John Magiro Wangari was just 16 when he saved up 2,000 Kenyan shillings (about 20 US dollars today) to buy a generator, thinking to start an electricity generation project.
The nearest electricity pole from his village was 15 kilometres away and there was no kerosene oil supplier nearby, so members of his community would spend 80 shillings on a return ride to the nearest town of Kangema, where they paid 80 shillings per litre of oil to run their generators.
“The community members were cutting down trees for tea farming and firewood,” said Wangari, speaking in his native Kiswahili.
But, a little over a kilometre from his village was a river with a waterfall. Wangari modified a generator, installed a turbine and bicycle rim, and then went to buy a dynamo so he could understand how it operated.
“I had seen it on a bicycle, and how the bicycle tyre rotates until it produces light, so I thought about how to use the dynamo in the river to produce power,” said Wangari.
He set up a post and wire from the river to his home, and discovered that his setup was producing 300 volts of electricity.
When we met him at last year’s SEED Awards in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangari had installed lighting to 25 households in his community and security lights on the roads that came on at night.
He didn’t charge for electricity, only for the wires and wiring work, and employed eight fellow youths who helped him with electricity installations and setting up posts.
“I have a target that in one year, the whole village will light up like a town,” he said.
Wangari’s story illustrates the common characteristics of Africa's energy situation: a heavy reliance on fuelwood and charcoal (an estimated 4 out of 5 households), a known abundance of renewable energy potential (almost unlimited solar and abundant hydro, wind and geothermal energy sources), and relatively costly energy, especially in rural areas.
His community is among the two-thirds of the African population that does not have access to the electricity grid. Had it not been for Wangari’s bright idea, it would have remained part of the roughly 600 million people out of Africa’s 1.1 billion that do not have access to electricity at all. For perspective, the entire population of Europe is just over 700 million.
While growing rapidly, access to electricity struggles to keep up with the continent's growing population: between 2010 and 2012, the population increased by 48 million, but only 9 million gained access to non-solid fuel. This makes Africa the only region in the world where the number of people living without electricity is increasing.
An estimated $43-55 billion of annual investment in the energy sector is needed from now to 2030-2040 to meet the demand and provide universal access to electricity in Africa; and only a fraction of that is being achieved.
A new momentum for African energy
In the last decade, however, the momentum has been growing for tapping the continent’s huge modern renewable energy potential.
With the Paris climate accord and the Sustainable Development Goals, the world has committed to sustainable, equitable development, favouring clean energy. Advancements in technology and steady falls in the prices of new renewable energy generation have recently seen these dip below the cost of new fossil fuel energy in some parts of the world, including in Africa.
But it’s the co-benefits that make renewable energy a standout option in Africa: they can be deployed much faster than fossil fuel power plants, be integrated into diesel-based micro-grids for cost savings and offer improved air quality (particularly over biomass or coal).
In response, more and more countries in Africa are introducing strategies and policies to accelerate rural electrification and reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. The majority of African countries now have renewable energy policies.
Africa-led initiatives to boost energy production, inspired by Agenda 2063, Africa’s vision for the next 50 years, contain ambitious targets for the provision of energy from new renewable sources.
A gold mine of energy — and jobs
Growth in renewable energy in Africa could unlock a large source of new jobs — good news for sub‑Saharan Africa, which continues to suffer the highest youth working poverty rates globally, at almost 70 per cent.
A case in point on the continent is Morocco’s Noor concentrated solar power plant, set to become the world's largest. Phase 1 alone, built in one of Morocco’s most disadvantaged regions, created thousands of jobs in construction, operation and maintenance, as well as indirect employment. The agency responsible for the project, MASEN, is also providing training and community development programmes over the next 25 years for the region’s inhabitants.
In 2015, new renewable energy projects created a conservative estimate of 61,000 jobs. In Kenya alone, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wind farm, due for completion in April this year, could create 2,500 jobs over the course of its construction and up to 200 full time jobs when it’s up and running.
But the potential for job creation is yet to be fully realized in Africa. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable energy-related employment “remains low” on the continent as a whole, except in a few countries, notably Kenya, Morocco and South Africa.
“There is a tremendous, long-recognized potential for growth in renewable sources to meet growing energy demand in Africa, where access to non-renewable energy is a challenge. This translates to a huge potential employment market, on a continent whose population is both very youthful and very entrepreneurial,” Dr. Bernadette Lalai of Sierra Leone, member of the Pan-African Parliament, on the sidelines of a policy dialogue on climate change held ahead of the January 2017 African Union Summit, whose focus is on youth.
Indeed, how to respond to the aspirations of Africa’s youth, who make up as much as three quarters of the labour force in most countries — many of whom, like John Magiro Wangari, are learned, enterprising and eager to contribute — is one of the biggest challenges confronting the African Union.
It may just be that Africa’s gold mine of untapped renewable energy potential contains the silver bullet that could help tackle the twin challenges of access to sustainable electricity and employment for youth, and generate a significant, fate-changing virtuous cycle.