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Let there be Light all Over Africa

                                          Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD            June 20, 2017                                         

This article is partly inspired by the May 3-5  2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa that was held in Durban, South Africa, and partly by the overall promising progress African countries are making in spite of the fact that we still witness enormous challenges for the continent, especially in overcoming poverty, illiteracy, disease, and instability in some pockets. However, this essay is mainly inspired by the ‘Electrifying all of Africa’ panel, which was part of the WEF Africa conference.

The moderator of the ‘Electrifying all of Africa’ panel was the brilliant young woman by the name Edith Kimani, the Deutsche Welle journalist; the panelists include the president of Senegal, H. E. Macky Sall; the Nigerian Tonye Cole, cofounder and executive director of Sahara Group (energy conglomerate); the South African politician and former Minster of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology, Baldwin (Sipho “Ben”) Ngubane; Jay Ireland, President and CEO of GE Africa; and Jasandra Nyker, CEO of Bio Therm Energy.

The president of Senegal underscored different sources of energy including coal, gas, wind, and solar for the electrification of Africa; and in the context of the experience of Senegal, he discussed the costs of electricity and provisions to the rural areas. “In just four years,” said Sall, “universal access of electricity by Senegalese citizens” will be a reality. But a challenge question from Tonye Cole (and corroborated by Edith Kimani) was directed to Mr. Sall: “Who is going to pay for all of this?” and the answer was “the consumers will pay but the government also will subsidize the provision of electricity especially to the poor citizens.”

Tonye Cole was emphatic on private and government cooperation with respect to electrification and he further reinforced his thesis by telling the panel and the audience that every sector can play a role – private, public, and civil society. While Cole repeatedly emphasized the necessity of private and public nexus in electrifying Africa, Sall further elaborated the significance of what he calls expanded partnership framework, dialogue, and regional integration. In supporting Cole’s idea, Sall also discussed the importance of synergy between public funding and private funding.

At the other end of the spectrum, while agreeing with the private-public cooperation ideas of Cole and Sall, Jay Ireland argued “cooperation yes, but policies should be consistent” in terms of “accessibility and availability”. More importantly, Ireland discussed the significance of electricity for high tech manufacturing coupled by policy and strategic thinking.

The question of subsidizing electricity that was raised several times in due course of the panel discussion was also discussed by Baldwin Ngubane, who also underpinned the policy of subsidy not only in general terms but also by telling the audience that at present “two million people in South Africa get electricity for free”. Going between the panelists on either side, Jasandra discussed in some detail the importance of renewable energy while at the same time she heralded the promise of roof top energy.

As has been discussed above, the different panelists furnished different perspectives on the electrification of the African continent. In a similar vein, major development agencies such as the USAID, UNDP, and the World Bank have been providing various approaches and analyses regarding electrification. For instance, as far back as 1982, the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) presented, “The Role of Rural Electrification in Development” authored by Cecelski and Glatt. The authors first defined rural electrification “as the provision of electricity to areas of low demand and highly dispersed potential consumers. Electricity can be supplied to such areas through small-scale auto generation, local independent grids, or a central regional or national grid.”1             

The authors further argued that electricity can be used on the farm in three ways: “First, it may be used on a day today basis by large commercial agricultural enterprises, in heating and lighting for hatchers and poultry farms, and milking machines and cooling daily farms. There is evidence that the benefits for those uses can be quite substantial but they require a reliable and continuous supply source. Second, electricity may be used to power seasonably needed agro-processing equipment that can remove labor bottlenecks at harvest time, such as threshers, hullers, millers, and crushers…Third, electrification can be used for irrigation.”2  

Cecelski and Glatt also discussed the significance and importance of electrification in rural areas on economic development and provide seven aspects of the latter: 1) Social and public uses, 2) employment, 3) environmental improvements, 4) foreign exchange savings, 5) impacts on migration and fertility, 6) political stability, and 7) encouraging innovation and modernity.3 And finally, they discuss three types or sources of subsidies: 1) Cross-subsidies: from one category of consumer to another, such as from domestic to industries; 2) government subsidies to the rural electrification system often take the form of interest-free loans, while operating and maintenance expenditures are financed through revenues; 3) International loans at concessional rates are also a source of subsidies for a developing country rural electrification program.4  (note: item 3 was written as ‘d’ –typo error- in the original text).

