From the construction in Ethiopia of the world’s 10th-largest hydropower dam to solar-powered homes in Senegal, many African countries are pushing to achieve better access to energy for businesses and consumers. But while some have made big strides in electricity provision in the past decade, 600 million Africans remain unconnected to the grid.
Supply challenges persist because of outdated or non-existent infrastructure. The resulting blackouts increase the cost of doing business, stifling investment in manufacturing and other industries. And, because their public utilities are already indebted, governments are tempted to tax startups that might otherwise provide alternative, off-grid solutions — which hinders the adoption of new technologies in rural areas.
“While sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s poorest region, it has some of the highest costs of electricity,” says Philippe Benoit, adjunct senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA. “Often, people are paying for grid electricity as well as a back-up generator in order to have [several] hours of reliable power.”
Access to electricity varies greatly across the continent. In Morocco, some 99 percent of the population has access to electricity, while in the Central African Republic the figure is as low as 3 percent, according to the International Energy Agency. Retail prices also vary: the cost of a megawatt/hour of power is US$490 in Liberia, but US$46 in Zambia, according to data company Statista.