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Updated Feb 27, 2020

Electrification is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 600 million people. A large percentage of this population have no access to electricity or have an inconsistent supply. Meeting electrical needs is at the heart of investment projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars from the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, other international entities, China, and a host of other foreign countries.

What’s most pressing beyond the immediate electrification of Africa is the role that power production plays in accelerating climate change. Data for 2017 from the International Energy Agency shows that natural gas and coal were the two main sources of energy in the production of electrical power for Africa, and these are also some of the most polluting fuel sources. South Africa, the most industrialized country in Africa, is still mostly reliant on coal. Efforts to invest in renewable energy projects will take time before they can meet the demand for electricity, and in the meantime South Africa experiences regular load shedding as a result of poor maintenance of the power plants over many years and the precarious fiscal position of the state-owned power company.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is heavily investing in renewables as well. Almost half of the the country’s 200 million people remain without electricity, a crisis that has spurred government and university initiatives to invest in solar and hydropower. President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration wants Nigeria to have 30 percent of its energy needs met through renewables by 2030, which still leaves the majority of the country’s energy infrastructure reliant on fossil fuels.

Why It Matters

Africa is already suffering the most from the effects of climate change. Droughts, heavy rains, locust swarms, desertification, and heatwaves place a disproportionately higher burden on Africans than elsewhere in the world, especially since agriculture is still a primary employer for millions and contributes significant chunks of the national GDP throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

Meeting energy needs is also a pressing concern, but balancing energy demand with climate change mitigation efforts clash with one another. Short-term political thinking sees African governments investing in immediate power solutions like coal and natural gas, because there’s a tangible good that can be delivered, whereas climate-reduction programs can take years if not decades to yield results.

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