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Strategies for Sustainable Energy Development in Africa

The Path to Eradication of Energy Poverty South of the Sahara

Africa is endowed with energy resources: oil, natural gas, coal, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal and wave energy abound across its land and ocean territorial area.

But they are not evenly distributed.

Energy resources and projects in continental Africa. Graphic by Matt.9.johnson (Adobe Illustrator, Morning Project)
Energy resources and projects in continental Africa (2012). Graphic by Matt.9.johnson (Adobe Illustrator, Morning Project), via Wikimedia Commons.

Oil and gas, previously extracted mainly in North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, have now been discovered in economic quantities in East and West Africa as well as parts of southern Africa. Hydropower is available in central and eastern Africa. Substantial coal deposits are exploited in southern Africa. Uranium is available in West Africa and southern parts of the continent. Geothermal energy is accessible primarily in East Africa. The strongest winds are found in the higher northern and southern latitudes of the continent. Solar energy is arguably available everywhere.

Africa’s  55 countries [including Western Sahara] cover a land area of some 30 million square kilometers [at 11.7 million square miles, slightly larger than the U.S., Europe and China combined]. That’s about 20 percent of the planet’s total land. The 1.2 billion people on the continent comprise 16 percent of the world’s population.

Africa has a lot going for it. Yet despite well-intentioned efforts by many of its nations there is a persistent and pervasive poverty in modern energy services bedeviling the continent. The problem seems to defy solution, as can be witnessed by “load-shedding,” the intermittent almost daily power cuts that most sub-Saharan (SSA) nations are forced to endure as an adequate and consistently reliable supply of electricity fails to keep pace with demand. Long lines are also frequently seen at fuel stations throughout the SSA region, further evidence of economic development being thwarted by inefficient systems of energy supply and distribution.

While SSA makes up about 14 percent of the total population of the world’s developing countries, it accounts for about 48 percent of the global population without access to electricity. About 620 million people in SSA (about 64 percent of SSA’s population and 52 percent of all of Africa’s population) still cannot get electricity. About 80 percent of the population of SSA is dependent on traditional biomass for cooking.

Challenges to Improved Energy Access in Africa

Major challenges that hamper the provision of modern energy services in sub-Saharan Africa include:

  • Inadequate Energy Infrastructure: In the overwhelming majority of sub-Saharan African nations the generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure are grossly inadequate, leading to prolonged power cuts arising from frequent load-shedding in an attempt to ration electricity. This obviously only impacts towns connected to the grid. For processed petroleum products, most African nations spend a high proportion of their national incomes on importing oil and gas. For countries like Nigeria that are endowed with oil and gas, the infrastructure has not been managed efficiently, to the extent that refineries have not been operating anywhere near optimum capacities and gas pipeline networks are inadequate.
  • Inadequate Indigenous Human and Manufacturing Capacities: In the majority of African nations there is great shortage of personnel needed along the entire value chain, spanning planning, designing, constructing, operating and maintaining energy infrastructure. Also, there is little or no industrial capacity to locally produce or even assemble the components of power plants, petroleum refineries, and pipelines.
  •  Scarcity of Funds for Investments in Energy Development: The huge financial requirements for African countries to restore and expand their energy sectors can only be done if the private sector is encouraged to invest therein. This is because most  nations have very limited resources that cannot be committed to energy development at the expense of other critical sectors like healthcare, water supply, education and security.
  • Inadequacy of Appropriate National Energy Policies, Plans, Laws and Regulatory Mechanisms: Many sub-Saharan African countries have no sound policies and strategies. There are also no modern planning methodologies, let alone regulatory frameworks to ensure orderly development of their energy sectors. Most of the current policies do not incentivize or encourage private participation in energy development. Although an encouraging number of African countries have adopted feed-in-tariff (FIT) policies to encourage development of renewable electricity, the majority of nations have yet to do so.
  • Lack of Good Governance, Non-transparent Government Transactions, and Scarcity of Political Will at the Highest Level: It has been observed that the countries that have enviable energy systems are those that have leaders demonstrating visionary political will and where democracy and good governance prevail. Also, the transactions of governments appear highly transparent with minimal cases of corruption. Sub-Saharan African nations have to adopt these orientations in order to forge ahead and develop. It should be added here that the current leader in Nigeria is showing signs of good political will with zero tolerance for corruption.
High voltage electricity distribution pylons in the Free State, South Africa. By NJR ZA , via Wikimedia Commons.
High voltage electricity distribution pylons in the Free State, South Africa. By NJR ZA , via Wikimedia Commons.

