Energising Africa

by Ogunlade Davidson

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The importance of modern energy provision in African development cannot be over-emphasised, as it is the nucleus of socio-economic development worldwide. However, large numbers of Africans depend instead on firewood and charcoal, reflecting the comparatively low level of industrialisation on the continent. Moving out of this stage requires a substantial increase in cost-effective and affordable energy sources, while minimising environmental hazards and ensuring social equitability and sustainability.

For Africa to be competitive, its per capita primary energy needs to be increased. In comparison with the rest of the world, Africans are among the smallest consumers of primary energy. In addition, Africa has multiple energy technologies to satisfy the needs of 30% of the population, in urban areas. The rural areas, where the remaining 70% live, have limited energy choices. It must be a priority for African governments to ensure that the rural majority has access to the same choices as those who live in urban areas.

Natural resources

Africa's shares of proven reserves of coal, gas and oil at the end of 2000 were 5.7%, 7.4% and 7.1% respectively, according to British Petroleum data. Exploiting these reserves at current rates, they will be depleted in 266, 82 and 27 years respectively (see graph). These are above the world average for coal and gas (227 and 61 years respectively), and below for oil (39.9 years). It is worth noting that Africa's share of non-renewable resources will rise as a result of recent oil and gas finds.

Africa's Fossil Fuels to Production Ratio

Africa's huge supply of fossil fuels, presently exploited for exports, has to be used within the continent because as commodity prices continue to either fluctuate or decline, returns from such exports either dwindle or become unpredictable. Developing the downstream end of such resources so as to boost industrialisation on the continent is crucial.

Developing Africa's fossil resources requires a strategy that reflects the skewed distribution of these sources, hence different approaches for the different regions. Northern Africa, with a large share of oil and gas, will need to exploit these resources, as will western Africa. Central and eastern Africa will need to include geothermal systems (as in Kenya and Ethiopia) and major hydropower systems (as in Uganda), as these are abundant there. Similarly, coal should be included in southern Africa's sustainable energy system - especially in South Africa, which has over 90% of the continent's coal deposits. Fortunately, significant technological progress is being made in developing these resources, resulting in both improved energy and environmental efficiency.

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