Electricity access in Africa has improved markedly in the past 20 years, expanding from 25% to 47% of the population. The off-grid solar and mini-grid markets have played vital roles in this expansion. In recent years, sales of solar products have increased by 10% year-on-year, with more than 2,000 mini-grids in operation . Despite this progress, access to clean and reliable electricity remains one of the greatest challenges to sustainable development in Africa, as over 600 million people still lack access to electricity, and an additional 150 million face an unreliable connection .
There are a number of reasons why access in rural sub-saharan Africa is limited. First of all, it is simply too costly for already struggling utilities to extend their services to these communities. Even where a community has a grid connection, it is often plagued with technical issues and an intermittent power supply. From too little generation to sub-standard operation and maintenance practices to theft and uneconomical tariffs, it is no surprise that utilities are struggling.
Renewable electricity generation in the form of solar home systems and mini-grids, particularly when coupled with batteries, is improving access, reliability, and the cost of energy. As such, over the next decade, batteries are expected to have a high uptake in Africa, especially with the declining costs.
Africa enjoys about 12 hours of daylight on average, which means that, where off-grid solar energy systems are deployed, batteries are crucial for providing stored energy for the remaining 12 hours. With suitable batteries deployed in a solar home system (SHS), mini-grid, or mesh-grid, more people can have access to an improved quality of life through access to better healthcare facilities, education, and higher productivity.
However, the high capital cost of batteries is still one of the primary barriers to the deployment of renewable energy systems in Africa. For example, in a typical solar project in Nigeria, battery costs account for over half of the project’s capital expenditure.
Despite this barrier, it is estimated that stationary battery capacity in Africa could grow by 22% annually through 2030 due to demand from energy access applications, and mini-grids alone could represent 40% of the 2030 market. Market forecasts by the World Economic Forum show that as more Africans gain access to energy over the coming years, the demand for batteries will grow to 83 GWh by 2030. 
Maximizing Battery Usage and Minimizing Waste in Africa
Batteries are needed in Africa for various applications, such as mobile technologies, renewable energy systems, and grid solutions. In order to provide energy access in Africa, batteries will have to become much cheaper.
How Africa can contribute to the development of batteries
There are various ways of ensuring batteries are affordable and widely utilized. One option is manufacturing locally on the continent. To date, the manufacturing industry for batteries in Africa is still nascent, but some manufacturers are beginning to explore the possibility of establishing the first African gigafactory.
South Africa is currently taking the lead when it comes to battery manufacturing in Africa. Companies such as AutoX, Donaventa Holdings, Duracell South Africa, Energizer South Africa, Eveready, Metindustrial, Potensa, Probe Corporation, and Solguard have dominated this space for quite some time. However, they specialize in lead-acid batteries and may miss out on the energy transition to renewables and e-mobility. Innovation in these companies will be necessary to keep up with demand and ensure Africa’s independence in the battery space.
In Nigeria, very few companies have taken up battery development; the few that tried have faced major losses due to poor financials . One such company was Union Autoparts Mfg. Co. Ltd., West Africa’s biggest battery recycling plant and located in a country believed to dispose of over 500,000 tons of used lead acid batteries every year. However, the plant could not source enough used batteries to supply its underutilized machines. It thus became impossible to be cost competitive with those exporting the batteries.
However, we are seeing some new hope for the continent. PAM Africa recently launched its plans to develop advanced batteries such as Li-ion and Na-ion batteries in Nigeria. The batteries will be used mainly for power applications such as backup supply for solar and grids. As we see the growth of solar projects in Africa, energy storage solutions such as Li-ion batteries will be fundamental in providing system flexibility. The current rate of innovation from utilities in Nigeria is slow as they are yet to adopt policies for a more flexible grid, such as net metering, individual export to the grid, and time-of-use tariffs. However, we believe that the uptake of battery storage solutions at home can create a use case for grid support services.
Megamillion has plans to be Africa’s first large-scale manufacturer of Li-ion cells and battery packs, in hopes of bringing down prices and thereby catalyzing mass adoption of energy storage systems. They are banking on economies of scale to reduce the price of the cells, with the goal of producing 38 GWh/yr by 2028. The chosen form factor is the cylindrical 2680 cell (a diameter of 26 mm and a length of 80 mm) a using nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) chemistry for the cathode. According to Megamillion, its cells have a capacity of 6200 mAh and an energy density of over 200 Wh/kg. Nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite, and, of course, lithium can all be sourced in South Africa and several countries across Southern Africa.
