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Q&A: The future of Africa’s power sector

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Q&A: The future of Africa’s power sector

Kari Mugo

02 Apr 2020

5min min read
  • Energy policy--Developing countries
  • Renewable energy sources--Technological innovations

Rose M. Mutiso, an energy sector expert, discusses prospects for the future of Africa’s power sector as the continent seeks to bridge both its energy access and development gaps. Mutiso is the research director at Energy for Growth Hub, where she works alongside global experts, finding solutions for energy deficits in developing countries. She is also the co-founder and CEO of the Mawazo Institute, which supports the next generation of female scholars and thought leaders in East Africa.

KM: How did you become involved or interested in the technology and policy dimensions of the power sector?

RM: I studied Applied Physics and during my PhD, I was researching materials that could be used for next generation solar cells, batteries and other energy applications. I came into energy from this scientific perspective, but quickly realised how influential energy is to our lives, underpinning our economic growth and quality of life. As a scientist, I became intrigued with how I could influence the energy space and gravitated towards the power sector, which is the electricity part of energy.

Electricity is basically the flow of electrons, yet this simple thing becomes vastly complicated because of the diverse political, economic, environmental, and social factors that come into play when it comes to making, moving, and using electrons.

KM: In your TED Talk you discuss energy poverty on the continent. To begin with, what do we mean when we say ‘energy poverty?’

RM: A big part of what people are referring to when they say energy poverty, is people without access to clean, affordable, and sustainable cooking fuels who rely on things like charcoal and kerosene to cook. This kind of energy poverty is unique in that it impacts poor women primarily and still receives low priority on the global stage.

My work on energy poverty, however, relates to lack of access to electricity, an old idea dating back to the early days of electrification. One of the more famous examples is the United States' push in the 1930s to electrify rural households, going from about 10% electrification rate to universal electrification in a few decades. This idea has prevailed for most of the 20th century, with countries prioritising electrification as an anti-poverty tool. Africa has also been on the electrification bandwagon since its post-independence days when many African governments made electrification a priority, to improve citizens’ lives and power post-independence industrialisation. These efforts, however, had mixed results and often resulted in white elephant projects marred by corruption and mismanagement.

KM: There is increased momentum around solving energy poverty today. What are some of the reasons behind this?

RM: Just under one billion people still don’t have access to electricity today. Most of these people live desperately poor lives in sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia. This is a big social imperative for people like me. At the same time, during the push for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we saw energy access formally integrated into this development agenda for the first time, drawing attention to the ‘left behind’ who still don’t have access to electricity or clean cooking, reigniting momentum around closing the gap.

KM: As governments consider their energy investments, where do you think the most economic gains are to be made -  by investing in industry first, or the electrification of households?

RM: That’s a tricky question and it’s very nuanced. We know from experiences from other parts of the world that there is a strong correlation between electrifying productive centers such as industries, and that these gains do flow back to everyday people in the form of jobs and increased income. However, we still see a lot of people in sub-Saharan Africa completely left behind, living both in the dark and in abject poverty.

"Africa has the highest power prices and power remains terribly inefficient and unreliable. We cannot attract companies and businesses if the cost of doing business is too high."

There is a lot more analysis needed to put a finer point to this in terms of strategies and sequencing, but this is where I land: One, we need to ensure that people have a basic level of energy access. Candles and kerosene lamps should be a thing of the past. At the same time, for people to have meaningful income generation, we must drive economic development, which means creating economic opportunities alongside getting rid of absolute energy poverty. The continent needs job growth and our power investments should more strongly reflect that priority. The SDGs do a good job of focusing our attention on the household energy poverty problem, but not this bigger issue of energy poverty in our industrial and commercial sectors.

KM: From your experiences addressing power sector issues in other parts of the world, what are some key insights that African policymakers and leaders can learn from?

RM: The list of lessons is long and each context provides different lessons, but I’ll highlight a few. South Africa, for instance, stands out as a cautionary tale of what can happen to utilities and other power sector entities in Africa that suffer from corruption and state capture. In Kenya, while we have made great strides in liberalising our power sector and making it more competitive, power utilities like the Kenya Power and Lighting Company and other power sector players increasingly face government interference or have patronage systems built-in that impact their independence. There are also massive corruption issues across the entire value chain. What we see from more mature power sectors is transparency, competition, strong oversight from an independent regulator, and continued government role in ensuring equity.

Another big lesson, related to our development ambitions, is that our power needs to be reliable and affordable. Africa has the highest power prices and power remains terribly inefficient and unreliable. We cannot attract companies and businesses if the cost of doing business is too high. Even our own local small businesses are operating inefficiently because of this.

Lastly, while African leaders are obsessed with big-ticket electricity generation projects, like wind farms and dams or increasing megawattage, more focus needs to be paid to power transmission and distribution; this is how you move electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s used. African countries need more robust grids and infrastructure that increases reliability and meets customer needs.

KM: Are there places on the continent where you see success stories?

RM: The success of geothermal power in Kenya stands out. Kenya is now Africa’s leading geothermal producer and ranks 8th globally. Clean energy is also a big boon for Africa which has a lot of solar and wind potential. Projects like Kenya’s Lake Turkana Wind Farm, Africa’s largest wind farm, are a step in the right direction, but we still need to find ways to integrate this variable, renewable energy into the grid and most ideally, we need storage which is expensive. This is a challenge not just for Africa, but globally. Our grids require significant technology upgrades to make them smarter.

KM: What about the trade-offs between climate change and Africa’s energy ambitions?

RM: I’m very serious about climate change but I think the onus, in terms of pinching energy consumption budgets for climate change, is on the West. By next year, online gaming in the US state of California is expected to use more energy than entire African countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya. California’s pools and hot tubs also account for more electricity consumption than a country like Senegal. If we’re trying to solve the problem of climate change, Africa is not the place where it will be solved. You can’t scapegoat Africa, because it is not the problem.

(Main image: Rose M. Mutiso - provided)

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.