Getting current: New tech giving more Africans access to electricity

This page in:
Control room at a power station in Ghana. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst / World Bank)

Much work remains to be done to ensure reliable electricity access for Africa's citizens. A number of complications are making it difficult to achieve this UN Sustainable Development Goal. Yet access rates are expanding in many nations, and technology and design improvements offer opportunities to make rapid leaps forward. 

Of the 1.1 billion people on Earth without access to electricity, about half live in Africa.  And while the World Bank’s Global Tracking Framework shows progress is being made to deliver electricity to those without, most of it is taking place in Asia. In Africa, it’s a different story.

The African continent is barely able to keep up with population growth, and the steady gains we’re making will not be enough to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” What makes achieving this goal even more critical is the underlying assumption that energy access is a prerequisite for achieving many of the other UN sustainable development goals.  Something must be done to accelerate progress on energy access.

In my last contribution to GE Reports I outlined technology innovations that can help remove some of the constraints toward achieving greater energy access. This time I’d like to offer some “ecosystem” aspects that must align in order to accelerate Africa’s path to universal electricity access.

We find that many African countries lack comprehensive national strategies to guide their efforts. Governments, utilities, the private sector, civil society, development organizations and financiers, all have an important role to play and must be given a place at the table. Governments have a responsibility to oversee sector development, drive the electricity access agenda, provide (or arrange) financing, and ensure effective regulations and active citizen engagement. Utilities need to have clear guidance on where to operate, clarifying the areas where off-grid companies can provide service.

Development partners need to understand where they can add the greatest value. And let me emphasize that all parties need confidence from government's steadfast commitment to drive the electricity access agenda. Ideally, a strategic framework would address these issues in the context of national goals and objectives. However, the use of such comprehensive strategic frameworks is mixed throughout the continent, complicating access expansion efforts.

Another complication toward universal energy access in Africa are the many utilities suffering financial distress. Below-cost tariffs, weak management, and political interference are some contributing factors that ultimately pose a serious challenge to extend the grid to distant, marginal areas with low-demand customers. In such situations the World Bank plays a key role helping guide governments and utilities toward a more stable and effective power sector. Bank support has contributed to significant increases in energy access rates. In Rwanda, for example, access jumped from 6 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2015. Tanzania increased access from 2.5 percent in 2010 to around 24 percent in 2014. In Kenya, electricity access increased from 23 percent in 2009 to 50 percent today. 

This progress provides hope, but there is still a long way to go. And the challenge deepens as the grid extends further.

A second challenge has been the use of urban technical standards in rural areas where demand is significantly lower. In Africa, low-cost options like Single Phase Reticulation, Single Wire-Earth Return (SWER), Shield Wire Systems (SWS), and the associated cost-effective design of transmission expansion, have been successfully introduced in Ghana, Namibia, Togo, Burkina Faso and South Africa. They could be replicated elsewhere. Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Ethiopia and the countries involved in the CLSG interconnection project (Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) are now considering adopting such low-cost grid technologies.

So what about emerging technologies? Won’t they dramatically change the outlook? Absolutely. We need to understand how renewables, energy storage, smart technology, efficient appliances, and other innovations affect the greenfield grid networks that are still being installed today across much of Africa, while keeping in mind that in much of Africa greenfield grid networks are still being installed. Every day we grapple with questions. Should our clients be designing differently from the past? How will business models change as smart devices become ubiquitous? Will Africa leapfrog to an internet of things?

Not all communities will come close to developing viable power grids in the coming years. But there is progress here as well. Providing electricity no longer requires grids everywhere. There are several viable off-grid solutions. And they are booming.

Mini-grids – often supplied by hybrid generation systems and incorporating smart technologies – are providing interesting opportunities to connect households in rural areas. Then there are individual solar home systems providing access to many. Mobile-phone payments are revolutionizing the pico solar market in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda,  and we expect to see this trend continue to spread throughout the continent.

Much of this off-grid progress has come through innovative programs like Lighting Africa.

With an ambitious target of providing clean, affordable, quality-verified off-grid lighting to more than 250 million people across sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, the World Bank Group’s Lighting Africa program addresses both supply and demand through a market-tested combination of policy development, quality assurance, market intelligence, access to finance, business support and consumer awareness. We’ve provided electricity to 14 million people in under six years, and the market is growing at 141 percent annually. If we keep our collective feet on the pedal and fully seize current and upcoming opportunities, we could reach 30 million people over the next few years.

As is the case with many ambitious global endeavors, the effort to provide universal, sustainable energy access to Africa requires public and private partners coming together to invest in generation, transmission, distribution and off-grid solutions.

Some estimates suggest Africa needs up to $50 billion each year to reach universal access by 2030. Whether that staggering figure is accurate or not, we are committed to working tirelessly with our partners to reach that goal. 

This blog post was originally published on GE Reports


Charles Feinstein

Director, Energy & Extractives

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000