The global transition towards green energy will create opportunities for Africa if seized correctly. As battery demand grows and Chinese, European, and American firms build battery gigafactories, African leaders must step up and include battery production as a continent-wide development priority. A strong regional battery supply chain, powered by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), will bolster Africa’s relevance in the international battery market.
While we see a significant opportunity to meet the growing battery demand at a lower cost through local manufacturing and assembly, other areas such as high-quality recycling and repurposing should also be explored. In the section below, we will be taking a deeper dive into what battery recycling means for Africa.
End-Of-Life Management and Battery Recycling
End-of-life management and battery recycling in Africa is still a major logistical and environmental challenge. The need for end-of-life battery management cannot be overemphasized. Policies on end-of-life management must be developed and implemented in order to prevent environmental problems in the future and to ensure the proper disposal of used batteries. The recycling process for Lead-acid and Lithium-ion batteries is quite different and must be examined separately.
Recycling Lead Acid Batteries
Africa has a 1 billion dollar lead-acid battery market, of which the automobile industry accounts for 47%. This makes lead-acid batteries significantly more popular than any other battery type on the African continent. Other key application segments of the African Lead Acid Battery Market are the industrial, commercial, residential, and power sectors. The emergence of off-grid energy access will only see this figure rise in the coming years .
While lead-acid batteries are commonly collected and recycled, these practices are often associated with severe pollution.
Lead-acid battery recycling currently occurs across three main types of businesses. Commonly found recyclers in Africa include:
- Informal battery-breakers and smelters: – this type of recycling is mostly small-scale and conducted under informal conditions. Informal battery-breaking and smelting have high pollution rates and low efficiency, as most recyclers can recover only around 50–60% of the batteries’ lead.
- Battery-breakers: this type of enterprise conducts only part of the recycling. Battery tear down is commonly conducted manually, and the battery acid is drained in an unregulated manner. While many of these companies work under informal conditions, some are registered or organized in associations such as the Waste Battery Association of Nigeria.
- Industrial recyclers: these use medium or large scale smelting equipment to recover up to 90% of the lead contained in batteries. Industrial recyclers break and drain batteries, but also source lead scrap from the local battery-breakers mentioned above. Battery cases are also recycled and sold to local plastic manufacturers. In addition, there are a few plants using the recycled lead and plastic for their own battery production.
Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries
Take-back and recycling systems for lithium-ion batteries are still in their infancy due to the low volumes of end-of-life (EOL) lithium-ion batteries in most African countries. However, this is expected to change with the growing demand for stationary storage.
At present, the high cost of recycling implies that incentives to collect lithium-ion batteries are few, and where lithium-ion batteries are collected, there are stronger financial incentives to repurpose rather than recycle. Companies are beginning to repurpose batteries from local electronic waste, driven by the cost of alternative EOL management options. However, repurposing only delays the inevitable need for recycling, and is not a long term solution.
These are some of the challenges for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries in Africa:
- There are currently no lithium-ion battery recycling facilities operating in Africa, which makes environmentally sound recycling very costly. Due to the absence of such infrastructure, batteries would need to be shipped to foreign destinations for recycling, which requires the prior informed consent procedure of the Basel Convention, with transport also posing a considerable fire hazard.
- Shipping agencies are reluctant to transport waste lithium-ion batteries and, if they do so, request heightened fire precautions, such as embedding the cargo in sand. Hence, a container with a nominal load of 20 metric tons cannot carry more than 5 metric tons of waste batteries. While this export-for-recycling model has been tested by some players, these trials confirm that the costs far outweigh the financial value of material recovery.
- While the recycling of cobalt-containing batteries can generate some revenue, cobalt-free battery chemistries – particularly lithium iron phosphate (LFP), the main type currently deployed in energy access applications – are generally either rejected by recyclers, or accepted only after the payment of substantial treatment fees.
Due to these barriers and costs, the collection and recycling of lithium-ion batteries is currently not an attractive business proposition. The bulk of waste generated from lithium-ion batteries is not currently collected and is most likely disposed of alongside general municipal solid waste.
