Most people who have lived in sub-Saharan Africa have a personal tale about access to electricity or lack thereof. Whether it is ‘blackouts’ that last several days or having to put up with noisy diesel powered generators in the neighbourhood, Africa’s struggle for reliable power supply is all too evident.
My own experience is no different.
For the 6 years of my secondary schooling in Uganda in the 1990s, each student carried 5 litres of kerosene and a lamp to boarding school at the beginning of every school term.
This was necessary because electricity supply lasted only a couple of hours, which was not enough to cover the time needed to study and pass tough A-level exams. As a result we used to go for evening studies in the school library carrying our books with one hand and a kerosene lamp with the other.
As soon as the main grid power supply went off, our kerosene lamps kicked in so we could continue our schoolwork. The danger of exposure to poisonous gases and the risk of storing large quantities of highly flammable liquids in the dormitories were all too apparent, but we had no other option.
Fast forward to 2014, the above scenario is still a daily reality in many schools, households, hospitals and other vital installations throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many communities are still faced with the daily dread that they might not have the electricity needed to carry out their routine activities, which could cost a life, an education or a meal.
It is in this context that the green transformation and the realignment to promote South-South cooperation should be viewed.
Improving energy access and empowering those at the base of the pyramid should be the defining framework for any South-South cooperation
According to the World Energy Outlook (2011), in 2009 sub-Saharan Africa had an electrification rate of 30% compared to 68% in South Asia and 93% in Latin America. Two years later, the WEO 2013 notes that Africa is still home to a large share (nearly 50%) of the 1.3 billion people in the world without access to electricity (PDF) and 25% of the 2.6 billion who still rely on biomass for cooking.
It’s clear that Africa’s top priority should be to increase access to electricity supply as the basis of any South-South Cooperation in the energy sector.
Depending on the choices that African leaders make, the low rate of electrification accords Africa the opportunity to deploy cleaner technologies that could place the continent at the forefront of green transformation. Improving energy access can be achieved much more cost effectively through mini-grids or stand-alone off-grid installations at the local level, especially in rural areas. Interventions that focus on extending the main grid do not often result in improving energy access, because such schemes are costly and may require long-term commitments from large consumers to make them sustainable.
Are we doing enough to lift millions of Africans out of energy poverty?
Lifting millions of Africans out of energy poverty and achieving greater economic prosperity depends entirely on how much effort is placed on the green transformation.
Many countries in Africa have made significant progress in the transition to a green economy. For example, South Africa has recently completed its third major procurement process for independent power producers, and it is estimated that by the sixth bid, the potential investments in renewables would be worth more than US$10 billion. However, some analysts are worried that most of the preferred bidders are large international utilities, driven mostly by profit motives and less interested in socio-economic outcomes like narrowing the energy poverty gap.
This tension between the pursuit of profit and socio-economic and environmentally sustainable outcomes is at the core of the opportunities and challenges facing green transformations that are meant to serve broader development goals. A similar challenge faces South-South Cooperation for development.
To-date, most of the economic interactions have been driven by corporate interests, and it remains to be seen if rules of the game will change to ensure that investment patterns result in decent jobs and environmental sustainability. Some of the more powerful countries in the global South, have been accused of exploiting less developed but resource-rich countries to satisfy their needs for raw materials in fast-growing economies, in deals similar to those that have long defined the North-South economic relationships of African countries.
Will South-South cooperation lead to an effective green transformation?
My personal observation is that unless things change radically this is very unlikely, partly because the focus of South-South cooperation is still biased towards the major economies, with the rest playing a marginal role.
There is a need to shake up this arrangement to bring more players on board to ensure that benefits of South-South cooperation trickle to those regions where change is needed the most. For example, the recent discovery of oil in the east Africa region is going to be a major economic boost for the region, but at what cost to the environment? The current flurry of oil-prospecting activities in the region, including in areas designed as National Parks and critical watersheds is quite worrying. Without strong green transformation goals, many African countries may well find themselves on the same paths the industrialised world has followed, to the detriment of all.
It is my hope that the mutual learning and knowledge sharing that has underpinned most South-South Cooperation interactions so far will be an opportunity for many African countries: an opportunity to embrace a green future, on their own terms.
Dr Mao Amis is Executive Director of the African Centre for a Green Economy (AFRICEGE)