UN) designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and 2014 marks the start of the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All. An accompanying initiative that brings together business, governments, investors, community groups and academia in support of transformational efforts to secure universal modern energy access by 2030 has also been created. Twenty-six African countries used this Sustainable Energy for All initiative to publically register the importance of increasing modern energy access for economic growth and poverty alleviation, and are now developing plans with supportive policy environments to address their countries’ modern energy need.

The UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post 2015 Development Agenda has also recognised the vital role of energy access in future development. Unprecedented political momentum is building on this issue, including leadership from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and United States President Barack Obama, but it is crucial that this political momentum is now turned into concrete action to support African plans to expand energy access. One such opportunity to do this currently exists in the United States.

In June 2013, the ‘Electrify Africa Act’ was introduced in the United States House of Representatives.  The bill looks to support responsible development of natural gas, oil and vast renewable energy potential by scaling up US private sector investment in support of national development plans. It will support the creation of 20,000MW of power capacity and bring electricity to 50 million Africans for the first time – with a particular focus on providing access to rural and under-served areas. With support from the private sector, it will have no new cost to taxpayers.  In February 2014, the Electrify Africa Act was voted out of committee with strong bipartisan support and now moves to the floor of the House for a full vote. If the Electrify Africa Act becomes law, it will help to ensure continued political support in America.

In addition, President Obama launched the Power Africa initiative in June 2013. This private sector – led initiative is aimed at doubling electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. Power Africa’s initial goal is to add more than 10,000 megawatts of new, cleaner electricity generation capacity and to increase electricity access by at least 20 million household and business connections.

The lack of electricity and modern energy access profoundly limits a country’s economic development, constrains people’s life chances, disproportionately affects women, and traps millions in extreme poverty. While tackling this lack of access will be one of the biggest challenges for Africa over the coming decades, it will also be one of the biggest opportunities to finally alleviate extreme poverty. It is now time to seize this opportunity.