OPINION: Governments must prioritise off-grid energy in Africa's economic recovery

Tuesday, 21 September 2021 15:11 GMT

PEG Africa agents prepare to install a solar-powered fridge panel in Lahou-Kpanda, Ivory Coast, February 25, 2021. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The pandemic has exacerbated some hard truths about the inequality of energy access, with those lacking it hit hardest - but we have the tools to end energy poverty now

Nick Hurd is senior adviser to Bboxx and former UK Minister for International Development and Climate Change & Dr Priti Parikh is associate professor at UCL and co-author of a recent report, “Off-Grid Energy and Economic Prosperity. Evidence on the relationship between off-grid electricity access and local economic well-being in sub-Saharan Africa”

The impact of COVID-19 on sub-Saharan Africa’s economy has been acute. Growth contracted last year and the economy will likely not return to pre-pandemic levels until after 2022.

As the G7 and others line up to express their solidarity, governments should be focused on ending energy poverty. It is widely understood that access to energy is a major accelerator of economic development. The last 18 months have exacerbated some hard truths about the inequality of energy access, with those without access being hardest hit. Despite progress to date, sub-Saharan Africa continues to exhibit the lowest levels of electrification globally.

Off-grid energy as the great equaliser

The frustration is that we have the tools to end energy poverty now. Investment in the grid is essential but we do not have to wait decades for the grid to reach remote communities. African governments can harness the power of distributed energy to leapfrog traditional models and connect their citizens to electricity and economic opportunity.  

Off-grid solar home systems and mini-grids are proving their ability to provide communities with reliable, affordable and clean energy. The impact on lives is extraordinary. Studies in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique have all found access to off-grid solar has increased household income. In East Africa, it has been found that a quarter of customers use off-grid energy to enhance their business and generate more income.

Over half a million jobs are expected to be created by 2022 from this sector alone, underlining its potential to underpin economic resilience, support green economic recovery and reduce inequality in a post COVID-19 world.

Given the urgent context and supporting evidence, this is our call for action to expand the deployment of off-grid energy and expand access:

  1. More effective partnership between government and business

Energy poverty needs a sustainable market solution. Mission-driven businesses like Bboxx are working to deliver that. However, the operating environment is still inefficient, with a mosaic of different policies, regulations and funding environments to navigate. Too many countries do not have integrated electrification plans that recognise the value of off-grid services.

One area where governments, donors and operators should collaborate is building greater consistency of approach to bridging the affordability gap that still exists for many rural customers.

Subsidy is part of any energy system: it needs to be increasingly focused on connecting people to clean energy and more transparent in the impact return on investment, measured in the benefits to education, health, prosperity and the environment.   

  1. Greater focus on productive use of electricity

In many rural areas, solar energy is largely used for domestic purposes, like lighting, radio or television. However, to truly fast-track economic prosperity, policies must consider how to foster distributed energy for building the resilience of farmers, growth of small and medium enterprises, improving rural value chains and much more.

Local productive activities will be the key to restoring equitable economic growth that isn’t only concentrated in the main economic hubs.

  1. Greater attention on promoting gender-inclusive energy policies

Women’s unique experiences in rural communities need to be incorporated into policymaking and private-sector project planning. In many rural communities, household responsibilities fall on women disproportionately compared to men. Paying for clean energy via a pay-as-you-go solar home system using mobile money is significant as it may be the first opportunity many women have to build up a digital credit history.

Access to off-grid energy means no longer travelling long distances, which can also often be unsafe, to secure polluting sources of energy. Freeing up this time enables many women  in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa to contribute further to their economies, enhancing financial inclusion and generating greater levels of prosperity for all.

Where do we go from here?

Globally, the Build Back Better agenda after the shock of the pandemic continues to gather speed. But we need to confront the hard truths about the inequality – exacerbated by COVID-19 – of energy access across the globe. If we truly want to bring about sustainable and inclusive economic recovery, then more equitable access to clean, reliable and affordable energy is non-negotiable.

Expressing concern about the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is not enough. As the world gears up for the COP26 climate conference in November, we must convert talk into action. Collective leadership is needed to seize the opportunity.

Let’s make sure that off-grid clean energy access has a seat at the table. As the crucial catalyst for shaping green and inclusive growth in sub-Saharan Africa, it could not be more urgent.