top of page
synergy logo.png

Africa’s Future in the Energy Sector - Alperen Ahmet Koçsoy

Africa has long been struggling with energy production. For World Bank, only 48.2% of Sub-Saharan people have access to electricity as of 2020. With forecasts stating that Africa will double its population by 2050, it is a growing concern among African policymakers to provide their countries with sufficient energy.

Increasing production is not the only concern, however. The other concern is deciding between a green path and developing just as Europeans did in history –with the help of fossil fuels. The advocates of ‘just energy transition’ assert that Africa has the right to exploit its resources before drawing its carbon emissions to net zero. “No one in the world has yet been able to industrialize using renewable energy,” said Yemi Osinbajo, vice-president of Nigeria, in May 2022. Renewables are by nature intermittent and still have inefficiencies compared to hydrocarbon energy sources. While Europe is turning to fossil fuel options, some call Europeans lecturing Africans on renewable energy ‘green colonialism.’ Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British businessman and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, says:

“While gas is approved by the European Union (EU), coal is enjoying a revival in the US, China, and some European countries. If Africans say, ‘Please, we need a little gas, not to heat our swimming pools or to run our air-conditioning, but to have light,’ they are told, ‘Please don’t pollute.’ But it is our turn to develop and end poverty.”

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine contributes to this view. After the invasion, the EU took a decision to cut two-thirds of its gas imports from Russia. The change in the EU’s energy policy prioritizes urgent energy needs over climate goals. Therefore, it presents opportunities for African countries to export fossil fuels. Natural gas export, both by pipelines and by Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) ships, is the most prominent of them, as the European Union describes it as ‘untapped LNG potential.’ Many African countries, such as Nigeria, are endowed with abundant natural gas and oil reserves.

However, there are some limitations to the hydrocarbon option. First, there is a scarcity of funds from the EU and international organizations such as IMF and World Bank for fossil fuel investment, even though Europe does not reject gas imports from African countries such as Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and so forth. Also, investments for natural gas production could become ‘stranded assets’ as the globe is transitioning to green energy. The European Union applies a ‘carbon tax’ to companies with above-the-level carbon emissions, for instance. Besides, fossil fuels are finite resources. Fossil fuels in Nigeria, for example, are expected to ‘be depleted to an uneconomical point by the year 2050’. Hence, investing in fossil fuels may cause problems when countries want to transition to renewable energy in the future. Furthermore, the continent is affected by climate change disproportionately compared to other continents. Irresponsibly investing in hydrocarbon would only exacerbate the effects of climate change on the continent.

In addition, Africa’s principal goal is to provide electricity to its population. Fossil fuels trade might be lucrative because of soaring prices, but those soaring prices make relying on fossil fuels in the domestic market inflationary. Consuming expensive energy is not something that many Africans can afford. Last year, African people without access to electricity grew by 4%, or 25 million. Also, people that are off-grid resort to the solution of having diesel-fueled electric generators, which are expensive to use. African Development Bank (AfDB) estimated that Nigerians spend $14 billion fuelling petrol or diesel-powered generators. To provide electricity to off-grid people living in remote and isolated areas, one option argued in a 2013 article is investing in small-scale renewable energy resources such as small hydropower (SHP) systems and solar panels.

Africa has enormous renewable energy potential. According to African Development Bank data, “Africa has an almost unlimited potential of solar capacity (10 TW), abundant hydro (350 GW), wind (110 GW), and geothermal energy sources (15 GW).” This potential keeps ‘leap-frogging’ in the energy sector as an option. Kenya, which started investing in renewable energy as early as 40 years ago, is destined to be successful, with roughly 92% of its energy generation coming from renewables and 71.4% of its population having access to electricity as of the year 2020. In the words of Monica Juma, Kenya’s energy minister, “We are asking ourselves whether there is an alternative. We have done it in digital. Is there a similar leap-frogging in energy? We don’t know, but I suspect there is.” Not all countries are as lucky as Kenya regarding renewable energy potential. However, countries that have immense potential for renewables, such as Namibia (wind), the Democratic Republic of Congo (hydropower), and Nigeria (solar, hydropower, and wind), should consider ‘leap-frogging’ to renewables as a serious option.

Financing renewable projects might get problematic, with investment in them lagging because of the soaring hydrocarbon prices. Plus, the EU is having problems delivering its promises in clear energy financing. Overcoming this problem might be financing renewables with the hot money from the fossil fuel trade. Exporting natural gas offers a less dirty yet profitable option for some, although natural gas production emits substantial amounts of methane.

We might be at a critical stage in Africa’s energy transition. The current geopolitical environment may offer opportunities for African countries, but those opportunities should be approached rationally and in a long-term prioritizing way. ‘Just transition’ is an option, along with ‘leap-frogging.’ There may also be a synthesis of these two development paths. Whatever path they choose, African policymakers should assess their countries’ needs, capabilities, and the risks of their policies well. They should project their future pragmatically. The continent has a bright future ahead of it if it can put good use of its potential.


bottom of page