There have been many articles written on the dearth of electrification on the African continent, and the desperate need for many countries to address their energy needs. One such widely quoted statistic is that of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, which states that – over 550 million people on the continent are without access to electricity. This translates to approximately 48% of the share of the global population without any access. Despite progress made in Sub-Saharan Africa in powering the region, efforts are still not keeping good pace with population growth, with many of those without electricity concentrated in rural areas.


World Energy Outlook, 2017


With abundant energy resources, there exists considerable potential for the scaling of power generation on the continent, however the question remains – how can this be achieved? This article aims to highlight some of the ways this can be done.


Embracing a low-carbon future

Africa is well-endowed in natural resources from fossil fuels to abundant sunlight. Much of the strategies of electrification have centered around the cost, ease of electrification, human health impacts due to the fumes from using fossil-fuel based primary energy and of course climate change. Though human factors are a necessary part of energy strategies, climate change leaves the continent extremely vulnerable. It is widely recognized as one of the foremost challenges facing Africa, and the continent will also be the hardest hit. The climate change vulnerability index lists seven of the ten countries most at risk to climate effects in Africa, experiencing issues from droughts in Southern Africa to flooding in East Africa. IPCC’s report indicates that climate change will amplify existing water stresses, adversely affect agricultural systems – impacting food security and also be a multiplier for existing health vulnerabilities through the increase of disease epidemics.

Because of the carbon-intense methods of fossil-fuel power generation, Africa, in coming years will need to incorporate more renewable energy technologies in an aim to achieve significantly reduced carbon emissions. Therefore, at the heart of addressing the energy deficit is a transition to a low-carbon energy future.


Electrification pathways

According to Sam Slaughter, CEO of PowerGen, Africa is at a crossroads and efforts to improve African electrification can be put into two major categories: major large-scale projects involving generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure and on the other side, through market-driven approaches involving off-grid efforts.

On-grid is electricity provided through from a large, centralized power generation source, linked to a network that is then transmitted to a local area. Typically, large-scale, grid-connected power projects provide access to electricity at scale with the ability to power many people at once, and often the preferred pathway when it is built to serve an area with a high density in demand. However, there are several challenges in pursuing this pathway: it is often slow, requires countries to have adequate regulation and transparency in procurement of power projects and large investment. Though there have been very successful programs across the continent, over 550 million people are still without electricity and governments still require more institutional capacity to overcome massive hurdles in electrification.

Of the un-electrified population, about 100 million live in urban areas, meaning that most people without access to electricity are concentrated in rural areas without near-term hopes of being electrified through grid-connectivity. Off-grid power – defined as stand-alone systems that are not connected to a grid – typically power single household needs. Off-grid systems can be the most affordable pathway for reaching people in remote areas, with low power demands. Through the market-based approach, there is a large off-grid opportunity that countries need to encourage to reach more people at a faster rate. According to the latest World Bank 2016 data, between 2014 and 2016, the off-grid population has gone down through the electrification of 76 million people with 60% of this figure being people living in rural areas. An article published by World Economic Forum notes that though this incremental progress has showed encouraging signs, it has been against the backdrop of a 54.5 million population grown.

For the encouraging growth in this sector, evidence of market leadership in off-grid electrification is most notably seen in East Africa where support for decentralized renewable energy technologies has allowed entrepreneurs to reach people where utilities have not. Leading East African players such as d.light, Off-Grid Electric, M-Kopa solar are but a few that have shaped the region and contributed to what is deemed an ‘energy revolution’ in villages and towns. Uptake for off-grid energy is, thus, a reality and is expected to accelerate in the coming years, projected to grow from being a $1bn size market in revenue to $6bn by 2022. Therefore, adopting adequate market environments will be key to encouraging this industry to thrive.

On the whole, African markets still have a long way to go to exploit power opportunities necessary for their growth. Collective efforts in grid and off-grid markets can unlock significant opportunities for a new energy future that is sustainable for Africa.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.