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Lighting up the ‘Dark Continent’

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Africa is a home to over one billion people scattered over a total of 54 geographical regions or countries.

Divided as Africans could appear, speaking over 100 different languages, one thing has a common thread throughout the continent. Africans are poor.

Civil wars, poor infrastructure, diseases, lack of access to education have also characterised the continent over the past couple of years.

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Last week, over 4000 governments as well as non governmental organisation leaders descended on the Zambian capital, Lusaka, to among other things map the future for the continent.

This was during the African Development Bank Annual Meetings held under the theme ‘Energy and Climate Change’.

During the meeting, one thing was clear. Every African is impatient for change. The delegates seemed to agree that improving the energy solutions of the continent could help improve the economic fortunes of Africa.

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“We decided to work on light up and power Africa because Africa is the only region of the world where lack of electricity has unfortunately become the norm.

“Over 645 million people lack access to electricity. Over 700 million do not have access to clean energy for cooking. Children learn in the dark. Businesses operate are in the dark. Surgeries are done in the dark,” said AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina.

He noted that the greatest hindrance to Africa’s growth and development is lack of electricity.

“It is unacceptable that 138 years after Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, hundreds of millions of people cannot have access to electricity to simply light up the bulb in Africa,” he said.

His remarks came at a time when Malawi continues to face a huge energy deficit with less than 10 percent of its population connected to the national grid.

No wonder the country is considered among the poorest countries in the world.

The AfDB chief said Africa is simply tired of being in the dark, adding that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

“Our goal is clear: universal access to energy for Africa within ten years. Expand grid power by 160 gigawatts. Connect 130 million persons to grid power. Connect 75 million persons to off grid systems. And provide access to 150 million households to clean cooking energy,” said Adesina.

The AfDB chief, who is championing the implementation of the high 5’s which are: light up and power Africa; feed Africa; industrialise Africa; integrate Africa and improve the quality of life of the people of Africa, noted that accelerating the process of solving the energy question for Africa could help fuel the industrialization of the continent.

He observed that the formula for the wealth of nations is clear: rich nations add value to exports, poor nations export raw materials.

Citing an example of cocoa, Adesina said Africa accounts for 75 percent of the global production of the beans but reaps only two percent of the $100 billion annual market for chocolate.

“This model can no longer create the desired wealth for Africa. Africa must no longer be stuck at the bottom of the value chains. Africa must now rapidly diversify its export mix and add value to all of its raw materials by developing efficient and competitive value chains.

“This is especially critical, as Africa only accounts for 1.9 percent of global value added in manufacturing, and this has not changed for decades. It is now time to industrialise Africa,” said Adesina.

Over the past years, Africans have been known to have great ideas but implementation has been a very huge problem.

To ensure that energy issues are given the necessary attention, the AfDB has established a new Vice Presidency complex on power, energy and green growth. This makes the bank the first multilateral development bank globally to fully dedicate a Vice Presidency complex entirely to energy: to light up and power Africa.

“Our focus will be on energy systems, renewable energy, energy policy, statistics and regulations; and energy partnerships,” said Adesina.

Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu said affordable and reliable electricity underpins every aspect of social and economic life.

“Two in every three Africans totaling around 640 million have no access to electricity at all. Needless to say Africa has massive resources for both conventional and renewable energy and yet it is known for darkness in homes and no power for our industries.

“Without universal access to energy services of adequate quality and quantity, countries cannot sustain dynamic growth, build more inclusive societies and accelerate progress towards eradicating poverty,” said Lungu.

He further noted that when health systems are unable to provide preventive and curative services, people who are already vulnerable face heightened risks.

“Energy deficits act as a brake on economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction, and thus reinforce inequalities linked to wealth, gender and the rural-urban divide. It is, therefore, paramount that energy matters are comprehensively addressed,” said Lungu.

Realising the importance of energy in unlocking Africa’s potential, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations and companies working in the energy sector, Power for All,

However, observed that focusing on big energy infrastructure projects ‘actually hinder efforts to meet global goals for electrification’, adding that the opportunity costs of delaying energy access can be remedied if multilateral development banks and infrastructure development agencies incorporate into their plans the full spectrum of energy options available today, including decentralized renewable energy (DRE) systems.

In its report, ‘Decentralized Energy: the Fast- Track to Universal Energy Access,’ released on the sidelines of the meetings, Power For All notes that a recent independent evaluation of large scale energy investment portfolios take an average of nine years to complete.

The report described the emphasis on large-scale infrastructure initiatives as misguided, considering the fact that 85 percent of the energy-poor live in rural areas where DRE can deliver on energy access goals, and climate, gender, education, health and rural development goals quicker, more cost-effectively and more reliably than the centralized grid can.

The Power for All report shows that a household solar company would require at most a three-month wait per connection, while connections from a mini-grid company would take approximately four months; more than eight years less than the average grid.

“Energy access is central to nearly every major development challenge the world faces today, and with decentralized renewables, it doesn’t have to wait,” said Power for All’s Kristina Skierka, Director of the Global Campaign.

“With a reprioritization of funding, shifting of internal incentives, and adaptation of successful, fast-track funding schemes for decentralized renewables, the MDBs can become the great accelerators of energy access and leaders in achieving power for all.”

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