A new shift in pushing renewable energy agenda in Africa

Only 1% of homesteads in Sub-Sahara region were using solar for lighting in 2009. Those statistics now stand at 5%, thanks to improved solar power technologies that made it cheaper. But there is another slowly developing factor that might catapult access to power in this region, namely the increased launching of international/cross-boarder campaigns  supported by western governments and powerful regional bodies, that seek to promote the use of solar power as a more versatile alternative source of energy.

The number of those initiatives is building, especially since the establishment of Power Africa, a USAID program which was launched two years ago by the United States' President Barrack Obama to help 20 million more homes and businesses in sub-Sahara region get access to power. 

Another recent entry is Energy Africa, launched in London a few weeks ago. It was spearheaded by the United Kingdom through the Department for International Development, international business and political leaders including Bob Geldof, Kofi Annan and Richard Branson.

"Energy Africa is a new way of delivering aid. It is about using our influence, and getting the commercial markets to work for some of the poorest people in the world," said Shapps during the launch.

Energy Africa is followwing the example of Power Africa, which within two years has already funded a number of power projects, many of which are already underway. The initiative has seen the private sector, through many energy companies such as General Electric, financial and other cooperation, commit funds to these projects and has already facilitated the financial close of private sector transactions that will help generate about 2800 MW of new generation capacity in the region.

Through such campaigns, Africa is a witnessing a new breed of renewable energy entrepreneurs who have invested largely in fields such as pay-as-you-go solar kits and other offgrid solutions. In addition, there has been a huge shift in policies in relation to renewable energy given that many countries have already established mechanisms to incorporate wind and solar power into theur grids. However,  solar is still yet to penetrate as a bankable option for many and hence more initiatives are needed. It is obvious that with continued support for alternative renewable energy by public-private entities (one of the best project funding alternatives ever), the governments will feel some relieve from the pressure to power their communities from the view of lacking resources.

Solar power is seen as one way Africa can reduce its power/energy gaps, seing that around 690 million people still lack the connection, and those figures are worse in East Africa where only 10.8% of Rwandans, 14.8% of Tanzanians and 23% of Kenyans have access to electricity supply with the figures remaining steady for long according to World Bank. In fact, only seven countries in this region -- Gabon, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Namibia, Cameroon and Code d' Ivoire have over 50% access.

Energy Africa, which seems to be the United Kingdom's way of viewing Africa's power challenges, has pledged to remove barriers, unlock financial sources and promote policies that expands household-level solar electricity. There is no doubt that policy barriers play a huge role in limiting solar power penetration, for instance those relating to commercial generation of solar energy by domestic private entities. Another limitation is access to funding by domestic entrepreneurs, as Knight Energy told Cleanleap last week.

The international development minister Grant Shapps said they will work with NGO groups, donors, lenders and investors to that respect, although the country is not committing any funds at the moment. Virgin is one of the business-oriented firms that is joining arms in the venture. Solar power will also help Africa meet its commitment to environment conservation according to Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group.

"Solar is a tremendous opportunity for African countries to leapfrog traditional carbon intense energy systems to a cost effective, clean energy future, " said Richard Branson.

He said economic poverty was tied to energy poverty, adding that lack of power was holding Africa back in its quest to economic growth. Thus the initiative will be looking to boost solar alternatives to support economic activities. Another great concern will be access to power in rural homesteads, and so Energy Initiatives will target household solar alternatives.

"A woman in a rural village in northern Nigeria spends 60 to 80 times more per unit of energy than a resident of London or New York," said Kofi Annan, Chairman of the Africa Progress Panel speaking at the event. "This is not just an injustice. It is a market failure of epic proportion."

Such initiatives could not only lead to more health benefits given the negative impacts of carbon alternatives such as kerosene lighting, but also improve the living standards for many if the large amount of money spent on lighting in rural areas is either channelled into savings or spent in other better ways. It will also leverage on availability of mobile phone gadgets according to pop star and founder of Live Aid and member of Africa Progress Panel Bob Geldof, who said that these gadgets makes solar initiative a possibility since it allowed for easier and flexible payment for solar technologies.

"We needed technologies to exist before you could electrify a continent and with the advent of this thing we all have in our pocket it makes this doable," he said at the event.

The Energy Africa initiative is already looking to having 14 countries enter into agreements that facilitates for policy actions to improve solar market conditions and provide coordinated support that makes it possible to deliver on the initiative's policies. Already, Nigeria, which is Africa's economic powerhouse, has joined by signing an agreement with Britain. So has Sierra Leone, with Malawi, Senegal and Tanzania expected to join soonest.

The initiative also follows yet another one launched on September this year - New Deal for Energy Access in Africa by the Africa Development Bank, recognizing energy access as high priority. It will not be the first time AfDB has entered into aggressive funding for alternative energy - but a more specific approach to the problem. Not only is it leveraging its funding prowess (through launch of Bottom-of the Pyramid Energy Financing Facility for Africa) for diverge energy sources, but will look for more partnerships from public and private entities, as well as supporting reforms necessary for "universal access to energy by 2025" according to AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina speaking at the launch event in Abidjan.

These initiatives will also join the UN Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) which seeks clean energy potential for employment and economic growth. The initiative has attracted some investment commitments in projects. Energy Africa, New Deal for Energy Access in Africa and other renewable energy campaigns have the ability to create additional impacts in terms of boosting power access in Africa, given the successes reported by Power Africa.