Opinion: Businesses must help electrify Africa

Even if Power Africa reaches its goal, some 500m people will remain without electricity.


On 10th February, US President Barack Obama signed the Electrify Africa act into law, committing his government to supporting his landmark development initiative, Power Africa. While Power Africa is certainly not novel, it deserves credit for marshaling private investments and encouraging host governments to strengthen investments in their power sectors.

Even assuming that the programme achieves its headline goal of providing access to electricity for 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, 500m people will remain without electricity. What’s more, most Africans use wood and kerosene for fuel, causing deforestation and thousands of fatal accidents each year. These persistent power supply issues are not only affecting our citizens’ quality of life- they are also pushing up the high cost of doing business on the continent. If we want to ensure the future competitiveness of our continent and its sustainable development, we must redouble our efforts to tackle this problem. As a recognised engine of growth, I believe that private sector companies can and should help African countries provide access to clean and affordable electricity.   

Africa has incredible renewable energy resources, as it can source an additional 10 terawatts of solar energy, 1,300 GW of wind power, and 15 GW of geothermal potential. Private companies have the financial resources and clout to significantly scale up investment in renewable energy. Last year, Google announced that it is investing in the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Northern Africa, the continent’s largest wind project. Once complete, Lake Turkana will bring 310 MW of clean energy onto Kenya’s grid – enough to power more than 2m households across the country. These investments are beneficial to all stakeholders: companies are helping to strengthen the infrastructure that they need to operate on the continent. At the same time, African governments get the help they need to stabilise their energy supplies and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Furthermore, for-profit businesses can enhance energy access over the long term by accelerating the deployment of affordable and localised tech innovations. For example, M-Kopa is using solar technology to provide affordable electricity to East African homes. After paying a small deposit, M-Kopa users are given a solar system to install at their homes. Using a mobile payment system on their mobile phone, they can then top it up every day for a paltry sum in order to get energy. In this way, M-Kopa is harnessing hugely popular mobile money technologies and the latest solar systems to save its customers money on polluting energy, and fuel its own expansion. Given their expertise and resources, I would encourage other private sector companies to explore similarly impactful activities that can generate a competitive financial return.

Ultimately, expanding access to non-polluting and cost-effective electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa is a developmental and business imperative. I call on private sector companies operating across the continent to join forces with African governments and the broader civil society to help address this challenge.

Dr Álvaro Sobrinho is the chairman of the Planet Earth Institute.

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