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COVID-19: Exposing the perils of energy poverty and hunger in Africa

17th June 2020

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COVID-19: Exposing the perils of energy poverty and hunger in Africa

Written by Dr Elham Ibrahim, World Energy Council Vice Chair for Africa

Africa may have been spared the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic so far, but the numbers should not deflect attention from the perils of global health inequalities, energy poverty and hunger that pose a bigger threat to human life. It is estimated that hunger accounts for almost half of all child deaths in Africa due to the lack of access to quality health care. The economic toll of Covid-19 on Africa has exposed the chronic weaknesses in the continent’s energy and health systems.

Every vaccine needs a fridge and every fridge needs electricity. Today, more than 600 million Africans lack even the most basic access to electricity. Millions more lack clean cooking facilities or access to proper sanitation, all of which lead to high mortality especially among women and children. Another billion Africans in the next 30 years will need clean, affordable and reliable energy for livelihoods and lifestyles. That’s a large chunk of humanity for which this crisis has exposed the quality energy access challenge.

As of 15 June 2020, there have been 6,524 deaths in Africa out of 175,503 confirmed cases. In sub-Saharan Africa, limited mobility by poorer sections of the population may have prevented a more catastrophic spread of the virus, along with the lockdowns imposed by more than 40 African governments at the start of the pandemic. This does not mean that the worst is over, as the situation is evolving rapidly and as countries began relaxing lockdowns in recent weeks.

Restrictions on cross-border freight transportation have led to economic contraction, supply chain disruptions and a drop in energy demand. Even assuming the pandemic had been contained in the first half of the year, the IMF estimates that the African economy will sink into recession in 2020, contracting by 1.6 percent as Covid-19 reverses economic progress made in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade.

The collapse in the price of oil, which accounts for 40 percent of Africa’s exports and 7.4 percent of GDP, has hit the economies of the oil exporting African countries. The “perfect storm” of sharply lower oil prices and demand destruction is proving devastating for the economies of Nigeria and Angola, which, along with South Africa, Egypt and Algeria are the largest economies in Africa.

The World Energy Council is fully engaged in assessing the impact of COVID-19 on energy organisations and systems around the world. Two initial sets of survey responses from members in 61 countries across six world regions has enabled us to extract valuable insights and start to see through the fog of uncertainty and prepare for the unpredictable post-crisis world.

The results expose the fragility of African recovery to any pre-Covid ‘normal’, smart, green, inclusive or otherwise energy transition pathway. Clearly, there is no single crisis exit strategy that can apply to all countries and regions, but for Africa, there is a glimmer of hope that it can turn a challenge into an opportunity, particularly on quality energy access.

For Africa, quality energy access remains a daunting challenge and a tighter fiscal environment will exacerbate the problem for the economies of countries where there is little diversification. One light bulb does not constitute adequate access to energy when there are at least billion of people who need clean, affordable, reliable and equitable access to energy supply for clean water, public health and jobs.

The current crisis may result in a re-allocation of government spending toward health but rescuing an economy need not to derail climate neutral ambitions or action in Africa. Initial results of our rolling survey show that 24% of respondents expect a delay in climate change programmes while 27% are redesigning climate related plans in response to Covid-19.

Crisis demands taking the opportunity now to shape a better energy future for Africans. This in turn directs attention to the diversity of options emerging for progressing global net zero carbon energy transition pathways that will benefit the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Net zero carbon pathways are not all or only about accelerating the clean power revolution and uptake of decentralised and renewable electrification across Africa. For its industrial development, for jobs and lifestyles, Africans will also benefit from the development of the global clean hydrogen vector and the roll-out of its huge gas reserves.

Engaging in both clean power and clean liquids pathways and realising co-benefits of clean, affordable and reliable energy options for meeting new demand for energy for lives, livelihoods and lifestyles in Africa is shaping a new era of energy for humanity and the need to humanise the energy transition process.  Meeting these challenges is not the same as closing the basic access gap and involves addressing a diversity of related challenges – which include a huge investment gap, skills gaps, digital divides, lack of sufficient power generation capacity and lack of interconnectivity across the African continent.