The Way Forward

For Africa to have meaningful socio-economic growth it must ensure that the four major sectors of national economies–industries, transportation, services, and households–are provided with adequate, reliable and affordable modern services of electricity and fuels. This requires eradication of energy poverty, or at least its significant reduction. This will in turn require African nations to:

  • Produce comprehensive scenario-based energy demand projections using modern energy modeling tools on short, medium and long-term time horizons covering all major economic sectors. Several types of computer-based modeling tools are available.
  • Produce a comprehensive energy supply strategy based on:
  1. The United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative that calls for:
    — Universal access to modern energy services by 2030.
    — Doubling the share of renewable energy in the national energy mix by 2030.
    — Doubling energy efficiency and thereby reducing energy intensity by 2030.
    This is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.
  2. The outcome of the scenario-based national energy demand projections for all the economic sectors: industries, transportation, services and households.
  3. The trans-boundary projects of the African Union Commission under the aegis of the New Partnerships for African Development (NEPAD) which cover large-scale hydropower projects and regional interconnections.
  4. Regional energy projects that are being conceived and implemented by the major regional groups of Africa.
  5. Other national aspirations such as Nigeria’s commitment to be amongst the top 20 strongest economies of the world by 2020.
  • Review national energy policies to:
  1. Ensure that remote rural communities are catered for, but essentially to reform the energy sectors to make them market-oriented with ample encouragement of the organized private sector to invest in the development of the national energy infrastructure.
  2. Adopt appropriate frameworks to promote the practical adoption of new energy technologies. This will include incentives to users and producers of new energy technologies as well as feed-in-tariffs.
  3. Strengthen the national energy regulatory frameworks to ensure orderly development of the sector and also to ensure international best practices are adopted on the issue of licences for new plants as well as evolution of both cost-reflective tariffs and practical provisions for indigent groups.
  4. Ensure that the reviewed energy policies are enacted by legislatures. This is necessary for the majority of African countries in view of the frequent unnecessary policy changes from one elected administration to the next one.
  • Conduct annual monitoring of the effectiveness of the national energy supply strategy by calculating the Energy Development Index (EDI) to enable appropriate adjustments of the national energy strategies. The EDI was developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to measure the role played by energy in human development and to better track progress in the transition to modern energy services of respective countries. The EDI is composed of the following:
  1. Per capita commercial energy consumption
  2. Per capita electricity consumption
  3. Share of modern fuels
  4. Share of population with access to electricity.


Sustainable development of energy in Africa will require all African countries in general, and the sub-Saharan ones in particular, to adopt a set of comprehensive strategies, the implementation of which will greatly reduce the current energy poverty restricting their growth rates. The African Union, and indeed the wider international community, should actively encourage the implementation of strategies which include:

  • Production of scenario-based energy demand projections covering all sectors of national economies — on short-, medium- and long-term time horizons.
  • Production of comprehensive energy supply strategies using the demand projections and also using the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, the African Union’s NEPAD initiatives, and regional projects as well as other national imperatives.
  • Making national energy policies robust and market-oriented, but with provisions for the under-priviledged and with practical incentives and feed-in-tariffs. The reviewed energy policies should be fixed on the statute books to minimize disruptions from one elected government to the next.
  • There is the need for all African counties to compute their Energy Development Indices so as to know the effectiveness of the energy development strategies and thereby to effect appropriate amendments for future improvements.
  • Lastly, the crucial requirement for sustainable development of energy in Africa is good governance, which will in turn require genuine democracy and transparent government transactions.

Professor Abubakar Sani Sambo is the Chairman of the Nigerian Member Committee of the World Energy Council (WEC). He was WEC’s Vice Chair for Africa from November 2007 to October 2013. Prof Sambo was the Director-General of the Energy Commission of Nigeria from January 2005 to December 2012. He served as the Vice-Chancellor of Abubakar Tafawa Belawa University from April 1995 to April 2004. He has worked extensively on renewable energy utilization in particular as well as energy planning in Nigeria in general. He is a fellow of eight professional associations, including the Energy Institute of the UK. He is the recipient of the National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) (from Nigeria) and the national honor of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).

Sambo, A. S., “Energising Africa”, Keynote Address at the International Conference on “Fostering Energy Access in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities for Regional Integration”,
Potsdam, Germany, 2013.

NGS Atlas of the World Eighth Edition physical map of Africa.
NGS Atlas of the World Eighth Edition physical map of Africa.