Having uninterrupted access to electricity is taken for granted in many parts of the world. In Norway, we rely on an abundance of hydroelectric power to warm our homes and offices and to light up our cold and dark winters.
Our lives are almost never disrupted by a power cut unless something extraordinary happens. The lack of rains and available water in our hydroelectric power stations may occasionally lead to concerns over price hikes. But these not do pose a threat to our livelihoods and do not threaten industrial production.
The situation in large parts of Africa is different. Despite considerable talk in national and international circles on the urgency of solving Africa’s power woes, all available evidence points to slow and uneven progress.
According to recent estimates, energy access at the global level has increased significantly in the past decade. The global electrification rate currently stands at 89j percent. While 1.2 billion people lived without electricity in 2010, the number dropped to 840 million in 2017. Every year, since 2010, around 131 million people have gained access to electricity.
Three countries in particular—Myanmar, Bangladesh and Kenya—have achieved considerable progress. Others such as Afghanistan and Cambodia have also made important strides in expanding their grids and hence improving urban electrification while at the same time making good use of off-grid solutions such as solar home systems to improve access in rural areas. Even Rwanda and South Sudan—with low access rates—are among the fastest-electrifying countries in the world.
Despite some successes, over 570 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to lack access to electricity. Even if one is lucky to be connected to the grid, enjoying uninterrupted power for the whole day remains a distant dream. The problem is most acute in Burundi, Chad, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger, which are among the 20 countries with the lowest electrification rates in the world.
What type of strategy should policymakers in these countries pursue? Rather than relying on ad-hoc, short-term and costly arrangements, the need of the hour is to demonstrate genuine political leadership and investigate the potential of long-term and sustainable alternatives of power generation, including investments in renewable energy. Securing financing for such investments is often a challenge, and the world community and the private sector must be mobilised with the right combination of incentives and regulatory certainty.
Policymakers would also benefit from the availability of better quality and affordable data, including geospatial planning (e.g. using satellite imagery) for designing electrification roadmaps to identify low-cost options and better target their interventions. All of these strategies require political enthusiasm to plan, coordinate and execute. Consumers and businesses in Africa must demand and expect more from their governments.