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News / Nation & World

Experts: Electricity shortages are drain on Africa’s economic growth

Problems include aging infrastructure, lack of oversight, shortage of maintenance skills

By Mogomotsi Magome, Associated Press
Published: March 25, 2023, 4:31pm
3 Photos
FILE - High tension power lines pass through Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. From Zimbabwe, where many must work at night because i t's the only time there is power, to Nigeria where collapses of the grid are frequent, the reliable supply of electricity remains elusive across Africa.
FILE - High tension power lines pass through Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. From Zimbabwe, where many must work at night because i t's the only time there is power, to Nigeria where collapses of the grid are frequent, the reliable supply of electricity remains elusive across Africa. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba/File) (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

JOHANNESBURG — From Zimbabwe, where many must work at night because it’s the only time there is power, to Nigeria, where collapses of the grid are frequent, a reliable supply of electricity remains elusive across Africa.

The electricity shortages that plague many of Africa’s 54 countries are a serious drain on the continent’s economic growth, energy experts warn.

In recent years, South Africa’s power generation has become so inadequate that the continent’s most developed economy must cope with rolling power blackouts of eight to 10 hours per day.

Africa’s sprawling cities have erratic supplies of electricity, but large swaths of the continent’s rural areas have no power at all. In 2021, 43 percent of Africans — about 600 million people — lacked access to electricity, with 590 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency.

Investments of nearly $20 billion are required annually to achieve universal electrification across sub-Saharan Africa, according to World Bank estimates. Of that figure, nearly $10 billion is needed annually bring power and keep it on in West and Central Africa.

There are many reasons for Africa’s dire delivery of electricity, including aging infrastructure, lack of government oversight and a shortage of skills to maintain the national grids, according to Andrew Lawrence, an energy expert at the Witwatersrand University Business School in Johannesburg.

A historical problem is that many colonial regimes built electrical systems largely reserved for the minority white population that excluded large parts of the Black population.

Today, many African countries rely on state-owned power utilities.

Much attention has focused in the past two years on the Western-funded “Just Energy Transition,” in which France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union are offering funds to help poorer countries move from highly polluting coal-fired power generation to renewable, environmentally friendly sources of power. Africa should be among the major beneficiaries, Lawrence said.

“The transition should target rural access and place at the forefront the electrification of the continent as a whole,” he said. “This is something that is technically possible.”

The Western powers vowed to make $8.5 billion available to help South Africa move away from its coal-fired power plants, which produce 80 percent of the country’s power.

South Africa is among the 20 top emitters of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the world and accounts for nearly a third of all of Africa’s emissions, according to experts.

South Africa’s plan to move away from coal, however, is hampered by its pressing need to produce as much power as possible each day.

The East African nation of Uganda for years has also grappled with power cuts despite massive investment in electricity generation.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has grappled with an inadequate power supply for many years, generating just 4,000 megawatts although the population of more than 210 million people needs 30,000 megawatts, experts say. The oil-rich but energy-poor West African nation has ramped up investments in the power sector, but endemic corruption and mismanagement have resulted in little gains.

In Zimbabwe, electricity shortages that have plagued the country for years have worsened as the state authority that manages Kariba, the country’s biggest dam, has limited power generation due to low water levels.

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