What lies behind Africa’s lack of access and unreliable power supplies

Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network, recently released a report highlighting Africa’s electricity challenges. Power shortages can hamper socioeconomic development, but they also have implications for health and education. The Conversation Africa’s energy and environment editor Ozayr Patel spoke to Peter Penar, one of the researchers.

How serious is the electricity crisis in Africa?

One of the most glaring disparities is that across the 36 countries surveyed, 94% of urban dwellers have access to the electric grid, whereas only 45% do in rural areas. The urban-rural divide is most pronounced in Guinea, Mali and Niger. This suggests that major cities, including capitals, have fairly good grid coverage, but the outlying rural areas remain severely wanting.

The problem of accessing electricity varies greatly across countries. Many North African and island countries achieve high rates of access. But several countries have extended the electric grid to only a third or less of the country. Examples include Burundi (17%), Burkina Faso (25%), Sierra Leone (29%), Niger (30%), Guinea (31%), Liberia (31%) and Mali (32%).

West and East African countries lag behind other regions in extending the grid. Southern Africa is a mixed picture, with many countries falling below the 36-country average (66%). These include Zimbabwe (62%), Namibia (62%), Zambia (50%), Mozambique (50%) and Malawi (42%).

The next step is whether the electricity grid actually connects to citizens. In some instances, the electricity grid is in the area but connections to dwellings are not present.

But even being connected to the grid doesn’t ensure electricity supply. This is because power is intermittent. In South Africa 14% of those with an electric connection suggest that power never or only occasionally works, with even higher proportions in Zimbabwe (44%), Zambia (33%), Botswana (23%), Namibia (19%) and Kenya (15%).

Why is providing electricity so important?

Electricity is central to the broader development agenda. Without electricity it is unlikely that development projects and public investments, such as schools and community centres, can achieve their intended goals. The expansion of technology initiatives in rural areas, such as supplying laptops to students, will not be sustainable without reliable connections to electricity. Electricity is also essential for basic things like charging one’s mobile phone or powering a household water pump and heater.

It has broader implications too. A lack of electricity prevents efforts to improve election quality, as the equipment for biometric registration and identification requires a reliable connection. For example, biometric voters lists couldn’t be managed in some areas in Kenya’s 2013 elections because computers ran out of battery power by midday. The were unable to be charged at polling stations.

Any similar effort to employ technology in state administration in areas without the power grid, a connection or supply will be futile under the current constraints in many African countries. A larger concern is that many countries, even more developed countries such as South Africa, have failed to engage in long-term energy resource planning.

Would it be better to extend the electricity grid in rural areas or to pursue renewable energy initiatives?

Renewable energy initiatives should definitely be part of national energy plans. Renewable energy production is generally good for the environment and may not require large-scale infrastructural projects and investments. But some initiatives need to be complemented by traditional approaches. For renewable energy projects to work systematically, they must provide rural dwellers and the poor the same coverage and quality as on-the-grid electricity flows.

Another consideration is who is supporting and initiating these renewable energy solutions. African citizens and states must be equal partners and innovators in the energy sector, particularly as cooperation with other countries, such as the US (through Power Africa), increases.

North African countries, like Egypt, and island ones are more successful in providing people with electricity. Amr Dalsh/Reuters
North African countries, like Egypt, and island ones are more successful in providing people with electricity. Amr Dalsh/Reuters

How have North African countries and Mauritius done so well? Are there lessons for other countries?

These countries benefit from their geography and population distribution, and higher levels of economic development.

The fact that Mauritius and Cape Verde are doing well is most likely due to the fact that they are fairly small and easy to connect to a grid system.

In North Africa one factor is that, on average, the population is more urbanised and geographically centralised than in most sub-Saharan African countries. This means that there’s no need for extensive rural electrification efforts and the focus can be on urban areas. In addition, higher levels of economic development may contribute to electrification.

Unfortunately this suggests that the solutions to rural electrification will be hard to extend to sub-Saharan African countries.

Electricity isn’t high on many African countries’ priority lists. Why is this? What can be done about it?

Employment, effective health care, water supply, and agriculture and farming were all rated as more pressing problems than electricity. These are all highly tangible and involve basic issues of livelihoods.

The fact is that electricity is important to all of them. For example, investments in energy have the potential to create jobs to build and maintain the energy infrastructure. In addition, advancements in health care and water management will involve technology applications, with electricity being a prerequisite.

This is why it’s important that civil society and grassroots associations explain to their governments that electricity should be a pillar of national development plans and that improvements in electricity supply support investments in other development areas.

Some countries are connected to the grid but still have electricity issues. In Nigeria, for example, 96% of households are connected but only 18% of these connections function more than about half the time. What can be done to improve this?

The gaps between grid extension and electricity supply are sizable for many countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. Although it is hard to generalise, part of the problem is government mismanagement of electricity resources and the failure to develop a feasible national energy plan. This involves seeking out a diversified supply of energy to meet increasing demand. In the case of Ghana, citizens clearly blame government mismanagement for failing to supply electricity. This is clear from the fact that the proportion of Ghanaians saying they approve of the government’s performance declined from 48% in 2012 to 23% in 2014.

The neglect from government is also rooted in inequalities in the countries. For example, in Nigeria the energy supply burden is shifted from the government to individuals. To maintain electricity, those who can afford it invest in generators run on gas or diesel. Only citizens who can afford to purchase fuel for the generator and can find time to wait in long lines at gas stations – or hire someone to wait for them – are able to maintain electricity in the house.

Source: The Conversation