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Why access to energy is crucial for economic growth and poverty reduction

Blog By Ian Scoones, STEPS Centre

This week I am in Nairobi for a conference focused on ‘Low Carbon Africa’, discussing the diverse pathways to low carbon energy. Energy access is a key issue across the continent. Last week Kofi Annan launched the ‘Africa Progress Panel’ report that argued for a massive energy revolution on the continent, with the potential for technological leapfrogging to a low carbon future.

But the reality on the ground is less bright, and this imagined pathway to energy security through a universal-access, low carbon system is a way off. Load shedding is frequent even in major cities, and in rural areas off-grid have no access to electricity at all. Indeed, according to Cosmas Ochieng, Executive Director of theAfrican Centre for Technology Studies, across Africa 620 million lack access to grid electricity. This has major impacts. Economic growth is fuelled by energy. In agriculture, electricity supply is crucial for many irrigation systems, and intermittent supply can result in disaster. But more fundamental life and death challenges arise.John Magrath of Oxfam commented in a blog from Zimbabwe, reflecting on these ground realities:

“I was talking to a nurse at a rural health centre who described how the cost of two candles can be a matter of health or hunger, or even life or death. The health centre had no electricity, so expectant mothers were told to bring two candles with them to provide light for their delivery. Two candles cost a dollar, which is the same cost as going to the mill to get your maize ground into meal for a family’s dinner. Lacking a dollar, mothers-to-be naturally prioritised feeding their children over buying candles, and as a result, often left it too late to reach the health centre and gave birth on the road, at night”.

Development agencies are now addressing energy poverty and access. The funding of low cost, decentralized, off-grid sustainable energy solutions – at health centres, in rural growth points, at irrigation schemes and at people’s homes – can make a huge difference. Innovations in technology and finance are crucial. This is driving down costs and making access to low carbon energy sources achievable for a wide number of people. The cost of solar panels, and lighting sources such as solar lanterns, has gone down dramatically in recent years. Please click here to access the blog