With respect to subsidizing electricity, and as pointed out earlier, among the panelists in the World Economic Forum for Africa, it was Sall and Ngubane who were emphatic on the issue of subsidy and because both of them are politicians, they could understand the lack of access by the poor to electric service and they think that governments have the responsibility to render equity via subsidy. Incidentally, there is abundant literature on the role of government in subsidizing electricity and that is what South Africa did in the post-Apartheid era when Mandela and the ANC assumed state power. Supporting this evidence, Taryn Dinkelman presents the following interesting account about South Africa:

As part of a National Electrification Programme (NEP), South Africa’s national electricity utility (Eksom) committed to addressing the service delivery backlog and electrifying 300,000 households annually from 1995 onwards. These targets were regarded as “firm and non-negotiable” and new connections were fully subsidized by the utility.5   

Before the establishment of a democratic South Africa and the ascendance to power of Mandela and the ANC, Dinkelman tells us that “over two-thirds of South African households were without electricity and more than 80% relied on wood for home production. Following the new government’s commitment to universal electrification, 2 million households, or almost one quarter of all households across the country, were newly connected to the grid by 2001. This is twice as many households as the number of US farms connected during the first five years of Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act (Beall, 1940)”6

While subsidy without doubt is important in poor developing countries, some quantitative approaches acknowledge the significance of policy and cooperation by the private and public sectors as aptly discussed by Cole and Ireland. Interestingly the relevance of their approaches was already discussed by a joint UNDP/World Bank Energy Sector Management, a study made on the Philippines in 2002.

The UNDP/World Bank Group approach of electrification comprises four purposes: First, benefit (and cost) numbers provide criteria for choosing between electrification projects or between electrification project and those of other sectors, such as roads and public health. Second, knowledge of the types and scale of benefits that access to electricity provides rural areas can help determine the most appropriate project size (e.g. a massive grid project or a smaller-scale photovoltaic program). Third, the scale of societal benefits can help determine appropriate pricing policies and whether subsidies are needed. Finally, quantitative benefit numbers are essential for drawing any objective conclusions about economic efficiency of proposed projects.7       

Beyond the quantitative approach of electrification, Jude Clemente acknowledges the statistical connection between electricity and human development. “The socioeconomic benefits of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936” says Clemente, “alone demonstrate the scope of electricity’s importance of living a longer and better life. In addition, electro-technologies enhance public health and welfare through greater efficiency, safety, and a cleaner environment.”8  

One other interesting approach that challenges the role of politicians and utilities is the bottom-up approach that was presented by The Economist in its September 2010 issue. “There is no need to wait for politicians or utilities to act. The technology in question, from solar-panels to low-emerging emitting diodes (LEDs), is rapidly falling in price. Local bottom-up systems may be more sustainable and produce fewer carbon emissions than centralized schemes…The developing world has an opportunity to leapfrog the centralized model, just at leapfrogged fixed-line telecoms and went straight to mobile phones.”9  

While The Economist’s approach is palatable to me, I found the UN concerns discussed in the same issue of the magazine in regards to the “1.5 billon people around the world that don’t have access to electricity and a billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply” as a more urgent problem that needs to be taken care of by governments. The Economist states, “The United Nations estimates that an average of $35 billion – 40 billion a year needs to be invested until 2030 so everyone in the planet can cook, heat and light their premises and have energy for productive uses such as schooling.”10 

Africa’s electrification program is indeed an aspect of leapfrogging as it has bypassed the classical industrial revolution and went straight into high-tech manufacturing sector, but in order to meaningfully translate African electrification into action and more specifically into “jumpstart African development”, the continent must at least critically consider the following four ways suggested by Gretchen Knoth in One.org:

1.      Access to power expands the number and variety of business and job opportunities   available.

2.      A lack of a consistent access to reliable power costs businesses and the economy as a whole

3.      Power allows business owners and employees to increase working hours

4.      Electricity provides business owners with access to online information and resources.11

In the final analysis, however, methods, approaches, and strategies for electrifying Africa would become meaningless unless the necessary finance and technology are met long before initiating respective electrification programs. As we shall presently examine in this paper, most African electrification initiatives are dependent on outside sources, and the finances and /or technical supports are obtained either from international development agencies or UN organizations, or money garnered via bilateral relations. Exception to the rule is the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is under construction, is financed by the Ethiopian Government and the Ethiopian people. For instance the following “six initiatives tackling African electrification,” compiled by Devex and authored by Naki B. Mendoza, clearly show that more than 95% support comes from outside the continent:

·         Power Africa: United States Government, launched by the Obama Administration in 2013; clean and efficient energy for Africa.

