A pharmacy in Monrovia uses diesel generator to keep its lights on. Electricity is the linchpin to Africa’s inclusive growth. Photo by: Travis Lupick / CC BY-NC-SA

At a glance, one could find a tale of two cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is the land of Ebola, Boko Haram and hunger in the Horn of Africa. The headlines are gripping, the images indelible, and the narratives tragic.

Then there is the New Africa — the booming “African Lion” economy that is a new center of growth in global commerce, creating more opportunities for its people than ever before.

It is well-known that Africa’s economies are growing faster than elsewhere, but it is less known that the business environments in many of Africa’s countries are improving more quickly than anywhere else and helped further private-sector led growth there. In the next five years alone, Africa’s gross domestic product is forecast to increase by more than $1 trillion. In terms of scale, this will be tantamount to adding the economic productivity of Virginia, Michigan, Nebraska, Delaware, Maine and Montana combined onto African soil.

Given Africa’s population profile, in 15 years it will have a labor force larger than China’s and could well have the fastest growing economy between now and then.

The truth is that both these portrayals are only stick drawings compared with the complex, evolving portrait of Africa’s future.

How much do we really know about Africa’s future?

For all its rollicking economic growth, there is a profound question of who is benefiting. Have the benefits reached the poorer regions? Have they reached the fragile states? Have they reached rural areas? To sustain its growth, Africa will need to reach beyond existing islands of rising prosperity.

We know that electricity is the linchpin of this inclusive growth. Today, more than 600 million Africans still lack regular access to electricity. This means that a population nearly double that of the United States cannot even turn on a light bulb at will. This affects every aspect of life: food, water and sanitation, manufacturing, education, and of course, health care.

We know that Africa’s billion-plus population is young. With a median age of 20, it is a full decade younger than the global population as a whole. And we know that younger populations are more likely to experiment with new technologies at a higher rate, adopt them, invest in them and find unexpected ways to create economic value using them.

This is precisely why America’s strategic and economic engagement with Africa comes at such a pivotal point, a reality recognized by both U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress.

The president’s Power Africa initiative — through a mix of catalytic capital, technical assistance and investment climate reforms — is attracting new, major private investors to the sector as never before. Blackstone, the Carlyle Group and Dangote Industries, among others, have announced a combined $5 billion in new financing commitments to energy infrastructure in Africa.

At a time when energy production and transmission costs in many subsectors are plummeting, Africa’s vast, diverse geography is increasingly examined for new approaches: on-grid, minigrid and off-grid projects; conventional fuels, renewables and combinations; and energy systems that are fully commercialized and those that require some subsidy element.

As we enter into the new year, we note the staggering fact that Africa will have installed more renewable energy capacity in 2014 than it has in the previous 14 years combined.

Africans recognize that they need to continue experimenting with new technologies in rural areas, even as they seek to reach the tens of millions who live within the reach of established electric grids.

In short, we are witnessing an all-of-the-above approach like nowhere else on the planet. Africa now stands a very good chance, in many countries, of installing modern, clean, efficient, next-generation variants of energy infrastructure before other nations.

The impact will be felt far and wide across the continent, and it will be decisive in determining whether Africa’s economic growth will translate into ever wider prosperity.

The spread of Ebola is tragic and scary. The world health community has come together to help halt this horrific disease, and progress is being made. But Ebola is affecting the lives of a tiny fraction of 1 percent of Africans.

So we should all be able to see beyond the clichéd images of “the dark continent.” Indeed, Africa may ultimately have cleaner, brighter lights that others come to study.

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Littlefield

    Elizabeth Littlefield was appointed by President Barack Obama as the president and CEO of Overseas Private Investment Corp. From 2000 until 2010 Littlefield was CEO of Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, a policy and research center dedicated to advancing poor people’s access to financial services. Littlefield was presented in 2012 with the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest award in the Foreign Service.