It is clear that for Africa, access to electricity is most crucial to its development through the creation of jobs that will lift people out of poverty. Young people in Africa are at a loss as to what to do with their lives because they do not have jobs to keep them occupied – thus driving them into the hands of extremists or people smugglers, says Desmond Davies

THE 6th Tana High Level Forum on Security in Africa, which will take place in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia in April, will focus on protecting the continent’s natural resources. There is no gainsaying that resource governance in Africa is a major cause for concern for many Africans who are not reaping the benefits of their countries’ natural assets.

The Forum will, naturally, seek to find answers as to why the continent is not benefiting more from its oil and gas resources, as well as its gold and farmlands. As the Forum points out, Africa has 12 per cent of global oil reserves, 40 per cent of global gold deposits, and about two-thirds of the world’s most suitable land for farming and forests.

This would be a good time, though, to pay attention to coal in an era where there are growing counter-arguments to climate change activists who talk about the damage to the environment. Restrictions by Western countries and the World Bank on the use of fossil fuel such as coal have been inhibiting the growth of power supply in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the only region in the world where the number of people without electricity is increasing.

Over 620 million people in the region are without access to electricity – a figure which is set to grow by 65 million over the next 15 years. Some 730 million people also rely on dangerous, inefficient forms of cooking, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA also notes that in sub-Saharan Africa average electricity consumption per capita is not enough to power a single 50-watt light bulb continuously. In the US, for example, the average annual electricity consumption is a massive 13,250 kilowatt hours per capita.

Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development in the US told The New York Times in 2015 that the US, which relied on coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear power for about 95 per cent of its electricity, was frowning on their use by developing countries. “…we place major restrictions on financing all four of these sources of power overseas,” said Moss. Indeed, overseas development policies for Africa are hurting development on the continent.

There is an urgent need, therefore, to find cheaper sources of providing sustained electricity supply that will aid development and raise standards of living. “There's never been a country that has developed with intermittent power," Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, has noted.

Indeed, African leaders are beginning to see the wisdom of this argument, given that the continent has 35 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves, which at the current rate of consumption, will last for 122 years, according to the IEA. Even developed countries are committing themselves to continuing to use coal for generating energy. Germany’s Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said recently: “It [coal-fuelled power] will on no account be switched off in the next decade – in my opinion not even in the one after that.”

Of course, African countries have sought to provide electricity for citizens and businesses to aid development and tackle poverty but the cost of oil-fuelled electricity has been prohibitive.

It appears now that the alternative is to turn to coal, which African governments argue is the best way forward. When former US President Barack Obama launched his Power Africa programme in 2013 to provide access to power supply in sub-Saharan Africa by adding more than 30,000 megawatts of electricity generation, he made clear that his administration would not back the use of coal abroad for electricity generation unless there were carbon emission controls.

But when African leaders attended the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in 2014, they argued that developed countries had used coal to fuel their industrialisation. Sospeter Muhongo, Tanzania’s current Minister of Energy and Minerals, said then when he was Minister of Power:  “We in Africa, we should not be in the discussion of whether we should use coal or not. In my country of Tanzania, we are going to use our natural resources because we have reserves which go beyond five billion tons.”

African governments have pointed out that the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) places development first when it states: “Economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priority of the developing country partner.”

Nigeria, which has a woeful reputation for power failures, backs the use of coal to generate power. The country’s Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun told a recent joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank: “We in Nigeria have coal but we have a power problem, yet we’ve been blocked because it is not green. There is some hypocrisy because we have the entire Western industrialisation built on coal energy. They are saying: ‘You have to use solar and wind’, which are the most expensive,” she added.  Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has added his voice to the debate: “We in Africa, we should use what we have to generate power for our people.”

It is clear that for Africa, access to electricity is most crucial to its development through the creation of jobs that will lift people out of poverty. Young people in Africa are at a loss as to what to do with their lives because they do not have jobs to keep them occupied – thus driving them into the hands of extremists or people smugglers.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made this point about the dire situation of Africa’s young people during last year’s Tana Forum “…the most urgent challenge is to create enough jobs for the continent’s youth. According to the World Bank, 11 million young people are expected to enter Africa’s labour market every year for the next decade,” he said.

“If these young people cannot find jobs, and do not believe in the future, they may be tempted by rebel movements of all kinds, as well as crime and migration. Wherever I am in Africa, I am always struck not just by the number of young people, but also by their energy, their creativity and their talent. We should invest in them, harness their talent and ensure that the next generation of leaders will do better than we have done,” Annan added.

The 28th AU Summit in January focused on investing in Africa’s young people. Generating more electricity is the key to improving their lot. Speaking recently in the UK parliament, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, James Wharton, said: “Access to energy is a prerequisite driver of economic growth and development. That is why the UK and this Department are playing a key role in providing both on and off-grid energy access, such as through the Energy Africa campaign, which will help to secure energy supplies for over 4.5 million of the world’s poorest people.”

He pointed out that 1,000MW can support 800,000 jobs in Africa, referring to a project – in which the UK’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) has a majority stake – to provide 5,000MW on the continent. “This is the scale of the difference we can make when and where we get this right. And that is what we are doing it,” Wharton said.

In China, which lifted another 10 million people out of poverty in 2016, the authorities have been building about 8GW of power in two-month periods, while Africa has provided only 6GW of power in 10 years.

Experts have pointed out that renewables such as solar cannot power industrial development in Africa because of lack of storage capacity and their unreliability. But Western restrictions on aid mean Africa is being denied technology such as supercritical power plants and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which the continent can take advantage of to cut emissions.

Many commentators have said that the Paris Agreement means the end for coal, but the appetite for affordable, reliable and accessible energy in developing and emerging economies, means demand for coal will continue to grow. Low emission coal technology features significantly in the plans of about 22 countries that together produce 44 per cent of the world’s emissions.

So, despite strong resistance from some Western countries, it is clear that there are other countries that are willing to invest in the construction and deployment of coal-fired generating units in Africa because of the potential developmental and poverty-reduction dividends to the continent.

In the final analysis, Africa needs more power to empower the continent.