·         The New Deal for Energy in Africa: African Development Bank unveiled in September 2015; achieving universal energy access in Africa

·         Energy Africa Campaign: UK Department for International Development, initiated on October 2015. Boost electricity in Africa by expanding the rural household solar market

·         The sustainable Energy Fund for Africa: Government of Denmark, Italy, UK, and US; administered by the African Development Bank; launched in 2012

·         Electrification Financing Initiative: The European Commission; increase energy access and off-grid solutions to poor rural remote communities in sub-Saharan Africa

·         African Energy Leaders Group: heads of state and corporate executives of companies from across the African continent; to bring together political and economic leaders at the highest level to drive the reforms and investment needed to end energy poverty and sustainably fuel the continent’s economic future.12       

In the above repertoire of initiatives, it is only two that can be considered as African, but even one of these two, i.e. the African Energy Leaders Group, was conceived outside Africa at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland. Similarly, Ethiopia, a country that took a bold independent measure in the construction of the GERD, is getting support from outside sources. “Power Africa is supporting Ethiopia’s energy development strategy through wide-ranging technical assistance cooperation with Sweden, Norway, the World Bank including the International Finance Corporation, European Commission, the UN, DFID, and other development partners”13    

It is beyond the scope of this paper to cover energy programs in most or all Africa, but by way of sampling it will discuss Ethiopia’s initiative in electrification and its potential in selling power to the East African region and beyond. Ethiopia is blessed with abundant waters and timeless major rivers such as Abay (Blue Nile), Tekeze, Awash, Baro, Omo, Wabi, Shebelli, Ganale etc, not to mention the hundreds of smaller tributary rivers, streams, and lakes. It is no surprise, thus, that 86% of Ethiopia’s energy is derived from hydroelectric; 8% from renewable energy, and 6% from thermal.14 

Despite the huge potential, however, much of Ethiopia’s countryside is in darkness and the urban areas suffer from constant electric service interruptions. Indeed, Ethiopia started a little earlier in the 1950s in harnessing its hydroelectric potential but it was a snail progress by all standards and measures. Tis Abay I was built in 1953 at Lake Tana but it had a negligible 12 MW only. Similarly, the Koka Power Station at Awash, constructed by the Italian Government as compensation for Italy’s destructive measures in Ethiopia in 1936-41, produces only 43 MW.

Gilgel Gibe I initiated by the Military Derg government but completed by the EPRDF government in 2004 has a capacity of 184 MW. By contrast, Gilgel Gibe II and Gilgel Gibe III completed in 2009 and 2015 produce 420 MW and 1870 MW respectively. The newly proposed, but not yet initiated, Gilgel Gibe IV and Gilgel Gibe V, when completed will each produce 1472 MW and 660 MW; all Gilgel Gibe reservoirs or run of river hydropower constructions are on the Omo River Valley; and all of the above mentioned hydroelectric power systems, in addition to the Beles, Melka Wakena, Fincha, and Tekeze combined have only a 3700 MW capacity, and when the GERD is completed it will surpass all other Ethiopian hydro powers by 2300 MW.

Ethiopia at present is at an historic threshold of transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one and with an objective to achieve a middle income status at least by 2025. Electricity, thus, is a sine qua non to the realization of the growth and transformation plan (GTP) of Ethiopia; and to be sure, electricity is a necessity and not a luxury at this crucial moment when the country is poised to large-scale industrial projects like the Hawassa Industrial Park that has just ushered its initial ‘made in Ethiopia’ finished products by the first thirty five industries. And according to USAID, “the overall potential of 35,000 MW, which would help sustain Ethiopia’s continued economic growth and enable it to become a regional renewable energy hub in East Africa”15 could very effectively serve Ethiopia’s future industrial might.           

