Is the U.S. Leaving Sub-Saharan Africa in the Dark?

Author: Cameron Scherer
Cameron Scherer is a Marketing & Communications Associate with the Worldwatch Institute.
  • No region suffers from energy poverty more than sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly seven out of ten people lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.
  • Viable options to power the developing world with renewable energy exist; the challenge is scaling these options up.  
  • The U.S. and other developed countries ought to build new institutions and investment vehicles that allow for the bundling of clean-energy projects to an investment-worthy scale.
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In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly seven out of ten people lack access to affordable energy. (Solar Aid)

There is ample reason to praise President Obama’s engagement with a diverse collection of world leaders; in particular, the administration’s “pivot to Asia” indicates recognition of an evolving geopolitical landscape, a recognition that will hopefully continue in his second term. But one region in particular has been noticeably absent from the administration’s agenda: sub-Saharan Africa. And this oversight could have long-term implications for the energy future of the sub-Saharan African region, and even the economic future of the United States.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is home to six of the ten fastest growing economies between 2001 and 2010; on the other, 14 of the 20 states Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index deems “critical” are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the region, one of the largest obstacles towards widespread and equitable economic development is the crippling degree of energy poverty. The most recent data suggests that a lack of access to reliable and affordable electricity leaves nearly 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans in the dark every day.

Yet, with the re-election of President Obama, the time is ripe for the administration to realize that, for all of the region’s struggles, reaching out to sub-Saharan Africa is within the United States’ self-interest. Prioritizing the–sustainable–alleviation of energy poverty is one way to strengthen efforts to improve the quality of education, reduce illness and disease, boost incomes across the region, and also to lay the groundwork for budding economic partnerships. 

One could argue that there is a level of hypocrisy in Western nations asking developing countries to hold themselves to a certain emissions standard when they themselves paid little attention to environmental externalities during their periods of rapid industrialization. But it would be a mistake to see sustainable energy expansion and economic development as mutually exclusive goals; rather, as recently highlighted by my colleague Katie Auth, renewable energy has helped fuel the recovery from two very different tragedies in Haiti and Rwanda.

Viable options to power Africa using mini-grid and off-grid solar, wind, hydro, and biomass technologies exist. In 2008, renewable energy sources accounted for over one-fifth of electricity generation in non-OECD countries (compared to 17 percent in OECD countries). Now, the challenge is scaling up these solutions to meet sub-Saharan Africa’s immense energy demand.

Although the region’s energy struggles are diverse and vary by country, the United States ought to look beyond charity, and instead develop public-private relationships to reduce the numerous barriers–such as lack of market access, high input costs, and an absence of regulatory mechanisms–to private investment in renewable energy sources.

In the build-up to the United Nations' Rio+20 conference, the Center for Global Development offered one feasible approach, calling on the United States to work with other nations in building new institutions and investment vehicles that allow for the bundling of clean-energy projects to an investment-worthy scale. In doing so, these mechanisms would increase liquidity and distribute risk across a wider swath of investors, thus making such investments a more attractive option than they are today.  (Report authors Nigel Purvis and Abigail Jones draw on the successful Brazil-U.S. Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability as one example of such an initiative.)

Multilateral efforts like these and others to bolster sub-Saharan Africa’s renewable energy infrastructure could usher in a new era of mutually beneficial trade and investment between the United States and the quickly industrializing region. Emerging economies like China and Brazil have already recognized the advantages of forming strategic alliances with Africa; at this point, the United States is playing catch up.

Successfully engaging with the region will require a paradigm shift, one that looks beyond outdated stereotypes of sub-Saharan Africa as a crisis in need of solving, and yet offers an alternative to the oversimplified and highly problematic “trade not aid” maxim. But taking steps to empower the region’s 585 million in energy poverty is not just the right moral and environmental choice, it’s the practical one.

Cameron Scherer | December 06, 2012