Africans pay 66 times more for electricity than people in the UK

I knew that most of sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t have much in the way of electricity, but now I know why.

The figure in the headline is from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), and shows the effect of decades of inefficient markets, chronic under-investment, and clearly unhelpful policies that mean 621 million Africans live without access to electricity.

There’s a scene in the 2005 Matthew McConaughey film Sahara which, ostensibly, shows enormous fields of solar panels in Nigeria. Sadly, it’s all CGI.

A new campaign to combat this appalling market and policy failure has been launched, through household solar power, and riding on:

  • the dramatically decreasing cost of solar photovoltaic panels
  • improvements in battery technology, through the development of lithium batteries
  • improvements in the efficiency of appliances (eg an LED 6 watt produces light equivalent to an Edison bulb on 60 watts)
  • the spread of mobile payment systems

The campaign is called Energy Africa, and was launched on 22 October at Facebook’s offices in London. Virgin is planning to invest in African solar power, it seems. 

There are also aims to remove policy and regulatory barriers, with 14 target countries to set out policy actions to improve market conditions, with support from organisations like DfID. 

I’ve worked abroad, and met international government partners of similar schemes. Let’s hope Energy Africa meets its goals. And isn’t an exercise in taxpayer-funded phantom job creation for the political and commercial elites of other countries, with targets met only on paper. British investment and overseas contracts can be great, but what’s better is when they work for people, too.

Not everywhere even has electricity. Vel Ganendran, Head of DfID Tanzania, blogs:

Over 80% of the 45 million people in Tanzania have no access to electricity. In rural areas, that increases to around 95%. Nor is this likely to change anytime soon. As I’ve blogged previously, when people are spread out over vast distances, the costs of reaching them are very high. The Tanzanian government estimates the cost of an on-grid connection in rural areas to be around $650. That is prohibitive, especially when your customers can’t afford the $110 connection fee.

A friend of mine in Somaliland pays $1 for one watt.

With costs like these it’s going to be tempting to ‘borrow’ some from elsewhere. When I was working abroad, the power went out in my flat, despite the bill being paid. The landlord sent a cheerful chap – not from the power company – who reconnected it. He didn’t speak much English. But he did look at me and say: “Free electricity!”

Ultimately, of course, this just means higher costs for everyone else.

Some of those present at the Energy Africa launch were Kofi Annan; African Union Commission chairperson Madame Zuma; Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; Bob Geldof; and Grant Shapps, DfID Minister of State.   

This is what various folks had to say about Energy Africa:

Kofi Annan: “This campaign addresses one of the great injustices of the 21st century – an injustice that robs millions of our fellow citizens of the dignity, opportunity and freedom that comes with access to modern energy. Low carbon development has the potential to act as an engine of growth. This is an exciting time to rapidly scale-up Africa’s energy access. This generation of African leaders has a unique opportunity to deliver on the promise of energy for all.”

Richard Branson: “Solar is a tremendous opportunity for African countries to leapfrog traditional carbon intense energy systems to a cost effective, clean energy future. Brought to scale, it will give countries a stable, reliable energy source and boost job growth. Virgin is planning to invest in a number of projects to help turn this into a reality.”

Bob Geldof: “The stars are aligned today, we needed the technology to exist before we could electrify a continent, and now this exists. It is because of the UK government committing to the 0.7% target, uniquely in the G7 and at the behest of the public, that we can now actually achieve this. This is the moment, this is do-able, this is the moment where Africa powers up, switches on and goes for it.”

Mr Shapps: “It is shocking that around two out of three of the African population have no electricity in their homes. This not only holds back individuals, but entire nations. It prevents businesses from trading and holds back economic growth – indeed outages cost African countries one to two per cent of their annual GDP. I have seen for myself how people’s lives can be transformed with the installation of a simple solar panel system. The technology is there – all we have to do is remove the barriers stifling the market. This is what Energy Africa will help do. It has the power to help millions of Africans lift themselves out of poverty and transform the prospects of an entire continent – something that is good for Africa but good for Britain too.”

I got all this from the DfID pages of gov.uk, but it’s just one sentence that remains the most powerful: Elizabeth Mukwimba now has solar lighting and electricity in her home thanks to a scheme backed by UK aid.

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About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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