Energy will play a critical role in the success of Africa’s free trade area

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By: Kingsley Ighobor

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—Damilola Ogunbiyi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All

Ms Damilola Ogunbiyi Special Representative of the UN-Secretary General for Sustainable Energy

Damilola Ogunbiyi is the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. On the sidelines of the UN High-Level Political Forum taking place in New York, Ms. Ogunbiyi spoke to Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor on a range of issues, including how to tackle energy poverty in Africa. Here are the excerpts:

As a global leader and advocate for the achievement of SDG7, which calls for access to reliable, affordable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, what three key things do African countries need to do to end energy poverty? 

One of the first important things, which countries have started doing, is identifying where the people who need electrification and clean cooking are. This will enable countries to identify the best way to provide these using a range of energy mixes, knowing that cleaner is better.

The second thing is for countries to make sure they have solid policies and laws to help attract investment and to help their own renewable, clean energy market.

And then finally— and this is more of a global issue as well as an African countries’ issue—the financing must be there. So, public financing, private financing, commercial financing, non-commercial concession financing, philanthropy money– all need to come together for us to end energy poverty.

Today, over 700 million people have no electricity at all. About 2.6 billion people, almost a third of the global population, do not have access to clean cooking.

In Africa, 570 million people lack access to electricity. We are talking about a problem that will cost us about $40 billion every year from now to 2030. And right now, in Africa, we are seeing numbers of less than $4 billion. So, it just shows you how much work we have to do to make sure the right amount of resources are going in to solve energy poverty.

So nearly 600 million Africans do not have access to energy. That is about half of the population of the continent. How have African countries fared in the shift toward clean energy? Any good examples?

There are excellent examples. If I take my country, Nigeria, for example, I led the largest energy access programme, which focused on renewable energy projects under a programme called the Nigerian Electrification Project. It was undertaken with effective partnerships with the World Bank and the African Development Bank. We distributed energy solutions and focused on solar energy and were able to power some universities.

Some good examples are also coming out of Rwanda and Senegal as well. But the problem is that they are small; we now have to look at scaling up.

It is not that there is no progress happening in African countries in terms of electrification, but population growth is outweighing electrification. So, even if you make progress of an additional million or 2 million people having energy access every single year, but you have a population growth of circa 10 million, it’s tough to catch up. That’s why we need to speed up. And that’s why we need, like I said, money from philanthropy, development institutions, financial institutions, governments—all coming together to look for creative solutions that will make sure no one is left behind in energy access.

How much progress is being been made towards rallying financing for the energy sector in Africa?

It’s important now, especially this year when the UN is having a high-level dialogue on energy, for the first time in 40 years. We are discussing this topic at the UN General Assembly. People are now recognizing that energy poverty is serious, and it is really important that while we’re trying to transition to green, renewable, clean energy, which is very important, that energy access and energy poverty must be part of the energy transition for many African countries.

I have a lot of hope and optimism that this year, there will be a big shift in terms of a [COVID-19] recovery package and other packages towards clean energy in Africa, which we haven’t seen before. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced many countries’ fiscal space. And Africa is currently grappling with a third wave of infections. What advice would you give these countries at this time in terms of how they prioritize energy investment? 

For every $1 you invest in clean energy in any country, we see the benefits of about 0.93 cents to GDP. So, it’s just a good economic decision. More jobs are created, and there will be an increase in energy access and energy efficiency. There are a lot of benefits, apart from the obvious, including having healthier people, more yields in agriculture, etc.

And for women?

If you give a woman access to sustainable energy, she earns 59% more. So even if you have a long wish-list of things you want to spend money on, clean energy is where you should focus because it’s just good math in terms of economic growth. 

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) kicked off in January this year, and is expected to catalyze Africa’s industrialization. How might affordable energy for all, as well as achieving near-zero emissions, support such industrialization? 

Well, the fact that Africa is one of the regions that will need more instead of less energy, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is very key. Again, let me put this into perspective: the installed capacity of sub-Saharan Africa, if you take away South Africa, is only 81 gigawatts. That’s the same capacity that Germany generates. So, it’s 81 gigawatts for more than a billion people. Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for less than one per cent of global emissions, and we want these emissions to remain low and to continue to be under a low-carbon trajectory. We would need solar panels, lithium batteries and inverters. We need a lot of technology. These shouldn’t be brought from outside to the continent; we should look towards manufacturing them in Africa to cope with the demand.

Energy will definitely play a critical part in the success of Africa’s free trade area.

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