Energy challenges in sub-Saharan Africa: Interview with Ruth Langsi Yeloma

Photo of one of the solar projects EKOenergy financed in Cameroon. For an overview of all financed renewable energy projects, see the Climate Fund page.

600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity

The energy issue in sub-Saharan Africa is a major one. As Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, and Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission reminded us in a paper dated the 17th of June 2021: “Almost 800 million people still lack access to electricity worldwide, including 600 million in sub-Saharan Africa”.

We talked about this issue with Ms Ruth Langsi Yeloma, Agro-Environmentalist-Economist, Coordinator of the African Union of Development NGOs (UAOD) and head of the Cameroonian branch of the association Terre des Jeunes, which is a member of the International Board of EKOenergy. From the beginning of the conversation, she affirms that contemporary events that undermine energy stability in the world “have important effects in sub-Saharan Africa. They contribute to accentuating African vulnerability within this globalised system”.

Energy is one of the key bottlenecks in sub-Saharan Africa

Hi Ruth, how would you define the current energy situation in Sub-Saharan Africa?

“Energy scarcity, inaccessibility and poverty significantly affect the daily lives of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. The inadequacy and high cost of electricity disrupt many sectors such as industry, transport and all modern activities, and illustrate the low consumption of energy in this geographical area, which is both a symptom of poverty and an obstacle to economic and social improvement. Animal and human labour are the dominant alternatives to energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, obstructing economic and social development while also limiting the creation of new opportunities for people, especially women. Innovations must be sought so that energy is no longer a brake but a catalyst for development”.

Speaking of innovations, have any energy enterprise programmes or ideas been developed in sub-Saharan Africa to counter this significant problem?

“The sub-Saharan African region has seen many enterprises and programmes aimed at tackling energy poverty – particularly in landlocked areas with high agricultural and industrial potential. Thus, many diverse agricultural residues – cotton seeds, sugar cane bagasse, cocoa, coffee or groundnut shells, etc. – have been used. However, these admittedly ingenious enterprises often only work in specific circumstances and can often not be replicated at a large scale. If we look at the question of renewable energy, their cost and technological requirements have long put them beyond the reach of African capabilities, especially for the most vulnerable people, who are the ones most affected by energy insecurity. In sub-Saharan Africa’s economic and social context, these innovations are limited and not fruitful”.

What are the direct impacts of this energy issue?

“Unfortunately, there are many of them, which cannot be quantified because energy is an inherent prerequisite of almost all human activities. I can outline two of them:

In economic terms, the high price of electricity is a major obstacle to industrialisation or an obstacle to both economic development and the creation of new professional and fruitful opportunities or alternatives. Sub-Saharan Africa’s demographic growth will undoubtedly be substantial from an ecological perspective. This growth will be in the range of 2 to 3% every year, doubling the population, and consequently the population of metropolitan regions within 20 years. Furthermore, urban inhabitants consume differently from rural ones: charcoal is frequently favoured in urban areas since it is less difficult to use than wood and less bulky. As a result, the growth in charcoal consumption to support an ever-growing population will have a substantial impact on the environment given the demographics of this region and the consumption of charcoal in metropolitan centres.

Thus, with high energy costs, especially for renewable energy innovations and installations, the use of charcoal, a much cheaper resource, will, unfortunately, be the option of choice in the major cities of sub-Saharan Africa. If we combine both the economic and environmental impacts, we draw a vicious circle – an energy price that is currently out of reach, a scarce energy source, particularly in rural areas, limiting and blocking the creation of socially and ecologically conscious alternatives”.

Solar has been growing fast worldwide and is now bringing electricity at an affordable price to many parts of the world that had never been electrified before. How do you see this develop in the sub-Saharan region?

“Africa has made significant strides in solar energy development. In Cameroon, for example, the development of renewable energies will necessitate the establishment of an appropriate economic and regulatory context, including the decentralisation of electricity production means and a legal framework that promotes the development of a market that ensures its long-term sustainability. This can be accomplished by reducing the costs for the materials and for the installation ”.

In concluding our discussion, Ruth Langsi Yeloma reaffirmed that “energy is one of the key developmental bottlenecks in sub-Saharan Africa”. She added that “past experience has shown that the best chance of tackling fuel poverty will come from innovations that do not simply import exogenous technological solutions, but from solutions that respond to the needs and capabilities of African consumers”.

We thank Ruth for this interview and wish you all the best with all your activities to help people and nature in Cameroon!

Published: 31 October 2022