Essay Contest 2019 - First prize in category Energy in Africa: People: Africa’s Overlooked Energy Resource

Many African countries face the challenge of extending access to modern energy services to a considerable portion of their growing population. Renewable energy technologies are promising for both centralized and distributed generation in the continent, but technology itself is not enough to truly empower the population and pave the way to sustainable development. To do so, a focus on Africa’s human resources is necessary. Policies, business models, and initiatives that enable Africans to form collaborative partnerships with other Africans and with external players are powerful complements to technology. This combination can lead to knowledge transfer, shared investments, and locally driven innovation in the energy sector. 

The African continent is home to 1.3 billion people, or about 17% of the global population [1]. However, Sub-Saharan Africa has nearly half of the world’s population without access to electricity, and the average grid access rate in the region is 20% after excluding the seven countries with over 50% access [2]. The power demand in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to show a four-fold increase from 2010 to 2040 [3]. Beyond electric power, there is a need for thermal energy (particularly for cooking) and efficient cooling technologies. 

In developed nations that built much of their modern energy infrastructure a century ago, the current challenge is fitting renewable technologies into the existing grids and markets—and adapting the existing grids and markets to those technologies. Now, developing African nations undergoing massive grid expansions face the opportunity to develop a grid entirely based on renewable resources. This opportunity encompasses not only the physical infrastructure, but also the social attitudes and economic structures. For many people on the African continent, initial access to electricity was through a renewable technology, such as a standalone photovoltaic system—an experience that may facilitate broader adoption of renewable energy technologies. Many African communities have adopted mobile phones and skipped telephone landlines altogether. Perhaps many African regions can also skip the fossil-fuel based, large-scale power generation and build a clean energy grid. 

While centralized power generation is expected to be the most affordable option for the majority of Africans [4], distributed generation will continue to be the alternative for people living in isolated areas. Community-centered business models for distributed photovoltaic energy have already proved successful in many African contexts, particularly when they offer solutions for payments and maintenance or a direct connection to an economic activity. 

Africans can benefit from partnerships with foreign countries both within and beyond the region. A sustainable energy system with a high participation of renewables will be made more robust and resilient through interconnections with neighboring countries. Beyond the region, knowledge sharing with companies, universities, institutions, and governments—both from developed and developing countries—can accelerate innovation. 

Of course, such partnerships must be collaborative and not extractive. The continent’s abundant natural resources and the interests of foreign powers have led many countries into a resource curse, the situation in which wealth in natural resources leads to slow economic growth [5]. Fortunately, renewable energy resources possess qualities that make them less prone to the resource curse than non-renewable resources. For example, they are mostly non-extractable, more difficult to control, more evenly distributed across the geography, and less energy-dense [6]

In addition, collaborative partnerships with external actors should include participation of locals and ownership models that reflect this inclusion. Energy projects with foreign investment can contribute to local capacity-building if they employ local people in key roles. Already, energy companies led by actors from mature markets are moving to the region. 

More than transferring external knowledge, partnerships—particularly those with an educational component—have the potential to accelerate local innovation. African communities have significant needs—and their residents know them best and are most interested in meeting them. The case of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian boy who built a wind turbine from essentially scrap material, is a notable case of necessity-driven creativity [7]. Nonetheless, he used what he learned from a book he found in a library to do this, a fact that highlights the connections between energy, development, and education. If a local library with a limited collection of printed books can enable this, greater Internet access throughout Africa can enable much more, including personal connections that can lead to invaluable opportunities. 

While Africa is often associated with its natural resources, its human resources are often overlooked. Greater access to education, information, and communication technologies can enable Africans to invent new energy products, develop energy projects, and launch energy businesses that satisfy the needs in their location. Meaningful partnerships—enabled by policies, business models, or other initiatives—are a useful avenue to increase this access. After all, it is people (not technology) that truly powers innovation and development—and Africa is not an exception. 

By: Nayeli Gallardo

Published on: 05.12.2019


[1] United Nations. “Population.” [Online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2019]
[2] Castellano, Antonio, Adam Kendall, Mikhail Nikomarov, and Tarryn Swemmer. “Powering Africa.” McKinsey & Company (2015). [Online] Available at: insights/powering-africa [Accessed October 4, 2019]
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Deichmann, Uwe, Craig Meisner, Siobhan Murray, and David Wheeler. “The Economics of Renewable Energy Expansion in Sub- Saharan Africa.” Energy Policy 39 (2011): 215-227. [Online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2019]
[5] Appiah, Manuella and Ting Zang. “Escaping the Resource Curse in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The Hague Institute for Global Justice (2013). [Online] Available at: Escaping-Resource-Curse-Sub-Saharan-Africa.pdf [Accessed October 4, 2019]
[6] Månsson, André. “A resource curse for renewables? Conflict and cooperation in the renewable energy sector.” Energy Research & Social Science 10 (2015): 1-9. [Online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2019]
[7] “William Kamkwamba.” TED. [Online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2019]

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