Back on Track: The Role of Renewables in Africa’s post-COVID Recovery

When making our first steps to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that the necessary emergency measures implemented worldwide – lockdowns, travel restrictions, deep changes and limitations in everyone’s personal and professional routines – widely increased the inequalities that already characterized our system. Specifically, it seems that the real challenge the African continent will be facing in the upcoming years concerns public health. Africa seems to have suffered less than the Western world in that to this day, Africa accounts for merely 3.37% of worldwide COVID-19 cases – equating to roughly 4 million out of 137 million cases worldwide – with an even lower confirmed death rate – 116,746 out of 2.97 million. However, in digging more deeply into the economic and social aspects we begin to realize the real repercussions of the phenomenon. In 2020, Africa’s Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) growth, the most promising worldwide, shrank from 3.2% to 1.8%. The consequences of this are significant, with an estimated 29 million people expected to fall back into extreme poverty.  

African economy is impacted by the disruption of supply chains, huge shifts in public finance and harsh struggles for business owners to keep up with their operational costs. Moreover, where lockdown measures are implemented, they often conflict with an endemic lack of access to electricity and internet, thus jeopardizing, for many people, the possibility to work or study. These issues are even more consistent in remote areas, which used to face alike difficulties even before the pandemic, with a remarkably reduced access to services and utilities. The need for a fresh start has never been stronger, especially in a continent which, despite major economic and social constraints, has proven to be a rising star in terms of GDP growth, digitalization and innovation. A post-COVID-19 recovery calls for the mobilization of resources and investments, which should be allocated in strategic sectors. Among them, renewable energy is one of the most crucial, as it represents the backbone of sustainable development and is, consequently, one of the main drivers for a post-COVID recovery.  

In addition to a post-COVID-19 recovery, the mobilization of renewable energy would also tackle climate change, another important challenge of the century. A green energy transition is a multiplier for development and an enabler to achieve other Sustainable Development Goals, and it additionally plays an irreplaceable role in ensuring the provision of basic services which, in many areas of Africa, are unreliable, delicate or utterly absent. Access to energy means power for health centers and related machines; new possibilities for clean cooking, sanitization and WASH activities; a more inclusive and efficient educational system; and a steady cornerstone for business initiatives. Renewable Energies also represent valuable options to stimulate job creation. While $10 million investments in renewable technologies and energy efficiency create on average between 75 and 77 new jobs, the same investment in fossil fuels creates only 27 new jobs. However, there is much more at stake. Thanks to the renewables, a new approach towards energy – characterized by innovation and flexibility – can and must be built. Mini- and micro-grids represent a breakthrough in the provision of energy, specifically regarding isolated communities, as they enable them to access energy at fair conditions, therefore reducing socio-economic burdens and, consequently, allowing them to leapfrog towards a sustainable post-COVID recovery. Renewable energies, therefore, can positively affect all human sectors that the pandemic and subsequent measures have greatly damaged.  

Renewable energy will be necessary to the global COVID-19 recovery, even when it comes to spontaneous macro-economic dynamics. The world and the African continent are expected to experience a consistent economic bounce-back in the incoming years. It goes without saying that, in the absence of a major deployment of renewable energy sources, the market would not be able to keep up with the expected growth. A 1% GDP growth is associated with 0.66% additional demand from households, 0.53% additional demand from the services sector and 1.06% more demand from the industrial sector. Renewable energy provision will therefore be the life blood of a shared and sustainable recovery in Africa and elsewhere, as well as a chance, possibly our last, to radically reshape our development models and to make the Just Energy Transition happen. 

Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of Renewable Energy Solutions for Africa (RES4Africa). With over 30 years’ experience in the industry, he has covered various positions at Enel, University of Pisa, International Energy Agency, and International Renewable Energy Agency. He has been Secretary General of RES4Africa since 2012, a Foundation that gathers more than 30 stakeholders to accelerate the renewable energy transformation in Africa.

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