"Ask ABI" QUESTION 3: How Far Along Is Africa In Its “Off-Grid” Potential?


Series 1: Africa And “Off-Grid” Power

AUTHORS (in alphabetical order):  Beatrice Jean Somanje, Daniel Mtombosola, Moses Kuthyola and Tawonga Mkandawire

“Off grid power” and “off grid energy” has been closely associated with the developing markets, where mass public infrastructure is lacking. However, the term “off grid” itself does not necessarily have one single definition. Its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used. For the purpose of this series of articles, we will define off-grid as technology that is ability to function without large-scale physical or public infrastructure. For example:

  • Solar panels to generate electricity off grid instead of being connected to public power.
  • Drilling a borehole to supply water rather than depending on public water supply.
  • Mobile phones instead of landline phones. 
  • Using mobile money for financial transactions instead of using the banking systems.
  • Using electronic geographic signatures (e.g. Google Drop Pins) to indicate addresses in places where official addresses do not exist (which is the case in many East African countries).

In this first piece of our series of “off grid” studies, we will look at power and electricity, which is what most people refer to when using the term “off grid”.

Agencies across the world, including the World Bank, are encouraging countries to go “off grid” and “environmentally friendly”. In 2017, the State of Electricity Access Report (SEAR) released a study of the critical role of energy toward the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It stated that the world is not moving fast enough to achieve its universal electricity access goal by 2030. While it is said that nearly 1 billion people in sub-Saharan African countries alone would have gained access to electricity by 2040, an estimate of 530 million still would not have access to electricity by then.

According to the World Bank, energy is inextricably linked to every other critical sustainable development challenge. This includes health, education, food, security, employment, gender equality and climate change, just to mention a few. This is why meeting the universal electricity access is essential to reach other 2030 SDGs. It is something that will not be achieved if Africa simply depended upon “on grid” electricity supply. Africa needs to step out and utilize other options, off the grid, that will meet the same need in a better and more sustainable way.

Despite the incredible advancement of technology today, one in six people on the planet still live without access to clean, safe and reliable energy (Jack Bird, NextBillion.net). In other words, the pace at which physical, mass infrastructure is developing is unable to keep up with the speed of global population growth (especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa) and the ever-increasing demand for modern technology and amenities. The International Energy Authority estimates that US$640 billion of investment over the next 20 years is what is needed to bring sustainable off-grid energy to all who are currently off the grid. This represents a 300 to 500 percent increase on the current investment (Susie Wheeldon, NextBillion.net).

Throughout the continent of Africa, “on grid” electricity tends to be inconsistent and unreliable. It also tends to reach only a small segment of the population. The issue of electricity in many countries sounds like a broken record - everybody complains about it, the news incessantly talks about it, but it simply doesn't seem to get any better -  and has a direct impact on everyday life. Statistics have shown that 1.4 billion of the world’s population have no access to electricity. Another 1 billion lack reliable access. 80% of this number is in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, especially among people living in rural regions (IEA, 2002, IEA, 2011).  Power shortage is continuing to affect economic growth, education, healthcare, reduced leisure time, and has heightened criminality (Amadi, Nigeria, 2015). 

Power is just one of many areas of life in Africa, as we know it, that can go "off grid", as this series of articles will go on to explore. There are many more ways in which Africa can be a leading example of “off grid” development. Its population is booming, largely deficient of electricity and communications, overwhelmingly unbanked, and spread out across a massive continent with a surface area the size of China, the United States, India, Japan, and most of Europe combined. Africa needs to pioneer “off grid” solutions. And Africa will pioneer “off grid” solutions. The question is how and how quickly.