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Francesco Valezano

Ph.D. candidate international relations university, External Collaborator at REVOLVE
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What Next for Energy in Africa?

Francesco Valezano, Ph.D. candidate international relations university, External Collaborator at REVOLVE

Opinion 28 June 2019

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On 12 September 2018, during his speech on the State of the Union, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that “Africa does not need charity, but a fair and equal partnership. And we Europeans need it as well.”

Only 14 kilometers separate Africa from Europe. On the one side: a continent with huge energy resources and where most of the local population has no access to energy, a fragmented area without a common project. On the other side: one of the most developed economies in the world – a considerable example of political and institutional integration that aims to establish a continental energy system with the massive integration of renewable energies. If true that access to energy is one of the great challenges of the world for the coming years, the energy development of the African continent is one that directly affects Europe. But how will this affect Africa? 

In 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African, and only one-twentieth will be European; in the next 30 years, the population of Africa will double, going from the current 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion. Up to 60% of the African population is less than 24-years-old and this is predicted to increase. Rapid population growth will also increase the demand for services, and consequently for energy. Having access to renewable and sustainable energy is the fundamental condition for economic growth and social development in harmony with the environment. A thriving sub-Saharan energy system would be the foundation for future political and social stability in the entire continent – a priority on the European geopolitical horizon.

A thriving sub-Saharan energy system would be the foundation for future political and social stability in the entire continent

Since 2014, in sub-Saharan Africa, for the first time ever, the electrification rate increased more than demographic growth. Despite progress made, the current level of available electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is at just 43%. This means that six people out of 10 still cook on coal stoves and use torches for lighting. Energy development is linked inextricably to the geopolitical stability of the entire continent. The dramatic migration crisis demonstrates how Europe must develop a shared development policy that is agreed upon with its African partners. Recognizing the actual needs of African countries means anticipating developments in future migration scenarios. As it seems incontrovertible, African territories have such rapid population growth rates that it would prove politically very short-sighted by the European neighbors not to support them during their energy development.

The future of energy relations between Europe and Africa was highlighted during the EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW), which took place on 17-21 June 2019 in Brussels. Focusing on the importance of research, innovation and collaborative actions between the EU and Africa on renewables, a session on Wednesday 19 June at the Résidence Palace in Brussels hosted the “EU-Africa long term partnership on sustainable energy” where energy sector experts from academia, industry and corporate, underlined the fundamental synergy between research and innovation, agreeing on the importance of a fruitful collaboration between European and African research centers.

From an industry perspective, large companies, such as EDF represented by Mr. Christ Anderson Ahoua Boua, or small innovation companies, such as CYSALYS (company specialized in high-performance hybrid energy solutions in off-grid sites) represented by Mr. Emanuel Guilhamon, agreed that regulatory harmonization and convergence of standards is the primary condition for encouraging investment in African energy markets.

Silvia D’Ovidio, Strategy, Governance & Membership Manager for RES4Africa, a Rome-based foundation with the mission to “create enabling environments for renewable energy investments in Africa”, asserted that Africa does not follow a model of regional energy integration and that the African Union does not pursue such a goal either. When it comes to African energy integration and development, regional and individual country differences are very evident. Africa has followed a model of agglutination through macro-regional and supranational energy districts, but there is no concerted development framework at the continental level.

Solar plant in South Africa. Photo: Douw de Jager

Technical and cultural dialogue is the very basis for the prosperity of the two continents. As Professor Yezouma Coulibaly, International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering, rightly pointed out: Africa needs to undertake a cultural and social revolution. Only through environmental education will it be possible to change some deleterious habits of the local population. Even the academic research – European and African – must undertake a progressive pivot of objectives. Professor Coulibaly claims that research in African universities is hostage to an antiquated mentality, obtusely focused on mere theoretical research. At the same time, Emanuela Colombo, Full Professor at the Polythene of Milan, Rector’s Delegate to Cooperation and Development, emphasized how often the major European research centers suffer from a Eurocentric and culturally-myopic vision. This is one of the main limits to profitable peer cooperation based on mutual understanding.

The European interest in African energy development remains high. At the end of 2018, the European Union and the African Union launched the EU-Africa high-level platform for sustainable energy investments in Africa. A partnership that brings together public and private partners from Africa and Europe. A dialogue platform to stimulate investments in sustainable energy in Africa and to promote sustainable growth and employment. This initiative is complemented by that of the European Fund for Sustainable Development and the EU plan for external investments that aims to promote more inclusive and sustainable development in Africa, from September 2017. The idea is to help companies invest financially in countries with high-risk profiles.

And yet, encouraging private investment, without planning for development cooperation, risks penalizing the least-developed countries. Private companies usually prefer to invest in more stable developing economies, avoiding precisely those places where the local population lives in conditions of deep poverty. The risk is that billions of euros will benefit large multinational companies and that European companies will see much more profit than local businesses. Multinationals that invest in energy projects in Africa must be monitored to ensure they respect human and environmental rights and standards. Funding gigantic projects of thousands of MW of power without special attention to the social and environmental dimension can result in worsening the human rights situation and lead to the destruction of natural capital. We must also consider the delicate financial situation that most African countries face. One of the European priorities should be to reduce debt in developing countries.

Europe can foster the development of sustainable energy projects and simultaneously prevent all forms of financing that can increase local debt.

Today, the European institutions have the opportunity to support investment and job creation, but it is only through a fruitful synergy with the private sector, universities and even NGOs that the European Union can present itself as a metronome for the African energy transition. The priority remains in meeting the needs of Africans and responding to local demand for sustainable development, respecting the natural environment and cultural traditions.

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