New report calls for investments on off-grid, mini-grid technologies

Investing in new off-grid and mini-grid technologies to extend energy access across Africa will be instrumental in helping smallholder farmers to meet rising food demand, according to a new report. 

Africa accounts for just six per cent of the world’s energy demand, despite hosting 20 per cent of the global population, leaving rural areas relying on manpower for as much as 80 per cent of the energy used in farming. 

In Energized: Policy innovation to power the transformation of Africa’s agriculture and food system, experts from the Malabo Montpellier Panel highlighted opportunities for greater energy access to transform the livelihoods of the rural poor, reducing the drudgery of their work and generating higher incomes.  

The rapid spread of off-grid and mini-grid solutions for renewable energy offers hope that Africa can leapfrog outdated and dirty technologies, with almost five million families installing solar home systems in 2018, the authors said.  

But achieving universal energy access will require a fourfold increase in investment to US$120 billion a year by 2040.

"As de mand for food continues to grow globally, universal access to energy will become an urgent necessity, both for the production, processing and consumption of more nutritious food," said Ousmane Badiane, co-chair of the Malabo Montpellier Panel, which met in Gambia for the Malabo Montpellier forum.

“Access to reliable, affordable and sustainable sources of energy to prepare land, plant, harvest, process, distribute and cook food, will ensure that Africa’s agricultural sector can respond to this demand, all within the context of climate change and increasingly scarce natural resources.” 

The report made several recommendations to help Africa achieve widespread sustainable energy use that supports agricultural productivity. These included integrated policies for agriculture, energy and health, a cross-border framework for energy security, and investing in innovative, alternative solutions such as mini, micro and nano grids in additional to conventional sources of power. 

The authors also highlighted how greater energy access would benefit African women in particular, allowing them to spend less time collecting fuel for cooking and heating, and benefitting from less pollution in their homes.  

Around 600,000 people die every year in Africa from noxious fumes produced by cooking stoves and fuelwood – more than the annual global deaths caused by malaria. Meanwhile, women perform 90 per cent of the weeding on farms, spending up to 324 hours to weed one hectare of sorghum. 

Overall, cooking accounts for more 70 per cent of household energy usage in Africa, compared with less than 10 per cent globally.  

"Africa is the highest consumer of traditional solid biomass such as fuelwood, charcoal and farm residues, including animal dung, in the world," said Joachim von Braun, co-chair of the Panel

“For those cooking indoors in poorly ventilated spaces, this means daily exposure to noxious fumes and the burden of collecting fuelwood – falling heavily on women and girls. Improving Africa’s energy access, then, is also a public health issue.” 

The Panel analysed six African countries that had made significant progress in connecting rural areas to energy sources in its latest report. 

Among them was Ethiopia, where access to electricity doubled between 2010 and 2016, partly through the Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy launched in 2011. 

In South Africa, the Cabinet approved the New Household Electrification Strategy (NHES) in 2013, with a target of providing 300,000 rural households with off-grid electrification through solar home systems installations and other cost-effective, renewable energy technologies. 

Meanwhile, Ghana has one of the highest rates of electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks in part to its Self-Help Electrification Programme as well as the Energising Development (EnDev) partnership, which has prioritised grid extension for irrigation, solar-powered irrigation systems and improved stoves for processing cassava that are designed to consume less energy and reduce emissions. 

"Under the Malabo Declaration, African governments have committed themselves to increase the use of reliable and affordable mechanisation and energy supplies, including agricultural inputs. Africa is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of Universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030," said Professor Muhammadou M.O. Kah, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Provost and Professor of Information Technology and Computing at the American University of Nigeria and Member of the Malabo-Montpellier Panel. 

“This report offers valuable insights and recommendations to help hasten Africa’s journey towards universal energy access” 

The report’s recommendations in full included:

  1. Designing integrated approaches to energy strategies and policies for agriculture, to ensure that energy access targets benefit rural areas and are consistent with the overall development strategies adopted by African countries.
  2. Scaling investments in off-grid and mini-grid solutions which have a positive, disruptive impact on African energy landscapes and enable Africa’s consumers to leapfrog outdated technologies.
  3. Adopting gender-responsive energy strategies that involve women in the design and implementation stages, to ensure new technologies and tools fulfil their needs and benefit their families, rural communities and the broader economy.
  4. Addressing the multiple challenges of biomass-based energy use to ensure that it is produced more sustainably, with more emphasis placed on designing indoor cooking stoves to be more environmentally friendly.
  5. Developing cross-border policies for energy security that reduce the unequal distribution of energy resources across Africa and govern both the development and use of renewable energy sources.