CONAKRY – When G20 leaders meet later this year in Hamburg, investment in Africa’s future will be high on their agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already committed to using her presidency of the forum to promote “sustainable growth and jobs” on the continent, with a focus on “investments in infrastructure and renewable energies.”
Energy is not a new need for many Africans. While parts of Africa are energy-rich, supply remains frustratingly poor for most of the continent. Indeed, the African Development Bank calculates that some 620 million Africans live without access to reliable electricity.
But with advanced economies now expressing support for efforts to broaden the availability of this basic human need, perhaps the time has come to flip the switch on one of Africa’s biggest developmental – and societal – challenges.
According to the International Energy Agency, Africa accounts for 13% of the world’s population but only 4% of its energy demand. While residents of London or New York might complain of slow broadband or shoddy mobile phone reception, many people in African cities, towns, and villages still struggle with access to basic electricity to light their homes and power their businesses. As I have noted elsewhere, in 36 African countries, just two in five people have electricity throughout the day. In some countries, fewer than one in ten do.
Given this, it is not surprising that so many of Africa’s young people believe their best hope lies in traveling to Europe and beyond. Reliable electricity is about more than powering schools, hospitals, and homes. A reliable supply of power can allow young people to develop skills, find employment, and start a business – and can enable existing businesses to compete on a level playing field in regional and international markets. Because electricity is fundamental for economic development, providing communities and businesses with access to reliable, clean, and affordable energy will be my top priority during my stewardship of the African Union.
As the G20’s Hamburg agenda suggests, African and Western countries now have a shared incentive to work together to solve Africa’s developmental shortcomings. Africa cannot afford to lose generations of its young talent to places like Germany, France, and Italy, and European countries cannot afford to continue struggling with an influx of migrants. Among the best ways to reverse these trends is cooperation between developing and developed economics – particularly in the energy sector.
Opportunities for partnership abound. According to a February 2015 report by McKinsey & Company, Africa has an extraordinary reserve of untapped energy potential, including an estimated 10 terawatts of potential solar energy, 350 gigawatts of hydroelectric power, 110 gigawatts of wind power, and an additional 15 gigawatts of geothermal energy. Whereas it was once too expensive to exploit Africa’s vast renewable assets, technology is providing solutions that promote new enterprises and new opportunities. With sufficient international investment, Africa will have a chance to harness and use these resources.
We have already seen the impact new sources of power can have on African cities. Two years ago, residents of Conakry, Guinea’s capital, could not light their homes for more than six hours a day, and businesses went without the power they needed to operate. Now, thanks to the construction of the Kaleta hydroelectric dam by the China International Water & Electric Corporation, businesses have reliable power for up to 24 hours a day.
And it’s not just Guinea. From the huge pan-African Lekela wind and solar projects, to wind farms in Kenya and solar projects in Rwanda and Tanzania, large and small African countries alike are harnessing their natural resources to create jobs and produce clean, affordable energy.
What’s even more exciting is that these projects are not happening in isolation. They are being planned alongside a wider push to create a network of industrial-scale generating capacity across the continent.
International collaboration and investment are essential to these efforts. Working with international partners in West Africa, a groundbreaking electricity interconnector will allow power exports from Côte d’Ivoire to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. And this will be the first of several new public-private initiatives aimed at transforming how African countries deliver power.
If we get this right, we will not only strengthen African economies’ capacity to provide jobs and a future for our young people. We will open up new trading opportunities for both Africa and the West.
Having spent the last year coordinating energy policy within the African Union, I have sensed a growing mood of impatience from Africa’s political leaders on the topic, a sentiment that is shared by many of our people. But African leaders are demonstrating a new determination to improve younger generations’ prospects, not least by electrifying our economies.
Never in my lifetime have I seen Africa’s political leaders so focused on overcoming some of the challenges that have held back our continent for so long. Working with international partners in the public and private sector, we can chart a new and prosperous path for Africa and a hopeful future for our youth. And if African leaders pair their determination with the G20’s pledge to invest in infrastructure partnerships, the future for Africa’s people will be bright in more ways than one.