Accra — Africa's energy demand is forecast to dramatically expand as rapid urbanisation and economic growth push consumption to new heights. Yet the continent is currently plagued by poor power infrastructures and chronic power shortages.
According to the World Bank less than a quarter of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. And on average, African economies lose 2.1% of GDP as a result of power shortages annually.
A rise in the global price of crude oil has left African economies with a reduced budget for investment in other areas. Even countries which are relatively on track to achieve the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), such as Senegal, will see their commitment to the MDGs called into question by the high expenditure on oil imports. In Senegal, oil imports total 8.5% of its GDP, more than the budget allocation of its health and education sectors combined.
Changing global directions: towards green growth
With Africa's current energy model reaching breaking point, governments are increasingly open to new sustainable development approaches to meet the needs of its rapidly growing economies.
The recent Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development amplified calls for the establishment of a "green economy". The green economy framework is widely regarded as having the potential to transform the region from a net energy importer to placing it in control of energy consumption through the use of renewable energy sources, notably solar power. Moreover, sustainable land management - a key principle of the green economy mantra - will not exacerbate the effects of climate change.
Heads of state, backed by regional institutions such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU), indicate a growing consensus in favour of these methods.
Laying the foundation for sustainable growth
The practical application of a green economy rests on the development of coherent national strategies and policy frameworks. Many initiatives are still nascent and such a transition presents a number of challenges for Africa. While a strengthening of previous levels of commitment can be observed, a gap in the investment of sustainable resources still remains. The initial stage of harnessing the technology necessary to develop renewable energy is costly and requires considerable expertise to implement innovative research. Nonetheless, there are a number of encouraging examples, which provide an insight into some of the directions sustainable development could take.
The Ethiopian government has set ambitious targets in its "Climate Resilient Green Economy" strategy. It aims, amongst other goals, to reach carbon neutral middle income status, and to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels by a third by 2025. The government is also aiming for a fivefold expansion of electric power generation from renewable energy sources.
A core component of the strategy is the improvement of sustainable crop and livestock production practices to increase food yields, bolster food security and boost farmers' incomes. Special attention is given to the protection of forestry reserves in recognition of their central role in economic growth and in local ecosystems as a precious source of carbon stocks. Within Ethiopia's green economy strategy, industry, transport, and construction are singled out as priority areas for investment in modern and energy-efficient technologies.
In Tunisia, a national fund for energy management has been established in response to calls for investment in renewable sources. Solar market development has emerged as a key government priority, sparking the creation of the Tunisian Solar Programme (PROSOL). It has led to a reduction of $1.1 billion in the national energy bill. Currently 50,000 families receive heated water as a result of solar energy, which has reduced 214,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the process.
Rapid declines in soil fertility levels has brought a renewed focus on agricultural practices. Scaling up organic agriculture has proven to be viable option for smallholder farmers in Uganda, who cultivate 185,000 hectares of land using organic agriculture practices. Government regulations have expanded the use of organic certification and accreditation systems and, to date, $22.8 million of earnings has been raised in the export of certified organic goods. The country's comparatively low usage of fertilisers have proven to be an attractive selling point for global investors.
Prospects for a Green Africa
Africa's endowment of natural resources makes it a prime candidate for this switch. It has a vast potential for wind and solar power generation. And global investment in renewable energy has increased significantly, rising to $211 billion in 2010. Africa recorded the largest jumps in financing in comparison to other developing regions. Chinese financing has reached $1.7 billion per year, overtaking official development assistance.
But much will depend on whether countries value the long-term over the short-term and procuring suitable investment. Can Africa shake off the shackles of its dependence on oil imports? It is time political rhetoric translates into tangible gains for the energy sectors.
Joan Nimarkoh is a freelance writer and journalist working in Accra along with her role as a policy consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Joan graduated from Leeds University in Political Studies, in 2004 and from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) in 2007 with an Msc in Development Studies. Her interests include African politics and economics, agriculture develpoment, democratization, and climate change.