Africa has vast energy resources and untapped energy potential, but the continent’s growth and development is being hampered by chronic energy shortages. The path to sustainable growth has to be centred on clean, ethical leadership, smart technologies, clean local technology development, cooperation between countries, financial reforms and tapping into our growing young population.
It is well documented that over 600 million of Africa’s 1 billion population does not have access to primary energy, which is in part due to a lack of skills in the energy sector on the continent. There is an urgent need, therefore, to focus on developing the next generation of leaders in African energy – solutions-oriented, innovative thinkers that will lead our continent into an era of clean, sustainable energy, accessible to all.
Currently, South Africa and the North African economies account for about 70% of electricity demand and supply on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa is therefore particularly energy poor, despite the fact that the region has sufficient natural resources to provide its urban and rural populations with all their energy needs.
The fact is, Africa is blessed with abundant sunshine, wind, geothermal sources, water resources, biomass and oceans. So how do we harness these resources while at the same time manage the transition to renewable energy production? The challenges are both technical and political.
In order for African governments to address energy shortages on the continent, they need to embrace 4IR solutions in the energy sector as a matter of urgency, as these can help provide stability, even with the limited existing resources. Governments need to look at local solutions to solve local problems, because the dynamics in every country are different and importing expensive solutions will not necessarily solve our energy problems. African governments need to put energy at the very centre of their development plans; policy and regulatory measures need to be put in place to improve the financial and operational efficiency of utilities and to facilitate a more effective use of public funds to catalyse private capital.
The cost of doing business on the continent is a major stumbling block, and is due to, among others, a lack of infrastructure, political instability and corruption (both real and perceived), the cost and lack of capital due to perceived risk, generally immature financial markets, shortage of technical skills, and a reliance on American, European and Chinese technologies.
In addition to political will within individual countries, intracontinental trade in energy is absolutely essential. There are countries that are blessed with natural gas, others with oil, others with water resources, solar resources, etcetera. There are existing trade pacts between countries and within regions, and our governments need to make full use of these to ensure sustainability and improve energy security on the continent. Collaboration is also key, and there are examples of successful collaborative projects, such as the Inga Hydropower scheme that traverses several SADC countries, gas and hydropower arrangements between South Africa and Mozambique, power arrangements between South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, as well as collaborative efforts between East African countries, including Kenya and Tanzania, which is a good sign.
Again, I stress that we need local solutions to address local problems, and to tap into our growing young population. To develop the much-needed skills in the African energy sector, the African Energy Leadership Centre (AELC) at Wits Business School became the first teaching/research hub of its kind. The AELC is dedicated to creating a pipeline of skilled leaders who will not bow to political pressures but who will develop innovative solutions for their specific environments – local solutions for local challenges - but with a global outlook.
The energy sector in Africa offers an exciting career with many prospects. The sector is ripe for innovation and therefore growth, but young leaders will need both resilience and a moral backbone if they are to overcome challenges. They also need to understand the impact that boardroom decisions have on the average person on the street.