By Alfred Nyakinda

A low demand for electricity is as much an obstacle to the greater electrification of sub-Saharan Africa as supply problems, a recent World Bank report reveals.

The 2019 report on electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa found that the availability of an electricity supply does not automatically increase the level of access by nearby populations.

The share of households living near the electric grid, but which are not connected, was found to be approximately 57 percent for the 20 countries whose data is available.

Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa were among the countries with the highest uptake rates, while those with low uptakes included Liberia, Malawi and Uganda. Uptake also varied within countries, with a higher concentration in urban and peri-urban areas, with Uganda serving as an example where only the central region that includes the capital Kampala has an uptake rate greater than 50 percent.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electricity consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa was 483 kilowatt hours (kWh) per person for 2014, which is not much more than the amount required to power a 50-watt light bulb continuously for a year.

The World Bank report states that high costs have led to an unwillingness to pay despite a general desire to access electricity. The cost of electricity in many African countries is more than double the cost in high-income nations such as the United States, which stands at US$0.12 per kilowatt hour, and much higher than other emerging markets like India where it costs US$0.08 per kilowatt hour.

In many African countries, it would cost more than 10 percent of per capita income to power a refrigerator for a year. In poorer countries like Liberia where electricity costs four times as much as in the United States, the cost rises to 49 percent.

The report goes on to say that if all households living within the range of the electricity grid were connected, the uptake rate would be over 60 percent on average in Africa, nearly double the current rate in many countries.

As of 2016, only 42.8 percent of the population in Africa had access to electricity, with 80 percent of the 600 million without electricity living in rural areas. The authors note that this is similar to the United States in 1921, when noticeable growth in manufacturing productivity began.

Despite this, the report cautions that electricity-assisted economic transformation in Africa will require more commercial use, which is currently limited by low reliability and high costs. In many African countries, the majority of the population resides in rural areas and the agricultural sector is the main source of employment. The lack of equitable access between rural and urban areas hinders the wide-scale usage of electric power in the agricultural industry.

The World Banks bi-annual analysis for the region in April 2018 stated that utilisation of electricity for agricultural purposes stands at two percent of total electricity consumption in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Access to electricity will lift productivity within and across sectors,” said Albert G. Zeufack, World Bank chief economist for the Africa region, “African governments must fully embrace technology and leverage innovation to ensure quality, affordable and sustainable electricity.”

The analysis further noted that differences in protocols defining access make it difficult to differentiate between real and nominal access, especially in rural areas. In some cases, the existence of a single grid-connected household is sufficient to determine that a whole village has access, or the existence of physical connection, regardless of whether power is flowing through them is regarded as access.

The electricity access report states that even though the cost of electricity in Africa is the highest in the world, the amount paid is not sufficient to recover the cost of supply. The result is challenges in reliability, such as shortages and brown-outs, adding to the difficulty of running commercially viable enterprises dependent on electricity.

The percentage of firms experiencing outages in sub-Saharan Africa was found to be the highest in the world at 78.7 percent, more than 10 percent greater than the next highest, South Asia, at 66.2 percent.

Households are also affected by shortages, with the electricity supply situation in Nigeria being cited as an example. The country enjoys nearly 100 percent coverage, implying near-universal electrification, yet 20 percent of households report having electricity at least most of the time, while 51 percent reported having electricity occasionally.

A positive indicator for future electrification is the high demand for electricity for recharging mobile phones in rural sub-Saharan Africa. While on average, 59 percent of homes have mobile phones, only 17 percent have a power supply. Additionally, the US$17 billion spent on off-grid lighting and mobile phone charging is equivalent to the annual investment in electricity in Africa.

Some challenges facing poor households such as high connection fees and inability to pay bills regularly due to unreliable income have been partly addressed by the provision of prepaid metres and donor-funded projects subsidising power connection costs. However, safe connection to electricity through a conventional alternating current (AC) supply requires high quality housing with professional wiring, which remains out of the reach of many.