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Africans for Africa: Local sustainable energy solutions

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Solar powered mobile charging

About 600 million people (and more than 10 million micro-enterprises) across Africa have no access to electricity. And many more people still depend on wood fuels to cook.

Despite this long-standing difficult energy context, country leaders have traditionally been more concerned with industry’s needs for electricity than with the rural poor. It is not uncommon to have less than 10 percent of people in rural areas with access to electricity.

People have been waiting for decades for electricity, and many will wait for decades longer. .. unless the simplistic and old fashioned view of electricity access (a grid extension based on large hydro and fossil fuel based thermal plants) is finally abandoned.

This model has only resulted in the creation of sickly state-owned electric utilities and staggering electricity losses due to theft and inefficiencies in the grid. Their dependence on diesel and old fashioned grids has resulted in permanent utility bankruptcies across the continent.

There are so many ways to create sustainable energy nowadays that a new approach is possible. What about combining grid extension with renewable energy, using interesting economic models that enable people to pay for electricity instead of stealing from an inequitable system?

Lighting up locally

  • Small solar PV systems providing electricity for light, mobile phones and radios are spreading quickly. Nearly 8 million African citizens have acquired them by now. While these systems do not provide the full comfort of modern electricity services, they are an elegant way to get rid of kerosene and candles and stay in touch with relatives at an economic advantage.
  • Small grids based on renewables or hybrid diesel-renewable systems are also gaining ground. New economic models enable such grids to provide electricity to larger, industrial customers, like mobile phone antennas or hospitals, as well as poor people with low electricity demand.
  • Efficient light bulbs are finding their way to millions of people, including a million Madagascans, through a WWF-led project. While the upfront cost of the bulbs is higher than incandescent ones, electricity savings enable the consumer to recuperate the investment very quickly.
  • Social enterprises are manufacturing all sorts of efficient and renewable energy based appliances, like efficient cook stoves or biogas plants. In Goma, DRC, the use of such efficient stoves went up from 10% to 60% in only 3 years.

The sustainable energy enterprises’ need for seed funding can increasingly be met by a global network of potential crowdfunders who want to help creating a better world. And the entrepreneurs’ training is becoming a south south operation.

One of the best examples comes from the Barefoot College in India, training women across the world and especially in Africa to become solar engineers. That is especially useful in areas so remote that even innovative entrepreneurs face difficulties making it work financially. This means that local communities have to depend on themselves.

It does not need to be only small scale. Large wind parks are becoming a familiar sight on the horizon for Ethiopians, Kenyans and others. Large solar parks are planned as well. The cost of electricity production of these technologies has become very attractive, while at the same time ensuring a reduced dependence on imported fuels. Solar PV is cheaper than diesel in most circumstances. Large wind parks in some places have become cheaper than gas.

Good energy

The list is actually much longer. But interestingly, the best initiatives are scattered over the continent. What would happen if a country could combine all these initiatives? This is what we wanted to understand when we created the imaginary country Boa Nguvu (good energy) somewhere in Central Africa.

Boa Nguvu combines real initiatives from various African countries on its own territory to move towards a sustainable energy future. Not all existing initiatives are covered of course. This report is meant to inspire all stakeholders to learn from the great examples listed above. And to replicate them everywhere!

Jean-Philippe Denruyster (jpdenruyter@wwf.panda.org) is the manager responsible for renewable energy policy at WWF’s Global Climate & Energy Initiative. He is based in Brussels.

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