Africa has been a focal community of the World Energy Council since it was established nearly a century ago. The annual Africa Energy Indaba bringing together all stakeholders in Africa’s energy sector has been one of the most important events in the World Energy calendar. This year’s Africa Energy Indaba, which was held in March in Cape Town, South Africa, brought together 1,238 energy leaders including ministers, CEOs and senior representatives from across the continent for discussions on “Catalysing investment and business opportunities in the African energy sector.” Preparations are under way for the next Africa Energy Indaba event due to be held in Cape Town from 2-3 March 2021.

The disruption of energy systems as a consequence of COVID-19 provides an opportunity to diversify the energy mix in Africa and decouple economic growth and CO2 emissions by hastening the deployment of hybrid clean power, clean fuels and flexible storage pathways. The falling cost of micro and utility scale wind and solar energy provides an affordable solution to energy poverty while off grid systems can provide access to areas not covered by national grids.

Of course, renewables alone cannot be the solution to all of Africa’s human development and energy access problems. Africa is blessed with  abundant  energy resources (oil and gas, uranium, biomass) and will need to responsibly develop net zero carbon energy services and use all of its natural resources to achieve sustainable development, industrialisation and prosperity for all, as laid out in Africa’s Agenda 2063 strategic objectives set by the African Union. Beyond those resources, Africa has a large concentration of the rare minerals like cobalt that are essential components of transitional energy systems

The current Covid crisis may cause a lag in the flow of international and domestic investment in new African energy projects due to a number of factors including supply chain disruptions and the possible redirection of investments to other priority sectors like health, education, agriculture, and reallocation within the energy sector to accelerating digitisation and enabling end-to-end resilience – of people and communities, not just the flow of electrons and molecules.

But this move is likely to be a temporary halt rather than a permanent brake on the energy and digital transitions that are combining to accelerate progress toward climate neutral and circular carbon economies in Africa, which enable rural community development, as well as meeting urbanisation and industrialisation challenges.

Africa’s decision makers, energy business leaders, energy entrepreneurs and investors - cannot afford to wait for the dust to settle on the Covid crisis to take action. In many parts of Africa, energy planners are not burdened by legacy energy infrastructure that the more advanced economies have to adapt or repurpose in order to decarbonise. The trend toward urbanisation in Africa will lead to higher demand for households’ appliances and cooling systems in a continent that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The World Energy network spans the globe and it is the interactions between regions that allow for an exchange of best practices and the development of tools and scenarios to promote the sustainable supply and use of energy for the benefit of people and planet.

The unique community of practices highlights the value of sharing strategic thinking, practical wisdom and innovative ideas.

Among our most successful initiatives is the Start-up Energy Transition Programme, which each year selects the most promising innovative energy technology. Germany’s Coolar start-up, which won the award for 2018, is developing a cooling system in the form of refrigerators powered by solar power, a low-cost solution that can be rolled out in Africa. Moreover, Colombia’s “I share my energy” campaign, a dedicated online platform whereby the electricity bills of poorer individuals can be paid by wealthier customers, is another energy access solution that can be replicated in Africa. In 2019 two winners in the Start-up Energy Transition Programme were from Africa. They presented two innovative projects in renewable energy systems for better use of local materials.

The pandemic has brought to light the need for global cooperation and collaboration to avoid and cope with crises. This has confirmed the World Energy Council’s new direction towards humanising the energy transition. It’s too early to tell how society will emerge from this unprecedented disruption to our daily lives, but thanks to digital technology and virtual platforms many of us have been able to interact, share experiences and work remotely.

Despite the devastating effects of the pandemic, Africa can build back better. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed said it well “We must have faith that the pandemic is only a partial eclipse, and that Africa’s sun will shine again—because of the continent’s youth, innovation and genuine partnerships to recover better”.

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