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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Renewable energy: Africa’s billions might be buried forever

Energy, clean energy has just reached Bamdzeng and Kingomen villages in the North West of Cameroon and the lives of the villagers might never be the same again but the dawn of renewable energy could just be a curse for Africa that is endowed with deposits of fossil fuels.

Ardo Abdou Karimu admires light from solar power at his   home in Kingomen village. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU
Ardo Abdou Karimu admires light from solar power at his home in Kingomen village. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU

It is 10:31 pm in Bamdzeng village in the North West region of Cameroon and a pregnant woman in critical labour has just arrived the Bamdzeng Health Centre. She is breathless as nurses rush her to the newly created delivery room of the centre.


“We trekked for more than one hour to reach here. The health centre in our village cannot perform risky delivery at night because there is no electricity there,” says the distressed husband, impatiently waiting for his new born baby. Things moved faster than expected. Nurses quickly switched on the lights, started the delivery process and, in less than three hours, the cry of a baby is heard. She is delivered of a healthy boy and she is in good shape.

“Just few weeks ago, delivery at this time of the day was impossible. We were using torches and lamps to deliver pregnant women and, in most cases, it was a deadly venture. The arrival of electricity here has changed everything,” says a delighted Rahina Tou Dzemoyua, assistant director of the centre.

A few kilometers away, Ardo Abdou Karimu, a respected community figure of Kingomen village, reflects on how electrification of the village has changed the lives of the villagers.

Solar panels on rooftop of Bamdzeng village Health Centre. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU
Solar panels on rooftop of Bamdzeng village Health Centre. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU

“The children now do their school homework under a solar light at night and they are performing very well in school. We charge our phone batteries easily and we are able to make calls all the time to our relatives and business partners. Importantly, our standard of living has increased considerably,” says Abdou Karimu.

Abdou and Rahina remember with a sense of humour the first day solar panels arrived the village.

“It was like a miracle. They came and placed them on the rooftop of my house and in the evening we had light. My children thought it was witchcraft. We only discovered that it`s night time by 8pm because there was light everywhere,” Abdou recalls hysterically.

“It was like darkness has been defeated by light. I could not imagine that the sun could be used for electricity,” Rahina says.

“The project was born out of the need to improve the livelihoods of the people, alleviate poverty and fight against climate change. We are moving to a new world now,” says Stephen Njodzeka Ndzerem, development analyst and managing director of Shumas Cameroon, the organisation that brought renewable energy to the two villages. Shumas works in special consultation status with the UN economic and social council (ECOSOC).

Solar power charging phones and other electrical appliances of villagers in Bamdzeng. More than 100 phones are   charged everyday. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU
Solar power charging phones and other electrical appliances of villagers in Bamdzeng. More than 100 phones are charged everyday. Photo credit: Arison TAMFU

The two villages, now using hydroelectricity, solar and wind power represent a new form of energy that has come to stay and is gaining ground gradually and surely across the African continent – renewable energy.

“At the moment, the continent is witnessing a lot of green revolution and renewable energy projects being initiated. There also seems to be a positive shift in mentality towards renewable energy amongst African Governments,” says Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), a civil society organisation defending the position of Africa under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat which are naturally replenished.

The sun shines almost daily throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, but most of the population – more than 620 million people — lives in the dark, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This extreme energy poverty in a region so rich in radiant sunlight presents both a paradox and an opportunity for a big part of the solution in powering Africa. Statistics from IEA indicate that Africa currently derives less than two per cent of its energy mix from renewable sources.


Wind turbines in Egypt. Photo credit: CDKN
Wind turbines in Egypt. Photo credit: CDKN

Vaccine for climate change

Ardo Abdou Karimu is pleased that electricity has finally reached his village, yet he is very worried that things are turning upside-down for him and his family.

“The climate is changing. Rains come and go at any time. We don’t know precisely when to plant our crops and when to stop. Last year we almost went hungry because rains delayed a lot. Water is becoming scarce. We can`t feed our cows because green grass is disappearing,” he laments.

Abdou`s worries are familiar across the African continent where droughts, erratic rainfall, floods are affecting millions. Scientists predict that climate change could mean even longer, more unpredictable seasons and more extreme weather events and unprecedented rising sea levels. World leaders agree that there is urgent need to provide a therapy for climate change.

“Unlike some problems that we face, this one already has a ready-made solution provided by mankind that is staring us in the face: The solution to climate change is energy policy,” U.S Secretary of State John Kerry said during the last UN climate change conference dubbed COP20, in December 2014 in Lima, Peru.

That energy policy according to scientists is a switch to renewable energy. The main scientific authority on climate change, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has underscored the fact that renewable energy is one of the major ways of curing climate change because it is clean and does not emit dangerous greenhouse gases into atmosphere.

In addition to its importance to climate change, there’s another compelling reason to develop renewable resources in Africa: rapidly growing energy demand. As acute as Africa’s energy poverty is today, it could become even worse without aggressive efforts to develop more resources. IEA predicts that even if a projected one billion people gain access to electricity by the year 2040, rapid population growth will mean that some 530 million people will still live without it. And as Africa shifts from a primarily rural society to an increasingly urban one, more of its people will be living middle class lifestyles that require more electricity in their homes and workplaces. With a growing number of people seeking to light their homes and generate power for businesses, farms and manufacturing, the squeeze on resources will become unsustainable unless renewable resources become part of the mix according to IEA.

