Manuscript Found in Accra: How Africa can provide a blueprint for our energy future
Paulo Coelho’s 2013 best-seller, Manuscript Found in Accra, made the capital of Ghana famous. It was about a philosophical manuscript that provides solace to a group of people at a time of great uncertainty about the future.
Now the mid-sized West African nation may well provide us with a new blueprint. One that shows us our energy future. Over the past decade, the Ghanaian government has been proactive in driving renewable energy adoption. Its Renewable Energy Act of 2011 continues to guide its efforts well into its second decade. It provides a framework to support the development and use of renewable energy sources and help attract investment in these sources.
Part of Ghana’s approach is to use energy consumption taxes to finance the development of renewable sources such as biomass, solar, wind and hydropower (all of which Ghana is naturally abundant in). Ghana is also partnering with Switzerland to develop commercial and industrial solar energy projects, along with a project to provide 5 million Ghanaian households with environmentally-friendly cookers and solar-generated electricity.
Yet another effort the Ghanaian government undertakes is to back local players that are driving electrification across the nation. As an example, local player Black Spider Ghana provides solar energy technology to residential communities, farms, hospitals and industries to both rural and urban areas. Small-scale solar power plants are a key pillar of such electrification, especially in rural areas.
Lest we get the impression that such developments are happening in just one African nation, let’s look further north. The 150 MW Noor Ouarzazate Power Plant in Morocco is the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant project. It’s located in the heart of the Sahara, one of the most sun-drenched regions in the world. Covering an area of 2,500 hectares (6,178 acres), it started providing clean energy to the national grid in 2019.
A cursory look around Africa reveals that renewables are not just a moment but a movement all over the continent. Ethiopia is aggressively investing in hydropower through new dams such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile. South Africa has invested 50 billion rand (US$2.8 billion) on 25 renewable energy products since 2011. Egypt has set itself the goal of achieving 42% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035. Kenya is investing in off-grid solar power to drive rapid electrification across its rural communities. You get the drift.
A key learning from Africa’s approach is the importance of leapfrogging. This is a concept originally gleaned from telecommunications, positing that countries that missed the landline revolution can skip (or leapfrog) it entirely by going straight to the mobile revolution. That way, the lack of landline infrastructure in these countries becomes irrelevant. Asia and Africa are considered the vanguards of mobile leapfrogging.
Applying the same concept to energy, it’s claimed that economies that missed fossil-fueled development don’t need it. They can leapfrog it and jump straight from charcoal-wood-and-biomass based energy to renewable energy. Africa is once again a vanguard of this.
Another crucial learning from Africa is that, often, local is better. Not just local in terms of country-level, but drilling down to community-level. In Kenya, where remote communities are often not connected to the national grid, entrepreneurs have installed hundreds of thousands of Solar Home Systems (SHS) that provide energy to homes, completely independent of anything that happens on the grid. Solar mini-grids are another innovation being attempted with some success in Kenya. Microfinance initiatives have kept pace to fund entrepreneurs in these emerging spaces.
There are challenges though. Availability of sufficient power, for instance. Even in the sun-rich Sahara, an enormous area of solar farms is needed to power North African cities, especially given their summer air-conditioning requirements. The Benban Solar Farm in Egypt spans over 37 square kilometers (large enough to be seen from outer space) but can power only 420,000 Egyptian homes, a tiny fraction of the country’s 102 million people. For other forms of renewables like wind and tidal, availability is time-bound, introducing an additional barrier to generating sufficient energy. Further innovation to increase power generation of renewables while improving storage is of paramount importance.
Another challenge that commonly rears its head is geopolitics. Hydropower dams on rivers that flow through several countries are a frequent source of geopolitical wrangling. When Ethiopia started filling the reservoir of the above-mentioned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2020, Egypt pointed out that Ethiopia had done so without a legally binding agreement on equitable allocation of the Nile’s waters. Egypt escalated this to the international community, and the United States considered withholding aid to Ethiopia until this issue was resolved. The presence of another country (Sudan) downstream from Ethiopia along the Blue Nile adds a potential third dimension to the same conflict.
In addition to the fact that there are so many countries in Africa, each with its own interests, another issue is that these countries are not exactly awash in cash to spend on ever-more ambitious renewable energy projects. Funding from the international community can help with this, as can innovative localized solutions like microfinance and more efficient energy subsidies.
Though challenges remain, the drive and ingenuity to tackle these challenges are also abundant across Africa. From the scorching Sahara to the south Atlantic, from the Gulf of Aden to the Cape of Good Hope, governments and entrepreneurs are buzzing with ideas and efforts. Africa will continue to herald a sunrise of technologies and approaches that help us solve the climate crisis. A sunrise as iconic as the sun-on-the-acacia-tree image that represents the continent in many of our minds.
It would be poetic indeed if the continent where human life began is also the place that shows us how to stay alive.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Vasanth Seshadri runs the Singapore-based creative agency The Sunny Side. He is the author of the sustainability-themed novel The People from Beyond the Mountains.