There is a single statistic mentioned in almost every article in this issue of Africa in Fact, that describes the extent of Africa’s energy poverty in the starkest terms. That is, 600 million Africans (roughly 60% of the continent’s population) still do not have access to electricity at all and for whom the debate over what a just transition from fossil fuels to renewables looks like remains moot.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 commits to ensuring “universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030″, with the intention of “substantially increasing” the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Getting 600 million linked to Africa’s energy grids by then is going to require vast sums of money, and political will, and require governments – working with the private sector and among themselves – to commit to innovative and ambitious policymaking and implementation.
In conceptualising this issue of Africa in Fact the aim was to seriously address how best to resolve Africa’s persistent energy poverty; asking what exactly does a “just transition” look like? What are our policy options? How do governments avoid getting locked into poor deals? In doing so, the editorial team wanted to avoid falling into the polar extremes of renewables versus fossil fuels and focus instead on a nuanced examination of optimal energy mixes and pathways.
Given the numbers, it’s clear that household electrification is an obvious priority but it’s important to recognise that addressing the power deficit more broadly is also necessary to build smart industrialisation capacity without which growth will be impossible. This is already a challenge, particularly with the rapid advance of AI and robotics, but Africa will be left even further behind unless it makes some well-informed policy choices now about its desired energy pathways. Every decision will create path dependencies and lock-in effects that must be fully interrogated now to avoid unfortunate consequences 50 years hence.
As contributor Adio Dinika reminds us, “The energy transition in Africa is not a simple binary choice between fossil fuels and renewables. Instead, it is a complex navigation through a spectrum of energy sources, each with unique benefits and drawbacks. Fossil fuels, with their environmental degradation and economic instability due to fluctuating global oil prices, pose significant challenges. Yet, we must acknowledge that for Africa’s still-developing economies, an abrupt shift away from fossil fuels without the requisite infrastructure and technological readiness could be catastrophic.”
Good Governance Africa researcher Vincent Obisie-Orlu reiterates that Africa is at a pivotal moment to shape its energy future and economic prospects for years to come, grappling with the paradox that a continent rich in energy resources is nevertheless plagued by pervasive energy poverty.
“While debates about the decarbonisation of Africa’s energy system and the role of fossil fuels are crucial,” Obisie-Orlu writes, “focusing solely on these aspects oversimplifies the complex challenges and opportunities inherent in Africa’s energy landscape.”
To unlock the potential of Africa’s primary energy resources, he continues, significant attention must be given to generation, distribution, and transmission capacity. Inadequate infrastructure maintenance, insufficient investment, and weak regulatory regimes hinder energy access and delivery. An effective electricity regulator plays a vital role in managing markets, issuing licences, determining tariffs, ensuring grid access, and safeguarding consumer rights. Without substantial improvements in these areas, expanding energy access will remain a challenge.
Political economist Ronak Gopaldas’s article interrogates the “unique trilemma” Africa faces in balancing “the energy access required for development with climate mitigation and the inevitable impacts”. To do this successfully, he writes, Africa’s private and public sector players will need to navigate significant trade-offs, which include balancing short- and long-term considerations, the risks and rewards and the potential of clean energy, with the pitfalls of energy poverty.
African leaders, Gopaldas writes, will need to demonstrate strategic leadership, adhere to sound governance guidelines, and pursue balanced regulatory regimes to reap the dividends of this new wave of interest and investment.
Researcher Nnaemeka Ohamadike’s article specifically examines how good governance is fundamental to a just energy transition. Transparency, accountability, inclusive decision making and efficient resource management are essential values that should underpin energy policies and practices. Strengthening institutional capacity, upholding the rule of law, enhancing regulatory frameworks, ensuring political stability, and embracing adaptive governance practices are critical for driving sustainable development and clean energy access. By integrating good governance principles African countries can overcome barriers, involve all stakeholders and pave the way for a greener future.
One point all of our contributors to this edition agree on is that Africa’s transition to a greener energy landscape should be driven by its own terms, not solely influenced by external parties. These include the developed countries of the Global North who are pushing hard for Africa to match its own ambitious, if somewhat wavering, commitment to reducing global emissions.
Other than oil, energy specialist Nick Branson’s article looks at how Africa is becoming an increasingly important player in liquified natural gas (LNG), which is about 40% less carbon-intensive than oil, and which is in growing demand as Europe weans itself off Russian gas pipelines, and Asia retires coal power stations. “Beyond petroleum, the continent is receiving major investments in renewable power and future-facing green hydrogen,” he says.
“The continent benefits from a natural abundance of solar irradiation, high winds, geothermal and water resources, all of which have helped galvanise investment in renewables in recent years. Amid this backdrop, a heterodox set of players are positioning themselves to take up emerging technologies such as green hydrogen.
“This harnesses renewable energy to drive electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, creating a clean energy vector that can be used locally or shipped globally as ammonia. Those taking up the mantle include established LNG players Egypt and Algeria, leading fertiliser producer Morocco, and the diversified economies of Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa.”
Overall, the articles published in this edition agree that as African leaders navigate the trilemma of energy access, climate mitigation, development, strategic leadership, and robust institutional mechanisms will be key to ensuring sustainable gains for generations to come.
Africa clearly has the potential to shape its energy future and prospects for years to come. By embracing a just transition on its own terms, with an energy mix that harnesses the natural gifts it has in abundance, the continent will be able to unlock sustainable growth and embrace the needs of those 600 million people currently left in the dark.
Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.