Urgent action required for Africa’s electricity sector, says executive director of AFREC

Rashid Ali Abdallah, executive director of AFREC, talks to African Business about the main priorities for Africa's energy sector


Rashid Ali Abdallah, executive director of the African Energy Commission (AFREC), sees the electricity sector as the key driver for economic development in Africa. He talks to James Gavin about what AFREC is doing to assist Africa’s energy transition

Africa is a specialised agency of the African Union (AU), under the Commission of Infrastructure and Energy with a broad objective to lead the development and harmonisation of energy policies, create and continuously update its database of energy statistics, mobilise technical and financial support for the energy sector in member states and carry out capacity building programmes. AFREC is also entrusted with the daunting task of commercialising and integrating energy resources on the African continent.

What does AFREC view as the main priorities for Africa’s electricity sector?

As one of the continent’s key economic drivers, the electricity sector needs urgent actions and policies to ensure secure, reliable and affordable energy supplies, which are crucial input for mitigating poverty, securing prosperous livelihoods and diversifying national economies in alignment with Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

One of AFREC’s priorities is to transform the electricity sector at the national level and ensure that utilities become more viable by introducing cost-reflective tariffs that will enable them to maintain their operations at an acceptable quality of services and invest for extension.

Other priorities for the electricity sector are to transition the electricity sector to introduce more and more renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, big hydro and small hydro, considering that the cost of generation from these resources has dropped dramatically in recent years and they have become more competitive compared with conventional generation based on fossil fuels, which are widely used in Africa at the moment.

There’s also a need to transform the continent’s electricity market to have more efficient lighting and appliances. According to data from AFREC, it is estimated that 60% of electricity used in Africa is consumed by lighting, refrigerators, air conditioning, motors and distribution transformers.

It is important to transition the African electricity market to more efficient lighting and appliances by introducing Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) and labelling, to reduce electricity bills for consumers, release more electricity for prospective customers and reduce the government fuel bill for existing power plants as well as reducing the CO2 emissions.

There is still a huge gap in energy investment and this cannot be filled by governments alone. There’s a need to bring the private sector on board. The fourth priority is to promote an enabling environment for private sector participation for on-grid and off-grid generation and allow it to fill a considerable gap in the investment needed for Africa to meet the universal access by 2030. Investment is also needed for transmission lines and distribution networks.

The fifth priority for AFREC is to exploit all available energy resources for the expansion of electricity systems (renewable or non–renewable) so that Africa can diversify the energy mix in power generation, to ensure sustainable development for the sector.

Special attention should be paid to integrating natural gas in electricity generation in Africa, since 40% of new discoveries of natural gas in the world in recent years have been in Africa, mainly in Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Senegal, as well as other parts of the continent.

Last but not least, we need to think about how to establish a regional market for electricity.

The establishment of a regional market for electricity is one of the main drivers of African integration which forms part of the AU’s Agenda 2063. Cross-border trading in electricity will allow the supply of electricity within the region from countries with resources to other countries with no electricity sources. To achieve this, investment in the regional interconnector transmission lines is required as well as development of regional markets.

What programmes and initiatives is AFREC undertaking, for example in harmonising regulatory frameworks?

AFREC developed a new strategy in 2019 composed of five programmes: the African Energy Information System (AEIS), Energy Efficiency Programme, the Bio-energy Programme, the Oil & Gas Programme and the Energy Transition Programme.

The Africa Energy Information System emerged because we believe lack of information is one of the most crucial issues constraining the African energy sector.

Since 2012 and together with all AU member states, AFREC has designed and set up a comprehensive continental energy database and facilitates rapid dissemination and exchange of information among member states, Regional Economic Communities and other African institutions.

In the same vein, AFREC is planning to establish a centre for National Determination Contribution (NDC) to provide support to African member states, to develop or update the NDC and identify the road map to energy transition.

Another project is the energy efficiency programme which AFREC is implementing together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The programme aims to develop a harmonised regional market for energy efficient lighting, refrigerators, air conditioners, motors and power distribution transformers. This will be achieved by strengthening the legislative and regulatory framework for adopting minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) and labels.

Additionally, AFREC is implementing a bio-energy programme. Bio-energy is another form of renewable energy fuel which AFREC considers of importance. AFREC’s bio-energy programme aims to improve reporting and monitoring of bio-energy in order to improve the sustainability of these resources.

Another key programme focuses on oil and gas. Africa contributes about 10% of global production and 80% of this is exported. Unfortunately, Africa is still a net importer of oil products for the very obvious reason that we don’t have the refinery capacity. And we don’t have infrastructure for cross-border trading.

The Energy Transition Programme aims to develop Deep Decarbonisation Pathways as the first ever action-oriented project undertaken in Africa as a whole apart from South Africa. It aims to provide a clear understanding of transformations of the energy system needed in the short, medium and long term to achieve these intertwined targets in the specific prevailing conditions in Africa.

How important are new renewable energy programmes for Africa? Could progress be faster?

Boosting renewable energy is a core focus. The share of renewable energy, excluding big hydro and traditional biomass is still marginal in many countries in Africa, despite the remarkable achievement made in some countries like Morocco, South Africa and Egypt where considerable deployment of solar and wind projects have been observed in recent years. But in some countries it still accounts for less than 5% of the total primary energy supply, even though renewable energy costs are lower compared to other energy sources.

The African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) is one of main initiatives contributing to fast track deployment of renewable energy.

How important is attracting private sector investment and expertise to the energy sector? What is AFREC doing in this regard?

Critically, private sector investment will play a key role. If you look at our energy sector, we still have 600m Africans without access to electricity and about 900m without access to clean cooking. These challenges, among others, offer tremendous opportunities for the private capital and expertise. In addition to that, Africa is showing unprecedented growth driven by industrialisation and emerging economies which face the challenges of energy supply. In this regard, African countries need to transform their existing energy infrastructure and develop cleaner, flexible, more efficient and adaptable energy systems from the start based on both private investment and government capital.  

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