Africa’s Energy Deficit A Crack in Africa’s Geopolitical Foundation

Over 600 million people across Africa do not have access to electricity; this energy deficit contributes to debilitating economic realities—lowered productivity and higher costs of living.

Despite contributing among the least to greenhouse gas emissions, African countries will not be shielded from the impacts of climate change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that heatwaves, droughts and floods are expected to worsen in the coming decade. Governments agree that we need to reduce global emissions from 50 billion tonnes per year to net-zero by 2050. Nonetheless, the global economy remains dependent on fossil fuels for most of its energy, a third of which comes from crude oil. The US Environmental Information Administration projects a 50 per cent increase in global energy consumption by 2050, which does not align with the media’s push for a transition from total dependence on fossil fuels to the widespread adoption of renewable sources or Green Energy.

A 2015 McKinsey energy study showed that countries with electrification rates for less than 80 per cent of their population generally suffer reduced GDP per capita. Furthermore, the study suggests that even though countries like Angola or Gabon have vast natural resources, people’s access to energy (electricity) and the infrastructure to consume said energy are the main indicators to how well the power sector is supporting economic development.

Recent years have seen the emergence of influential networks focused on promoting the adoption of ‘green energy’; such as the World Economic Forum, the World Resources Institute, 350.org, the Climate Action Network. However, these networks rarely bring up the fact that the nations in Africa, South America, and Asia from which the majority of energy materials are sourced, still have to deal with the environmental fallout of a renewed scramble for materials that will ‘power’ the transition away from over-reliance on fossil fuels globally.

Rare earth metals (lithium, chrome, platinum among others), as well as cobalt, iron, bauxite, coltan, gold, and copper, are materials critical to the manufacture of the batteries, circuits, and electrical infrastructure upon which windmills, solar panels, and powerplants function. In this context, a dire precedent is revisited: resources from less-developed regions being produced for the advancement of richer regions while source nations remain stagnant, decline, or at the very least grow at a slower rate than the average individual cannot identify.

Over 600 million people across Africa do not have access to electricity; this energy deficit contributes to debilitating economic realities—lowered productivity and higher costs of living. Poor energy infrastructure also hinders public investment into schools, healthcare, and community centres.

THE ENERGY DEFICIT

Energy access is a key driver of sustained and inclusive growth. The African Development Bank indicates that while the potential for renewable energy development in Africa is high, fossil fuels still consist a significant portion of energy sources and we currently only use a small fraction of the renewable energy infrastructure. Africa’s energy consumption is low with 180 kilowatt-hours (kWh) as the region’s per capita consumption of energy compared to 13,000kWh in the United States and 6,500kWh in Europe.

With millions of Africans without access to electricity, Africa’s potential to achieve development goals is hampered. However, in the face of the energy deficit, Africa has the potential to satisfy its energy requirements.

Studies show that the Democratic Republic of Congo alone has roughly 50 per cent of the hydro-electric potential on the African continent. Mozambique, Nigeria, and Tanzania can generate almost 1 terawatt of energy through gas and coal capacity alone. Moreover, Kenya and Ethiopia could jointly produce upwards of 120 gigawatts of power through geothermal and wind potential all, according to McKinsey’s 2015 Powering Africa report. To leverage this potential, African countries must consolidate long-term cooperation between national governments, regional economic alliances, financial institutions, STEM-focused policies, and pan-African perspectives.

The main challenge energy sectors across Africa face is funding, mainly due to a lack of access to credit, as well as the political risk (investors are wary of weak and unpredictable governing structures). While national governments should do more to create adequate environments to pursue these imperatives, and education should be geared towards achieving these aims, regional alliances like the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community should become avenues of advocacy, accountability, and collective action for the attainment of African energy imperatives. The Ethiopia-Djibouti hydro-electricity project, which provides returns for Ethiopia while easing Djibouti’s energy demands, is an example of cross-border arrangements and strategic energy alliances in terms of joint investments. Concerning long-term arrangements, Africa must be focused on utilizing intellectual, financial, and natural resources around the issue of energy independence which is vital for a possible African Industrial Revolution.

THE AFRICAN MINING VISION—WHERE DOES IT FIT IN?

Africa’s mineral resources still primarily benefit external interests. Arguably, there is little difference from the height of the 20th century when only a small fraction of the profits from mineral extraction were invested in the development of the countries from where the resources were extracted. Over the years, these modes of resource extraction have contributed to the profit accumulated in the global financial capitals of North America and Western Europe.

Africa is a major supplier of: cobalt, from the DRC—which the world depends on for the manufacture of batteries, semiconductor chips, smartphones and electric cars; essential metals such as copper for manufacturing, sourced from Zambia. Metals like vanadium, gold, and manganese are also sourced mainly from Africa and are crucial to the infrastructure of digital technology. Eighteen per cent of global uranium supply is sourced from South Africa, Namibia, and Niger, while the platinum in catalytic converters is mined in Zimbabwe; moreover, rare earth metals such as coltan critical to today’s battery and semiconductor technology are sourced almost exclusively from the DRC.

For context, the demand for cobalt for lithium-ion batteries was less than 3,000 tons in 2000, it rose to about 33,000 tons in 2015 and is expected to double to over 70,000 tons by 2025. While producing a significant amount of raw material for global industry, Africa is expected to miss SDG targets related to electricity access and will also require $40billion in annual investments.

The African Mining Vision or ‘AMV’ is Africa’s response to the paradox of great mineral riches existing parallel to pervasive poverty, the situation academics refer to as the ‘resource curse’. The AMV is the indigenous attempt to equitably merge mining into development policies at the local, national, and regional levels. According to the AU, this involves improving local means of managing the mineral wealth as well as ‘creating African capacity for ongoing auditing, monitoring, regulating and improving resource exploitation regimes and developing the resource sector linkages into the domestic economy’.

When it comes to realizing the AMV, the Country Mining Vision is the main mechanism for adopting the AMV at national levels. Lesotho alone has incorporated the AMV into national legislature, and regional economic communities such as ECOWAS and The Southern African Development Community have adopted a mineral development policy and a mining protocol, respectively. Additionally, Tanzania has moved to establish a sovereign wealth fund for its natural gas earnings. The AMV, ultimately, is foremost a mining initiative for building economic and social linkages that benefit Africa itself and, by extension, will fix the energy deficit. The point being that once the continent deals with the foundational issue of weak governance over its mineral wealth, leaders and relevant institutions will move to structurally address the problems of energy deficit.

WHAT NEXT?

The September 2021 coup in Guinea caused a ten-year spike in oil. Additionally, some have argued that the Afghanistan crisis is largely driven by America’s need to obtain geopolitical control of an important region of the world as well as maintain unfettered access to almost $3 trillion in untapped minerals and resources. Any attempts at sustained development or industrialization are hindered by the energy deficit that Africa suffers. The run-off effect of this is that Africa remains in the disadvantaged position of being the ‘board’ upon which geopolitical machinations of other powers or blocs (EU, NATO, Russia, and China, for example) are realized.

African countries cannot continue to be doormats for the ongoing global industrial revolution when the continent hosts about 80 per cent of the minerals considered ‘strategic’ by the US government. Speaking to the linkages between energy security and national security, such minerals are used for the manufacture of drones, satellites, targeting systems, engines, missiles, and other electronic components which are vital to a modern security infrastructure of a sovereign country. It is, therefore, crucial that African governments take a coordinated pan-African stance over Africa’s mineral resources, especially those resources critical to powering the so-called fourth industrial revolution

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