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Powering Sub-Saharan Africa – A fresh take on an old problem

Masami Kojima's picture
Man looking at electricity meters in Bamako, Mali 
Pic: Aarthi Sivaraman/World Bank

“If there is one thing that could really help my business, it would be reliable power supply,” said David, a small business owner in Lagos, on my recent trip to Nigeria.
“I agree. If only …,” echoed another.

And not without reason.

Africa lags every other region in the world when it comes to electricity access for its people. Only one in three Sub-Saharan Africans has access to electricity. That’s less than half of the rate of access in South Asia, the region with the second-lowest access rate. If we were to measure access to “reliable” electricity, then those numbers would be even more dismal.

Worryingly, the rate of access has been increasing at a mere 5 percentage points every decade, against population growth of 29 percent. If something is not done to dramatically change this trend, Africa will not see universal access to electricity in the 21st century. This is a seriously worrying prospect as the world races toward a 2030 deadline of universal access to electricity.

The target of achieving universal access by 2030 by the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the billions of dollars committed by the U.S. government’s Power Africa plan underline the urgency of the situation. As a reminder, more than 1 billion people around the world still live without access to electricity and 600 million of those live in Africa.

So, are Africa’s utilities financially equipped to respond to this call?

Powerless in Kanpur

Sheoli Pargal's picture
Katiyabaaz - master of illegal connections
Documentary on the power crisis in Kanpur, a North Indian city.

Kaatiyabaaz” is a compelling documentary film that highlights the power crisis in Kanpur, a city of three million people in north India. 

It has all the elements of a steamy Hindi movie: 45-degree Celsius heat, power outages that last 12-15 hours, and illegal connections that come up every night and disappear in the morning. The everyday characters are gripping too. There’s a Robin-Hood-like street electrician who “provides power” by hooking to transmission lines. An upright bureaucrat (a woman, imagine that!) trying to get people to pay their bills and prevent theft. A city full of tired, angry citizens fed up with poor service provided.  The film underlines how people will do whatever it takes to get some juice in their wires so that they can get lights, fans, water…the basic necessities of 20th century life.

Powering the Solomon Islands with reliable, affordable energy a challenge

Hamish Wyatt's picture
Residents of Honiara eating dinner during a blackout. Energy in the Solomon Islands can be unreliable and expensive.

A few nights ago, when I returned to my house on the ridges above Solomon Islands capital Honiara, my alarm clock was flashing 2 p.m. It was obviously wrong, and I have stopped relying on it for the time. Instead it is simply a very noisy gauge of how long it has been since the last power outage.

Unreliable energy supply is perhaps one of the harder things to get used to when living in Honiara. Long overdue maintenance being carried out on the city’s diesel chugging generators causes power outages for 72 hours per month on average. What is worse is that this actually seems efficient compared to rural areas which, due to a lack of spare parts and diesel, can lose power for up to a week.

Lessons from China for Africa - my take

David Dollar's picture

Thirty African officials visited China for 12 days in May on a pilot South-South knowledge exchange organized by the Chinese government with assistance from the World Bank.  My colleague, Phil Karp, has written about the program, including the study tour around China that he accompanied.  I met the officials in Beiji