New energy
to assault poverty

Youba Sokona
outlines strategies for widening modern energy services to poor nations and people in Africa

Energy can play a pivotal role in significantly reducing poverty and building sustainable development – the major challenges of the third millennium. It is an elemental aspect of the natural, physical world and of the economic and social systems of humankind. There is no physical science that is not at the same time an attempt to describe the manifestation of energy, as there is no history of society that is not also a history of harnessing and using it.

Essential yardstick
Energy, therefore, is one of the critical areas where technology, economics and politics intersect. Its centrality to social and environmental issues is beyond question, as is its key role in any system of planning or developing society. As the resource from which other resources follow, it is fundamental to any attempt to combat poverty, and an essential yardstick for economic and social development.

Africa’s current energy poverty and inefficiency are dismal. The lack of access to energy services for the vast majority of Africans constitutes a major obstacle to the continent’s sustainable development. Improving access for poorer and marginalized communities would make a significant difference in the fight against poverty.

Access to affordable and appropriate energy services must and should grow significantly to improve the standard of living of the continent’s growing population. Modern forms of energy would transform living conditions and boost industrial, agricultural, urban and rural development. Unreliable and costly supplies of electricity and modern fuel impede production, growth and development in many commercial enterprises. Increasingly high oil import bills – and financial losses at parastatal energy utilities – handicap national economies.

The principal energy sector initiative of the 1990s – privatizing and reforming energy supply utilities – is helping to improve their solvency, reduce debt burdens, and guarantee a reliable provision of energy services to those able to pay. But much more needs to be done, on many fronts. Policy reform, social development and institutional development are crucially needed to unleash the great potential of the region’s energy and other natural resources.

New thinking
It will be essential to develop models, new types of institutional arrangements, policies and approaches that really work under the conditions currently prevailing in Africa. The uncritical transfer of ideas from other continents has not worked. New thinking is particularly needed to achieve regulatory reforms that address the poverty reduction agenda, and to develop new forms of restructuring that are appropriate to small systems located within a macroeconomic context which is often unattractive to foreign capital, and suffers from a lack of trained people.

Besides this new thinking, critical actions need to be taken to meet Africa’s need for more sustainable energy systems that will serve human needs and aspirations. Many of the elements of such actions are already well known:

  • The supply and use of biomass fuels, the dominant energy source of Africa, have to be made more sustainable and less costly in human terms – reducing drudgery and improving health for children, women and men.

  • Affordable access to modern energy services (notably through electrification and distribution of liquid and gaseous fuels) must be extended to all who lack it.

  • The efficiency of energy production, distribution and use must be improved to enhance economic productivity and reduce environmental hazards. In some cases, cleaner fuels and energy processes are also required to meet environmental goals.

  • Indigenous energy resources must be expanded to promote self-reliance and reduce net import costs. These include the large potential for renewable energy, which should be vigorously promoted wherever it brings real economic benefits and reduces local and global environmental impacts.

Bringing change
Many technical and policy measures are available to bring such changes about: lower-cost energy technologies attuned to the region’s diverse settings; local research, development, demonstration and testing capabilities; effective technical support services; good access to credit to lower often prohibitive investment barriers; and a variety of policy and institutional measures designed to put these changes in place and promote their self-sustaining ’take-off’. All these should be developed.
Modern forms of energy would transform living conditions and boost development
Realizing significant poverty reduction and sustainable development in Africa in the near future remains a big challenge. The following could help in mapping the road ahead:
  • Policy focus: African energy policies have been shaped by donor-funded projects, which have undoubtedly played a valuable role. But sound policy decisions are more meaningful, and have greater impact, than a series of projects. Similar effort spent on policies and institutional reforms would yield tangible results and encourage local initiatives to take root and progress within a more sustainable framework.

  • ‘New’ government roles: The reform process undermines traditional public sector energy planning and development. Governments need to adopt new roles, including promoting energy research, development and demonstration, subsidies and regulation. Defining and adjusting to these new roles will be a major challenge.

  • Capacity building and development building: In many African countries emerging changes, such as the move to market-based energy development, have been severely constrained by weak capacities and infrastructure. These must be strengthened. Difficult questions remain about how these new structures are to be built and/or transformed to replace current government-centred planning. How should these tasks be divided between a number of pertinent government agencies – for example, government-private sector partnerships, or commercial businesses? And how quickly can effective systems be put in place?

  • Good credit financing and technical support: Easy access to credit, spare parts and good after-sale services are among the key driving forces of consumer-led technical development in industrialized countries. One cannot overestimate the importance of providing the same benefits – appropriately adapted to local circumstances – to the market for sustainable energy products in Africa.

  • Regional cooperation: Africa has much in terms of rich but localized energy resources and potential. But these are typically limited by small local or national demand. Cross-border energy trading (not only electricity) and other forms of regional cooperation offer large potential benefits.

  • Energy and environment nexus: Global environmental issues such as climate change present both constraints and opportunities for African countries. The current debates could result in new forms of North-South cooperation and strategic vision over the short, medium and long term. Mitigating and adapting to climate change can offer the opportunity to revisit development strategies – and, particularly, sustainable energy options – from a new perspective with renewed urgency, to better understand the connections to other environmental problems, improve integration of environment and development issues and address such other issues as income distribution. The challenge is to ensure that the resulting action contributes to local and regional development, rather than obstructs it, and does not divert attention and resources away from the primary aim of reducing poverty.

  • Gender and energy nexus: Energy policies cannot continue to be gender-blind. Women’s energy needs are often different from those of men and their benefits should be commensurate with their efforts. Making energy services accessible to rural and urban women will contribute immensely to their socio-economic development and afford a better quality of life. Ensuring that energy services meet their socio-economic aspirations is essential if poverty alleviation is to attain its true meaning. Reducing gender inequalities, moving towards greater equity, and building a viable sustainable development path in which women could reclaim an active and participatory role, are all challenges that must be met

Youba Sokona is Head of Energy Program, ENDA-TM, Senegal.

PHOTOGRAPH: Ilse Voss-Lengruk/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial | Key to development | The energy challenge | Plant power | Bioenergy: doing well while doing right | New energy for development | People | Delivering Change | Benign growth | Green energy | At a glance: Energy | Sustainable Dreams | Brightening the future | Greening oil | Blue-sky thinking | Books & products | New energy to assault poverty | New energy entrepreneurs | Time to get serious | Breaking the ice | In my lifetime – 100% renewable| Slimming the waste

Complementary issues:
WSSD, 2002
Energy, 2001
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
Climate and Action, 1998
Climate Change, 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Natural Resources
Air Pollution
Climate Change