Africa has the potential to make renewable energy the engine of its growth

By Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD)

For the African continent, the stakes are twofold. While Africa is the region of the globe that contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions, it is the first to be impacted by climate change. Africa has low adaptive capacity and is highly vulnerable to climate variability and natural disasters such as droughts, floods and rising sea-levels, especially affecting low-lying coastal areas. Africa’s food and agriculture sectors are among the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, which are also exacerbating the lack of access to safe water, water stress and health risks, especially malaria, in the region.

In 1992, representatives of 172 countries met in Rio to define the basis for sustainable development and adopt a set of 27 principles on future development directions. Almost thirty years later, the state of the planet is still a cause for great concern and despite some progress, the results are not enough. The majority of climate models and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have concluded that any temperature rise above 2 to 3 degrees celsius will have negative effects on productivity in most parts of the world.

Without strong political will on the part of world leaders, the structural transformation needed to achieve the goal of a green economy is impossible. While this transformation represents heavy spending and a profound change in growth models for countries that have completed their industrialisation, for Africa the challenges are different.

Here are some examples, spanning the areas of infrastructure, cities, energy supply and agriculture.

The infrastructure deficit that many of our economies suffer from is proving to be an incentive for directly making greener and more sustainable investments. Green industrialisation is a major opportunity for African countries to ‘leapfrog’ the fossil-fuel-based growth strategies of developed countries, especially at a time when African cities are facing an exponential increase in urban populations, up to 4% per year according to the UN.

In Africa, there is no doubt that much remains to be done to provide city dwellers with efficient services, but by directly procuring low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure from the market, African cities can make urbanisation a catalyst for the structural transformation of the continent. For too long, poorly planned African urbanisation has led to the uncontrolled emergence of shantytowns where nearly 60% of urban Africans live in extreme poverty. Faced with this situation today, everyone agrees on the urgent need to transition to sustainable cities. For industrialised countries, the challenges facing them – conversion to clean energy, decongestion of roads, etc. – are colossal.  

The challenge of energy access has been recognised by the United Nations and the African Union through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 7 of the SDGs aims at achieving universal access to energy by 2030, while Agenda 2063 goals 1, 7 and 10 include targets for an increase by 50% in electricity generation, 50% in distribution and 70% of Africans with access to electricity by 2023. While an average of 56% of the continent’s population has no access to reliable energy supply, 633 million people lack access to electricity and 792 million people relied on traditional biomass as their primary energy source for cooking. Additionally, these trends are expected to rise among energy poor populations unless radical transformation takes place. It is also important to highlight that the large portion of the population without electricity are mainly rural, poor and unable to use modern energy to increase their productive capacity to generate income and better their living standards.   

The exploitation of natural resources drives the growth of many African countries. Short-term gains from resource extraction are neither certain nor permanent. Moreover, dependence on a limited range of economic activities is detrimental. Algeria, Nigeria, and Angola have recently been hit hard by the oil price collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Powerless in the face of significant losses in their export revenues, governments have no choice but to make cuts in public spending or resort to debt. To reduce this vulnerability, the diversification of African economies must be at the heart of national recovery strategies. This is the main condition for resilience. By investing massively in renewable energy production, Africa can leapfrog ahead in the renewable energy industry, manufacture renewable energy products using its vast mineral reserves and expand universal energy access to the population to build low carbon and climate-resilient growth.

The green transition requires sustainable and inclusive exploitation of natural resources, and agriculture, which represents a vital part of most African economies, has a major role to play in the transition to sustainably managing our resources.

Faced with food security and self-sufficiency challenges, improving the productivity of our agricultural systems is imperative to being able to feed the 1.5 billion people who will live in Africa in 2050. However, this intensification must not lead to deforestation, soil degradation or pressure on our water resources. On the contrary, it must promote the adaptability of production systems to climate change and the optimisation of labour and land. Two objectives must be prioritised: modernising family farms, which represent 80% of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa, and absorbing the growing workforce.

Today, accelerating agricultural technology innovation is helping farmers to optimise yields while mitigating the effects of climate change. In the last three years, the number of farmers subscribing to digital agricultural services has increased by 40-45%. This gives them access to a range of services developed by experts such as weather forecasts and agricultural advice. For example, through the intelligent use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the “ThirdEye” project in Mozambique, led to a 41% increase of 2800 farmers’ agricultural production while reducing the volume of water usage by 9%  (see Drones on the horizon: Transforming Africa’s agriculture report that AUDA-NEPAD contributed to in 2018).

Agri-tech in Africa is full of innovative project leaders who, as in Mozambique, are eager to transform our agricultural systems. African youth are both better educated and more familiar with new technologies than previous generations. They therefore have a key role to play in integrating scientific and technological innovations into African agriculture. Nonetheless, in order to encourage the emergence of a new generation of well-trained and sustainably integrated farmers, the quality and attractiveness of agricultural training offers must improve. Only then will they be able to take ownership of the innovative solutions developed by agricultural experts and drive the development of a powerful African agriculture.

Because Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it must anticipate these consequences and take the lead on green transition issues. While this requires significant financial and technological resources, improving human well-being and reducing the environmental risks that result from climate change is the priority. The old growth models have undoubtedly helped to initiate a first stage of African emergence, but we are collectively observing their limitations. In a context where governments are working to develop economic recovery plans, let us seize this opportunity collectively to invest more in value-added activities involving more efficient and sustainable management of natural resources. We are by far the continent best endowed with natural resources. Let us ensure, through sustainable resource management policies and stronger incentives for innovation in key sectors, that we set an example for green growth.