A prominent example is Kenya, where seven of the biggest solar off-grid providers launched the Kenya Solar Waste Collective, aimed at pooling their resources and logistics to collect waste from off-grid installations and direct it to environmentally sound recyclers. The impetus came from the fact that many solar companies have a high awareness of environmental issues and grant opportunities often tie financial support to proper battery EOL management. For example, in Nigeria, for solar developers to qualify for the performance based grant (PBG) with the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), they would need to have a detailed plan for battery EOL management.
Companies in Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda are testing the remanufacture of EOL batteries from Off-Grid Solar (OGS) and consumer electronic applications. Projects are benefiting from partial grant-funding while looking to scale into commercial opportunities in the near term. Over 10 years ago, the Rwandan government started addressing e-waste and battery waste issues, when it passed voluntary regulations requiring producers and
importers to finance recycling; this regulation became mandatory in 2021. While the recycling of lithium-ion batteries in Africa remains almost absent, the Nigerian recycler Hinckley and the Dutch company Closing the Loop organized the collection, packaging and shipment of 5 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries from Nigeria to Belgium for recycling in 2020, less than 0.005% of the total used batteries in circulation. Although recycling in Africa is challenging at present, some stakeholders are leading the way.
While there is a growing demand for batteries in Africa, at present there is very little capacity on the continent to produce or recycle batteries at end-of-life. This appears to be an immense opportunity for the continent to take its destiny in its hands by investing in building these capabilities and reducing the reliance on foreign imports. This has the added benefit of creating jobs locally and boosting the economic productivity of the continent.
We propose the following steps to boost the adoption of batteries in energy access applications:
- Consumer subsidies and policy roadmaps to aid the development of off-grid solar and mini-grid markets: Governments and international donor organizations need to continue efforts to address: the low affordability of energy access solutions, particularly mini-grids; costly or limited access to consumer and commercial finance; and uncertain business models (particularly for mini-grids). For example, in Nigeria, mini-grids can only be built in areas which are not only off-grid, but several kilometres away from the national grid connection. Such communities are predominantly rural and can barely afford to pay for the electricity that would be generated. Grants and long-term, low interest loans are necessary to encourage the deployment of clean energy technologies to such locations.
- Expanding the scope of grid policy and electricity market regulation to include battery storage: Providing clear technical guidelines for the safe interconnection of batteries to national distribution and transmission infrastructure and ensuring batteries are remunerated for the grid flexibility services they can provide will help advance the investment case for behind-the-meter, mini-grid, and grid storage. Utilities, grid system operators, and regulators all benefit from the storage transition because it increases grid resiliency and dependability.
- Reducing batteries’ purchase and maintenance costs: Batteries are expensive and the cost must be addressed for there to be major uptake of battery storage (both on and off-grid) in African countries. One potential strategy might involve the procurement of batteries in bulk through industry trade associations and the use of demonstration projects to reduce the cost of capital. Further, the development and enforcement of warranties applicable to energy access would be helpful.
- Increasing consumer financing to purchase batteries: Studies demonstrate that batteries can offer substantial savings compared to alternatives such as fossil-fuel backup generators in a range of energy access applications. However, concessional finance is often required to help consumers overcome the higher upfront costs of batteries. An innovative approach to solving this problem was put forward by Mobile Power, a UK-based company which started a solar-powered battery rental business operating in underserved communities in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Uganda and Zambia. This leasing business model is gaining traction and could play a role in solving Africa’s energy poverty crisis.
- Directing research and development (R&D) of battery technologies: While this may be a longer-run solution, it is imperative that effort and funding are geared towards developing battery chemistries that might be better suited to local operating conditions and have lower upfront costs, such as zinc-air, sodium-ion, and redox-flow batteries. In addition, there is a need for improved technology transfer and licensing of the innovations of other researchers. This will help promote these newer technologies, potentially with a greater impact in African communities. In addition, a coalition could be formed with foreign R&D companies and agencies for technology transfer and licensing, potentially leading to the deployment of their solutions in solving Africa’s energy problems.
- Developing a circular battery value chain: This will be critical to ensuring the sustainable scale-up of Africa’s battery market and plans for zero waste while providing more benefits to the consumers. This will also open new opportunities for companies and lead to the creation of even more jobs in this space. Maximizing battery first life should be a priority for all African countries, and batteries reaching end-of-life need to be repurposed, reused, or recycled.
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