By Eugene N Nforngwa
Energy poverty, or the lack of access to modern energy services, is a major challenge for Africa’s development and well-being. Despite the continent’s rich natural resources and potential for renewable energy, millions of Africans still live without electricity, clean cooking facilities or reliable transportation. This has serious consequences for their health, education, income and environment.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), about 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, accounting for nearly 80% of the global total. This means that they rely on traditional biomass such as wood and charcoal for cooking and heating, which causes indoor air pollution and deforestation. It also means that they have limited access to information, communication, entertainment, and other services that require electricity.
Moreover, energy poverty affects not only households but also businesses and industries. The IEA estimates that only 28% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has access to a reliable electricity supply, which hampers productivity, competitiveness and innovation. Frequent blackouts and rationing force many enterprises to use expensive diesel generators or reduce their operations. The lack of modern energy also limits the development of sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, health care and education.
Energy poverty also affects Africa’s economic growth and competitiveness. The continent’s industry, commerce, agriculture and transportation sectors are hampered by the insufficient and unreliable power supply, which increases costs and reduces productivity. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Africa has the lowest per capita energy consumption of any region in the world, despite having nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. WEF estimates that sub-Saharan Africa loses about 2-4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) every year due to inadequate power infrastructure. Energy poverty also contributes to inequality, poverty, food insecurity, migration and conflict in the region.
Therefore, addressing energy poverty in Africa is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic opportunity. By providing universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services by 2030 – as envisioned by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) – Africa can improve its human development indicators, boost its economic growth potential, enhance its resilience to climate change and participate in the global clean energy transition.
The good news is that Africa has the potential to overcome energy poverty by harnessing its abundant fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. The continent has enough solar power capacity to generate up to 11,000 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, more than 20 times the current global demand. It also has significant wind power potential along its coasts and highlands. In addition, it has vast reserves of natural gas, oil and coal that can be used more efficiently and cleanly with modern technologies.
However, achieving this goal requires concerted action from African governments, international partners, and private sector actors. African governments need to adopt clear strategies and policies that prioritize energy access for all segments of society while promoting efficiency and diversification of energy sources. International partners need to increase their financial and technical support for African energy projects while aligning their interventions with national priorities. Private sector actors need to invest in innovative solutions that leverage new technologies and business models while addressing local needs and challenges.
African countries also need clear strategies and policies to create an enabling environment for private sector participation, innovation and competition in their energy markets. They need to improve governance, regulation and planning of their energy systems; enhance regional integration and cooperation; promote energy efficiency and demand management; diversify their energy mix; reduce subsidies for fossil fuels; increase tariffs for cost recovery; strengthen institutions and human capital; protect consumers’ rights; address environmental impacts; mobilize domestic resources; leverage international support; etc.
The global clean energy transition offers new opportunities for Africa’s development as well as new challenges. As more countries commit to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century – including 12 African countries representing over 40% of the continent’s total emissions – Africa needs to align its energy policies with its climate goals while ensuring its economic growth and social welfare.
The European Union (EU) is committed to supporting Africa’s efforts to end energy poverty while advancing its green transition. As part of its Green Deal initiative – which aims at making Europe climate-neutral by 2050 – the EU has launched a comprehensive strategy with Africa that includes enhancing cooperation on sustainable energy access. The EU is also mobilizing financial resources, technical assistance and political dialogue to help African countries achieve their SDGs and implement their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Energy poverty in Africa is not inevitable. It can be solved with political will, strategic vision, effective action and international solidarity. Together, we can make it a thing of the past.
Eugene N Nforngwa is an energy and climate policy analyst. He is currently the Director of Programs at the African Coalition for Sustainable Energy and Access.