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Electrify Africa: Balancing Energy Access and Long-Term Sustainability


By Emma Elisse

Access to reliable, affordable electricity is imperative for economic prosperity, public health and safety, and long-term growth and sustainability. Unfortunately, energy poverty remains a tremendous issue for many developing countries.

More than two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is still “off the grid” and very poor in energy supply. The entire generation capacity for all 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa totals just 28 gigawatts, compared to 1,068 gigawatts within the United States.

There is new hope, however, for the individuals and families in this part of the world who are still in the dark. New energy development, spurred by the recently passed Electrify Africa Act, is set to significantly increase access to affordable power for millions throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The Electrify Africa Act

Nearly three years in the making, on Feb. 8, 2016, the Electrify Africa Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama. A targeted measure to address the state of energy poverty across sub-Saharan Africa, the act directs the president to establish a multiyear program to assist countries in the region in the development of reliable, sustainable energy solutions. The stated goal is an increase of 50 million connections and 20,000 megawatts of generation by the year 2020, primarily focused on rural areas that are most in need.

First introduced to the House of Representatives in 2013 by Rep. Edward R. Royce, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, the bill initially struggled to gain traction. Through the effort of Rep. Royce, Rep. Eliot Engel and others, and backed by the support of advocates such as the ONE Campaign, the Borgen Project and the Tony Elumelu Foundation, the bill eventually progressed through both houses of Congress with unanimous consent. Once fully implemented, the Electrify Africa Act will utilize partnerships with the private sector and funding from a system of loan guarantees to tackle the challenges of providing electricity to some of the most energy-deprived areas in the world.

The Power Africa initiative

The Electrify Africa Act builds on the earlier efforts of President Obama's Power Africa initiative, launched in 2013 with the goal of doubling energy access across sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to the practical hardships that energy poverty imposes on individuals, the lack of electricity has also suppressed economic growth in areas desperate for development. Even in Africa's biggest economy, Nigeria, the tenuous energy situation requires that business interests supply their own electricity and other essential services, often at a nearly prohibitive cost.

Power Africa recognizes the state of energy poverty as both a humanitarian and a foreign policy issue and seeks to address it by sparking private investment in Africa's energy infrastructure through financial support, improved regulations and technical assistance. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa possess abundant resources for energy generation, ranging from oil and gas to renewable resources such as wind, solar and geothermal. The hurdles, however, are significant. Political instability is common, and many countries lack the existing financial and logistical infrastructure to handle multimillion-dollar projects.

A brighter, greener africa

Despite the numerous challenges, there are reasons for optimism in the struggle to electrify sub-Saharan Africa. While some developing regions turn largely to coal and other fossil fuels, efforts such as Power Africa's Off-Grid Challenge and the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative have significantly boosted the development of cleaner, renewable energy sources. Even in the most remote areas of Africa, renewable energy sources are slowly bringing electricity to places a traditional grid would likely never penetrate.

In the rolling hills of Rwanda, a large solar farm built in less than a year now provides power to more than 15,000 homes. Ghana is set to power up its solar market this year, when the Nzema Solar Power Station goes online.

Blue Energy, the British group in charge of construction in Ghana, has said this about the project: “The giant 155-megawatt Nzema project will be one of the biggest in the world – only three solar PV plants in operation today are bigger. It will increase Ghana’s current generating capacity by 6 percent and will meet 20 percent of the government’s target of generating 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.”

To compare, according to Direct Energy this was first year in history that solar power topped natural gas in terms of new electrical generating capacity in the United States. But in order to continue growing, our energy infrastructure will require major changes. In sub-Saharan Africa, where existing infrastructure is extremely basic if not altogether nonexistent, new developments are free to focus on flexible, renewable energy solutions.

For too long, hundreds of millions of Africans have been deprived of basic access to affordable, reliable energy. The need continues to grow, but the Power Africa initiative and the Electrify Africa Act represent meaningful steps forward in the search for viable, long-term solutions. As the need for electricity grows, the Dark Continent now has the opportunity to serve as a guiding light for how to address energy poverty in a clean, environmentally-responsible way.

Image used with permission via Sameer Halai/SunFunder/Gigawatt Global

Emma Elisse is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She primarily covers entertainment topics and issues pertaining to the environment. 

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