How Africa is Solving Energy Poverty

One of the simplest definitions of energy is learned while we are still in primary or elementary school. Energy is the ability to do work. The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that modern civilization is possible because people have learned how to change energy from one form to another and use it to do work. Energy is an essential part of human existence, which was necessary first for survival and then for building and thriving in the world around us. Economic growth and development are largely dependent on energy, availability, accessibility, and supply quality. Much of the discrepancy found between developed and developing countries is attributed to several factors: energy poverty.

Energy poverty refers to a lack of access to modern energy facilities and services. According to the World Bank, as of 2019, 759 million people lack access to electricity globally. Under ‘current and planned policies and further affected by the COVID-19 crisis, an estimated 660 million people would still lack access in 2030, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.’ It also reported that 2.6 billion people lack access to clean cooking energy sources, with millions dying yearly from inhaling cooking smoke. The energy poor are found mainly in Africa and South Asia. The top 3 countries with the most prominent electricity access deficits are found in Africa; Nigeria, DR Congo, and Ethiopia.

This NASA satellite image of earth at night is one of the most famous energies (poverty) illustrations.

Habitat for Humanity refers to energy as the engine of civilization, and rightly so. Accordingly, Africa is working to improve energy access to fight against energy poverty and move towards sustainable development. Specific initiatives across the continent stand out in this regard, and the commonality amongst most of them is providing off-grid energy solutions to populations without access.

Off-Grid Solar

A 90kW mini-grid to connect un-electrified households and small businesses built by ENGIE Africa in Niger State, Nigeria. It is to serve the Gbanga community in the state.

Off-grid solar systems are gaining popularity, as they run independent of the grid, and store solar power in batteries for use. It does not have the drawback of on-grid systems which means loss of power in the system when the grid loses power. Considering that many communities in Africa are not connected to the grid to start with, and the existing capacity of grids does not meet the demand of connected households, off-grid solutions have seen increasing use and innovation to adapt them for the best results.

These solutions while meeting energy needs are also proving to be worthwhile investments for organizations. ENGIE Africa’s website explains that ENGIE Energy Access is one of the leading off-grid, Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGo) solar and mini-grid solutions providers in Africa, serving over 1 million customers and impacting more than 5 million lives in 9 countries — Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mozambique. The company’s offerings range from lease-to-own home solar systems that can be paid off and installed mentally, to mini-grids that are capable of powering entire villages 24/7.

Further Reading: The World Bank’s Lighting Africa Program, the Ghana Energy Development and Access Project, which is a part of the Lighting Africa Program; and Light Up Zambia.

In East Africa alone, 2.43m units of off-grid solar products, such as solar lanterns, and solar home systems were sold in the second half of 2019, an increase of 40% on the first half of the year — GOGLA.

Clean energy for Cooking

Cooking is a major activity everywhere in the world, and in Africa, the fuel used for cooking is mostly gotten from wood. The smoke generated by traditional methods poses a danger to health, contributing to millions of deaths annually, and the process of sourcing the wood has exacerbated deforestation. Sub-Saharan Africa is battling a vicious cycle in which deforestation is caused by energy poverty while energy poverty makes it harder to combat the effects of climate change, as witnessed in the efforts of the Great Green Wall Initiative.

The need for cleaner solutions for cooking is imperative for the survival of people and the environment that sustains them. Current solutions focus on making efficient stoves that use less of the energy source, especially for poorer communities. This is in response to the fact that many of these communities cannot afford cleaner sources like gas, which are more costly to set up and maintain.

Usagi Green Stoves

Usagi Green Energy Limited is a startup founded in 2020 in Turkana, Kenya. It converts waste, like old drums, into energy-efficient stoves. The stoves run on briquettes made from the proposed tree, an invasive plant that kills livestock and prevents farming, encroaching on over 35,000 hectares of land. The business sold over 12,000 efficient cooking stoves and supplied more than 80 tonnes of briquettes. While the founder started this business to respond to the demand for a solution like this in a refugee camp, its customer base has since expanded to households, schools, factories, and hospitals.

“We aim to reach over 100,000 households by the end of 2023 and to be the leading company in providing clean alternative energy solutions to marginalized communities and refugee camps across the East Africa region.” — Brian Onyango, Founder, Usagi Green

Harnessing the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a 2019 film that tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a young boy in Tanzania who saved his village from famine by building a windmill based on information he got in a book. William’s story is about one boy in one village, but it is a representation of what is possible, on a larger scale, with intentional design, funding, and implementation.

Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya are key markets for wind energy in Africa today, and together they have a combined 3.1 GW of installed wind power capacity and an additional 1.2 GW under construction. The Lake Turkana Wind Farm was commissioned in 2019 in Kenya, and it is the continent’s largest wind farm. The $650 million farms have an installed capacity of 310MW and the generated energy is distributed to the national grid, providing approximately 17% of the country’s installed capacity. 310MW is enough to supply one million homes. Based on the country’s Power Purchase Agreement, the energy it generates will be bought by Kenya Power & Lighting Company Ltd (KPLC) over 20 years at a fixed price.

Credit: Andrew Owuor.

Further Reading: Top Ten wind farms in Africa

An International Finance Corporation (IFC) study to assess the potential for wind power found that Africa “possesses an astonishing technical wind potential of almost 180,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year — enough to satisfy the entire continent’s electricity demands 250 times over.” However, Commercial or practical wind potential would be much less, subject to technical, financial, environmental, and social constraints.

Waste to Energy

Waste is a big problem, especially in Africa where waste management practices are poor and threaten the health of inhabitants, and pose environmental dangers. A lot of value is also lost in poor waste management practices. This value is however being rediscovered today as entrepreneurs and even governments are seeking to improve practices while deriving value from the process. One way is seen in waste-to-energy, which refers to how waste materials are transformed into energy.

Ethiopia is home to the Reppie waste-to-energy facility, the first in Africa. Before it was opened in 2018, the main dumpsite in the country had grown to the size of 36 football fields and it was more than a cause for concern. The plant currently processes waste from the Koshe dumpsite to produce energy for the capital. The waste is burned at 1000°C after it has been removed from moisture, producing heat energy that powers steam turbines and converts it into electricity. This process also captures the methane that would otherwise have been generated and released into the air if the waste remained on the site. The plant powers 30% of the city’s homes and has created about 100 jobs. It can convert the 500 million kg of waste produced annually, making the land that would have been devoted to waste available for productive use as explained by Samuel Alemayehu, the facility’s founder.

Similar initiatives have come up in other countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

The need to ensure energy access for all Africans cannot be overemphasized. It is an exciting but also an extremely challenging goal. A conclusion seems a bit too end-all, so instead of writing one, I recommend you watch this TED Talk on what it means to bring affordable and accessible electricity to Africa by Rose M Mutiso.

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