Transforming Africa's Energy Agenda

The production of safe, nutritious food to feed Africa’s growing and urbanizing population in an economically and environmentally sustainable way will require reliable, affordable clean energy sources. How can Africa ensure both availability of and access to such energy, particularly in rural areas?

The fifth meeting of the Malabo Montpellier Forum , held on December 17 in Banjul, the Gambia, addressed this question. The discussion focused on a recent report entitled, “Energized: Policy innovations to power the transformation of Africa’s agriculture and food system.” The report examines the current status of energy in African agriculture, highlights the successes and challenges of six African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia) in expanding their energy sector in support of rural agriculture, and presents a policy framework to help other countries in the region with their own energy goals.

Energy access, particularly electrification, holds enormous transformative potential for poor rural communities. Smallholder producers and processors can reduce the amount of time and physical labor required to produce food; this can lead to higher production volumes, transition to higher value crops, and higher incomes. Women in particular benefit from increased access to energy, reducing the amount of time spent collecting wood and other biomass to cook and heat their homes. Electricity also results in cleaner air, as fewer households burn charcoal or use kerosene in the home; this brings both health and environmental benefits.

With these benefits in mind, stakeholders in Africa have invested significantly in improving access to energy over the past decade. The number of people gaining access to electricity in the region grew from 9 million per year between 2000 and 2013 to 20 million a year between 2014 and 2018, according to the Malabo report. Despite this progress, however, electrification rates remain low, particularly in Africa south of the Sahara. In 2018, the region’s electrification rate was at about 45 percent, and rural populations accounted for 80 percent of those without electricity. Overall, almost 530 million people in Africa as a whole are expected to remain without electricity by 2030. This means that the continent is not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7.1, which calls for universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy by 2030. In order to reach this goal, Africa’s annual energy access growth rate will need to reach 8.4 percent; it currently stands at 5.4 percent.

The Malabo report also presents reason for optimism, however. In 2018, almost 5 million households in Africa used solar power, and continued development of small-scale, bottom-up hydro, wind, bio, geothermal, and solar energy sources could lead to rapid development of widespread clean energy. The report estimates that with current trends, renewable sources could account for more than 50 percent of Africa’s household and commercial energy use by 2063.

The country case studies presented in the report provide several important lessons learned that could be integrated and scaled up throughout the region. For example, in Zambia, the government has provided significant fiscal incentives to diversify the country’s energy supply, such as reducing import duties on energy sources. Government programs focusing on grid extension and off-grid energy supply have electrified rural areas, and the government has also utilized innovative financing, such as through rent-to-own programs, for power supplies and electrified farm equipment to reduce companies’ risk.

In Ghana, energy growth has been encouraged through expanded local research and development capacities. The government has also liberalized the energy sector to allow for greater private sector investment and has diversified its energy portfolio to incorporate more renewable sources. In addition, Ghana’s energy policy has focused on rural development, particularly in the agricultural processing sector.

Based on the experiences of the six case study countries, the Malabo report provides several action points for African governments to consider in order to design energy policies that will support rural and agricultural development and move their countries closer to the achievement of SDG 7.1.

  1. Design integrated approaches. Governmental bodies responsible for energy, food, agriculture, and rural development must work together and coordinate their strategies and policies. This will ensure that target goals for energy access are achieved and that progress benefits all, particularly in rural communities.
  2. Scale investments in off-grid and mini-grid solutions. Both governments and private sector actors will need to invest in small-scale, bottom-up energy supplies. These off-grid and mini-grid supplies can help tailor energy services to rural populations’ specific needs. Increasing investment in this area, particularly in start-ups and renewable energy, will require strong financial and regulatory incentives.
  3. Adopt gender-responsive energy strategies. Women play a key role in managing energy use at the household level, so in order to be effective for both rural and overall development, any energy policy will need to take women’s specific needs into account. This includes the choice of tools and technologies used in various energy strategies.
  4. Address the challenges posed by biomass-based energy use. The burning of various biomass for energy remains common throughout Africa, and as such, this energy source needs to be included in future energy policies in a more environmentally friendly way. Farmers, governments, and private sector companies should focus on the sustainable production of biomass for energy. In addition, efforts should be made to transition indoor cooking and heating activities away from biomass-based energy in order to protect both the environment and people’s health.
  5. Develop cross-border policies for energy security. Africa is home to significant energy stores but these resources are unequally distributed throughout the region. By working together through a regional policy framework for the development and use of renewable energies, governments in the region can better ensure overall energy security and thus overall development. Regional coordination will also reduce the need for fuel imports from other parts of the world.

The Malabo Montpellier (MaMo) Forum provides a platform for informed dialogue and exchange among African decision-makers regarding agriculture, nutrition, and food security.