How Africa-EU research cooperation is improving energy access in Africa

A solar cell system charges a battery in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. The current high level of energy poverty across  Africa undermines the economic and social development of the continent. Photo by: Ollivier Girard / Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC-ND

Energy in Africa is a scarcer commodity than in the developed world. Fifteen percent of the world’s population lives on the African continent, yet they represent only 3 percent of global electricity consumption.

On average, electricity consumption per capita in sub-Saharan Africa is less than that needed to power a 50-watt light bulb continuously. The 48 sub-Saharan countries have a combined installed generation base of only 68 gigawatts, according to the African Development Bank. This is roughly equal to the generation capacity of Spain, a country whose population is less than 5 percent of that of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2011, the international community initiated a drive toward achieving universal access to modern energy services by 2030 under the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.

Substantially increasing energy access rates has the potential to significantly lift people out of poverty, create more dignified living conditions and expand economic opportunities. The current high level of energy poverty across  Africa undermines the economic and social development of the continent. It can also fuel political instability and can even have an influence on the creation of failed states. Indeed, worldwide there appears to be a strong correlation between political stability and higher electrification rates.

The importance of modern energy technologies  

Historically, access to and utilization of modern energy technologies have played a huge role in improved quality of life. Much of human activity revolves around securing adequate and appropriate food and accessing conditions of thermal comfort.

Access to modern energy services — defined by the International Energy Agency as household access to electricity and clean cooking facilities — makes it much easier for individual households to meet these needs.

They help individuals to feed themselves and their families, to feel secure, comfortable and healthy in their homes, to communicate more effectively and access information and entertainment and to take advantage of opportunities to develop income generating activities and thus improve family livelihoods.

Improving the reliability and coverage of energy systems is absolutely crucial for a successful industrialization process that can foster the growth of new industries with meaningful value addition. Lack of access to modern energy systems has slowed down the socio-economic development of African countries, and their participation in the global economy remains marginal due to inflexible and inadequate energy systems.

What’s needed to improve energy access in Africa

How then should we go about meeting the energy needs of the continent? The two additional goals of the SE4All are to achieve the radical transformations in energy access while actively driving down global carbon emissions via the promotion of low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency. It is important that the “global north” and “global south” work together to support all African countries to achieve the ambitious goals encapsulated within the SE4All.

Encouragingly, recent international agreements — such as those announced at the Paris climate conference in December  — have committed the world’s richer countries to investing significant resources to the rapid acceleration of renewable energy across the countries of the global south. This will ultimately help mitigate climate change and promote sustainable local development.

The role of capacity building and applied research in accelerating this uptake cannot be underestimated. This includes development, optimization and dissemination of new technologies; innovative mechanisms for financing renewable energy projects; and evidence for formulating efficient policies for renewable energy.

This is why the Africa-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Program, which supports renewable energy market development in Africa, has recently launched efforts to provide a scientific platform for renewable energy research cooperation between the continent and the European Union.

The role of international scientific and development communities

Earlier this month, the inaugural Africa-EU research symposium was held in Tlemcen, Algeria. The event was attended by 135 international experts, representing universities, research institutions, public sector, industry associations, and international organizations from 30 countries in Africa and Europe. The symposium highlighted three action areas for the international scientific and development communities.

First, while the role of academia in advancing renewable energy market and policies cannot be underestimated, it is unfortunate that most research projects end with the publication of a scientific paper.

Researchers need to build closer partnerships with the private sector in order to translate science into practical and bankable solutions that will have a positive impact on markets and livelihoods while also contributing to the financial sustainability of research institutions. Private sector players, on the other hand, should also be involved in all stages of a research project, ensuring that research meets actual market needs.

Second, access to energy is not just a question of physical access to energy sources; it is also about people’s ability to pay for them. Many communities across Africa live within meters of national grid systems and yet have no access to the electricity passing so close to their homes. It is therefore important to take a people-centered approach in every research project on renewable energy in Africa. This includes the need to focus on cost-effective, household level off-grid solutions and the acknowledgment of the role of women in energy use, entrepreneurship, policy making and research.

Last, although funds are available, financing renewable energy research in Africa remains a challenge. Lack of awareness, difficult application procedures and limited capacities often hinder access to available funding sources such as Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation funding program. Joint research proposals with international partner institutions can substantially increase chances for successful applications and increase the quality of research output.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Ed Brown

    Ed Brown is senior lecturer in geography at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. He is a political geographer who has worked on a range of development issues over the past 20 years including questions of governance, transparency, corruption and equity. He is the co-chair of the U.K. Low Carbon Energy for Development Network.
  • Zivayi Chiguvare

    Zivayi Chiguvare is currently the director of the Namibia Energy Institute, a government-funded national institute at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Oldenburg, Germany where he specialized in photovoltaics.