Ethiopia, thus, has a great potential in becoming the leader in electric power in Africa, and in anticipation of this reality “Power Africa is supporting the East African Power Pool, which is based in Ethiopia. The Power Pool is mandated to facilitate cross border trading of renewable energy at the lowest possible cost and to efficiently manage a regionally integrated system.”16

The Ethiopians themselves have now a sense of grandeur and obsession with the power dams and the electrification of their country, but most importantly they seem to confidently assert the vanguard role of Ethiopia in the electrification of the African continent. The uniqueness of Ethiopia in this regard is eloquently expressed by Solomon Dibaba: “The Great Rift Valley that literally bisects the nation into two holds huge amount of geothermal energy resources unparalleled in Africa. The ecological diversity of the nation makes it one of the few countries endowed with unfathomable wind farm and huge solar energy resources that remain untapped. If Mother Nature has to be blamed for favoritism, it was for Ethiopia.”17

In his opinion piece, Solomon Dibaba discusses the renewable energy potential of Ethiopia and its capacity to lead the African continent: “The Adama wind farm with its 153 MW capacity is the largest wind farm in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the Ashegoda wind farm is currently producing 120 MW of electricity. Another wind farm, even larger in size and intended to produce 300 MW, is due to be constructed at Ayesha in the remote eastern desert near the border with Djibouti, an area with strong winds.” And in relation to Ethiopia’s prominent leading role, Solomon says, “With the completion of the Cairo-Cape Town trans regional highway and the railway network in the sub-region, Ethiopia will have an opportunity to become the hub of Africa’s industrial development.”18 

Ultimately the ‘Let there be light all over Africa’ motto could be translated into concrete and concerted action of electrifying the continent only when Africa meaningfully exploits all sources of energy. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Anan is one of the advocates at the forefront for alternative energy sources. “New technologies offer promising ways to close Africa’s energy gap more quickly,” says Anan, “than would be possible by relying on grid connection alone. Off-grid solar power and mini-grids as standalone sources of energy generating power where it’s needed, have vast potential to advance access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa…Off-grid solar products can act as rungs on an “energy ladder” providing a range of energy services to households and enterprises with different energy needs and incomes.”19  

It is with Africa’s untapped huge energy potential, the electrification programs already initiated, and the hope and aspirations of the African people to once and for all curb poverty and backwardness and to pave a way for the African Lions in development and transformation that all of Africa will be electrified. Let there be light all over Africa!


1.      Elizabeth Cecelski with Sandra Glatt, The Role of Electrification in Development –USAID, April 1982 Pdf.USAID.gov/pdf_docs/PNAAQ579.pdf

2.      Elizabeth Cecelski with Sandra Glatt, Ibid, p. 25

3.      Ibid, p. 33

4.      Ibid,

5.      Taryn Dinkelman, The Effects of Rural Electrification on Employment: New Evidence from South Africa, Princeton University, August 2010,

6.      Taryn Dinkelman, Ibid

7.      Joint UNDP/World Bank Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP), Rural Electrification and Development in the Philippines: Measuring the Social and Economic Benefits, May 2002

8.      Jude Clemente, The Statistical Connection between Electricity and Human Development, Power, Official Publication of Electric Power, 9/1/2010

9.      The Economist, Energy in the Developing World: Power to the People, September 2nd 2010

10.   The Economist, Ibid

11.   Gretchen Knoth, 4 Ways electricity can jumpstart African economic development, One.org, July 16, 2013 

12.   Naki B. Mendoza, 6 Initiatives Tackling African Electrification, Deveximpact: Business Transforming Development, February 2, 2016

13.   USAID, Ethiopia Energy Sector Overview, April 5, 2017

14.   USAID, Ibid

15.   USAID, Ibid

16.   USAID, Ibid

17.   Solomon Dibaba, Ethiopia, a Power House of Energy at the Roof of Africa, The Ethiopian Herald (also posted on allafrica.com), 20 October, 2015

18.   Solomon Dibaba, Ibid

19.   Kofi Anan, Power to the People: Electrify Africa Now, CNN Opinion, March 14, 2017

All Rights Reserved Copyright © IDEA 2017. For educational and constructive feedback you may contact Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia via dr.garaia@africanidea.org