Abdou Karimu is shocked to hear that a major solution to his climate problem is the solar energy that has been provided him free of charge.

He wonders: “Why don`t they provide this kind of energy everywhere? It is very good for us in the village. People come every day from several villages asking me how they can have the energy. Why is the government delaying?”

Naïve as he may sound but he poses a key problem that currently divides the world in climate change negotiations. What Abdou does not know is that renewable energy means good and bad news for Africa.


Goodbye fossil fuels?

Here is the good news: Africa’s extractive industry is booming. Countries across the continent more than ever before are now endowed with fossil fuel deposits. Fossil fuels consist of gas used for cooking and heating, oil that is mainly used for transport and coal used to generate electricity. Six of the top 10 global discoveries in the oil and gas sectors in 2013 were made in Africa, with more than 500 companies currently exploring deposits on the continent according to PwC, the world’s leading advisor to the energy industry.

“These discoveries mean a lot for Africa. It means money; trillions of dollars. It means economic growth, job creation and fundamentally poverty alleviation. It will revamp the continent,” says economist, Dr. Emmanuel Mumfor.

Here is the bad news: Fossil fuels are a threat to the existence of mankind. Scientists agree that emissions from fossil fuels account for approximately 60 percent of the dangerous greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere causing global warming. The biggest emitters are China and America. Africa has contributed very minimal to global warming but IPCC has made it clear that 80 per cent of known global fossil fuel reserves would need to remain unexploited for the international community to reach its declared goal of staying below a maximum two degrees Celsius world average temperature rise. In brief: stop fossil fuels and move to renewable sources of energy.

“What this mean is that Africa`s dreams of exploiting and obtaining gains from the oil deposits will be shattered. Essentially this should be a problem for developed countries that have been emitting these greenhouse gases for decades. Africa needs to equally grow its economy by exploiting the fossil fuels,” says Dr. Mumfor.

During COP20, John Kerry stressed that the call to get rid of fossil fuels was meant for all nations without exception.

“Of course industrialised countries have to play a major role in reducing emissions, but that doesn’t mean that other nations are just free to go off and repeat the mistakes of the past and that they somehow have a free pass to go to the levels that we’ve been at where we understand the danger. Now, I know this is difficult for developing nations but we have to remember that today more than half of global emissions are coming from developing nations,” Kerry said.

President Obama has committed the United States to the goal of generating 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. China has increased their power generation from renewables from really nothing 10 years ago – and now it’s 25% according to IEA.


Africa`s position

In December in Paris this year, a high level UN climate change conference will bring world leaders together to decide on the right path to tackle climate change. It is at this conference that the world will take a final and legally-binding stand on energy choices, amongst other things. Already, Africa is making its position clear.

“We categorically reject the idea that Africa has to choose between growth and low-carbon development. Africa needs to utilise all of its energy assets in the short term, while building the foundations for a competitive, low-carbon energy infrastructure,” says Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and Chair of the Africa Progress Panel.

“But Africa has enormous potential for cleaner energy. Unlocking Africa’s clean energy potential can drive growth and create jobs. Africa can grow and show the way for the rest of the world by gradually replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources and embracing a judicious, dynamic energy mix,” he adds.

Efforts to move to renewable are generally referred to as mitigation but Africa also wants adaptation, that is, those activities that make people, ecosystems and infrastructure less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change to be given priority.

“Africa is highlighting the need for mitigation target and also multilateral legally-binding agreement that will ensure that the objective of the emission reduction will be achieved, finances secured, technology transferred and means of implementation. Africa also wants to ensure that adaptation is fully considered and given the same priority as mitigation because for us in Africa adaptation is the key priority in the 2015 agreement. That is why Africa will not sign any Paris agreement that will not include its demands,” says Nagmeldin Goutbi Elhassan, Chairman of the African Group of Negotiators under the UNFCCC.

Stephen Ndzerem says bringing renewable energy to Bamdzeng and Kingomen was a difficult task.

“We lacked finance and technology and the technicians.” That alone signals a main problem for the continent. Switching to renewables requires money, lots of it and technology and capacity building.

“We are looking forward to getting the flow of know-how and financial resources,” says Dr. Khaled Fahmy African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) President and Minister of Environment of Egypt. African civil society is quite categorical.

“And the finances, technology, capacity building and the rest must come from those responsible for emitting gases into the air. They need to lead the mitigation efforts,” adds Mithika of PACJA.

John Kerry disagrees: “No single country, not even the United States, can solve this problem or foot this bill alone. It is literally impossible”

So, at the end of the day, sadly Abdou and millions like him that are experiencing the adverse consequences of climate change will have to wait for a while, a long long while before a concrete solution is achieved. The Paris conference promises to be extremely controversial.

“Future generations will surely judge these leaders not by principles they set out in communiqués but by the actions they took to eradicate poverty, build shared prosperity and protect our children’s children from climate disaster. The global climate moment can be Africa’s moment to lead the world,” says Kofi Annan.

By Arison TAMFU

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