An estimated 621 million Africans are without electricity – and the gap is expanding. This energy poverty is impacting on Africa’s growth on multiple levels. More than 40% of Africans live in poverty, earning less than USD1,90 daily. More than 60% of Africa’s youth are unemployed and more than 70% of them live on less than USD2 per day. Yet, by 2035, the number of Africans reaching working age will exceed the rest of the world combined. Over 50% of the adult population in sub-Saharan Arica faces moderate or severe food insecurity, while an annual average of USD–48 billion worth of food is lost post-harvest due to inadequate processing and value addition. Related to the fight against poverty is labour productivity, which in sub-Saharan Africa is 20 times less than that of developed regions.

In the face of such glaring challenges, energy development needs to be prioritised to accelerate the delivery of the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to Africa’s one billion-strong population. With just over 10 years before the expiry of the SDGs, efforts to bridge the continent’s energy divide cannot be undertaken in a silo.

Nuclear vs Clean Energy

Several African countries have expressed an interest in developing nuclear power for peaceful generation. In 2015, it was reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that more than 30 member states were considering or preparing nuclear power programmes for the first time – a third of these countries are in Africa.

Over 50% of the adult population in sub-Saharan Arica faces moderate or severe food insecurity.

The IAEA has reviewed nuclear programmes in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, and offered words of encouragement and roadmaps to a nuclear future. The rest of the continent is reported as being ‘enthusiastic’. In April 2015, some 150 officials from 35 African countries gathered under the IAEA banner in Mombasa, Kenya, to chart a way forward towards a nuclear future.

However, bridging Africa’s energy gap should not be viewed as a silo development but rather as enabling the achievement of multiple SDGs and accelerating socioeconomic transformation. Consequently, debate on using nuclear power to bridge Africa’s energy gap should be weighed carefully against Africa’s reality.

Aligning with future global energy trends 

To quote a Yoruba proverb, “Where you will sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth.” Africa is only now laying its energy foundation. It is therefore fundamentally important that the strategic trajectory chosen to bridge the energy gap aligns with global future energy projections. This will ensure the region’s energy development efforts are not isolated but can be complemented through future technology transfers, which is a key requirement to sustainability.

The debate on using nuclear power to bridge Africa’s energy gap should be weighed carefully against Africa’s reality.

Driven by factors such as cost (capital, operational, maintenance and decommissioning), risks (environmental, health and safety), and time to build, the proportionate contribution of nuclear energy to global electricity, which peaked at 17,5% in 1993 and declined to under 11% by 2014, is not that much. Others have estimated a more significant decline to 4,4% by 2014.

On the other hand, with improving technological developments to harness renewables and solve intermittency issues, such as base-load concerns, and to reduce prices, renewables have grown globally, adding about 40 nuclear reactors’ worth of electricity. In the next 10 years, renewables are projected to add over 100 nuclear reactors’ worth of electricity.

Read: Educationalizing and institutionalizing reforms for energy uptake in Africa

Some of the world’s leading countries also demonstrate the rising prominence of renewables. In 2016, renewable energy made up nearly 90% of new power capacity in the European Union – 21,1GW out of a total of 24,5GW installed in 2016. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has vowed to shut down its nuclear capability within 10 years and replace it with renewable energy, where renewables will contribute 80% of Germany’s energy by 2050.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has vowed to shut down its nuclear capability within 10 years and replace it with renewable energy.

China, the world’s leading investor in renewables, added 35GW of new solar generation in 2016 alone. This is an amount almost equal to Germany’s total capacity. China intends to spend more than USD360 billion through 2020 on renewable power. Renewable energy generated over 70% of Portugal’s electricity in the first quarter of 2013.

This shows that the globe is moving away from nuclear power. To ensure that Africa’s efforts to bridge its electricity gap is able to continue to grow in terms of technology, research and development, as well as technical capacity, it must align with these global trends.

Finland has succeeded in the energy sector because both the energy-dependent industry and the government have invested millions of Euros in research. This is something African governments should emulate. Photo: Wiki

A Comparative Advantage in Resources

The region’s renewable energy potential is enormous. The continent’s hydropower potential is estimated at 1852TWh annually, three times the continent’s current demand of 554TWh per year. However, only 10% of this potential is currently being exploited. This is in huge contrast to Western Europe, which uses 85% of its available hydropower potential.

Africa has the best solar resource on the entire planet: It is estimated that a mere 0,3% of the sunlight that shines on the Sahara could supply nearly all of Europe’s energy needs. Currently only about 5% of African households use some form of solar power.

In terms of geothermal energy capacity, the East Africa region has an estimated 15 000MW in potential. Kenya, ranked the eighth-largest global producer of geothermal power, has the potential to produce 10 000MW, compared to its current production of 579MW. As for wind power, sub-Saharan Africa has an estimated 1,300GW of wind potential against a total deployed capacity of 190MW.

Instead of investing in nuclear power, which is a high-risk, high-cost and potentially declining sub-sector, energy development policies in Africa should prioritise the development of a globally competitive renewable energy sub-sector.

An Integrated Approach

To unlock multiple SDGs, Africa needs to prioritise combining clean energy with sustainable agriculture. Growth in agriculture is at least two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than in other sectors. Agricultural growth also stimulates productivity in other sectors, resulting in positive economy-wide impacts. The World Bank reports that a 10% increase in crop yields in Africa would translate to approximately a 7% reduction in poverty – the highest of any sector in the continent.

Renewable energy is far better positioned for such development than nuclear energy, considering its potential to be an off-grid power source. Up to 70% of Africa’s food is produced in rural areas and off-grid solutions are the most economical for electrification in remote areas. Nuclear power is specialised for centralised grid systems and therefore fails this vital requirement.

Read: African Union announces $20 billion renewable energy initiative

Across Africa, pockets of success demonstrate the potency of this integrated environmental approach. In Kenya, using solar powered micro-irrigation is saving farmers over USD10 000 annually in operating costs. Cumulatively, farmers are generating up to USD30 000 per acre each year. This is combating community-level poverty while enhancing food security. This system is also conserving up to 1,9 billion litres of water annually, which is helping to conserve ecosystems and enhance climate resilience while generating up to 64,499kWh of clean energy. All of these play into the achievement of multiple SDGs, as well as meeting climate objectives under the Paris Agreement.

The Oyo people of Nigeria say, “A man does not wander far from where his corn is roasting.” As the continent seeks ways to bridge its energy divide, the continent should therefore not wander far from this ready subsector. Ultimately, energy is an enabler of socio-economic transformation and the yardstick with which to measure this is the achievement of the SDGs. This is the big picture that should inform policy decisions in Africa’s efforts to bridge the energy gap.

Dr Richard Munang is an Africa Climate Change & Development Policy Expert. He tweets as @RichardMunang

Mr Robert Mgendi is an Adaptation Policy Expert

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which they are affiliated.