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Energy in East Africa

Poverty refers not only to one’s economic situation, but also to other factors that influence life. Especially in the past years the term “energy poverty” has become more common.

Sustainable access to energy is essential in the eradication of poverty and for the improvement of access to education and health services and therefore a critical factor in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Taking this into consideration, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2012 the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.

First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between energy and electricity. In most East African countries access to electricity is very low, as the following table shows. These numbers, however, do not mean, for example, that in Eritrea 32% of the population has access to electricity. Instead, they reflect the share of people that potentially could be connected to the grid. For the majority, connection is too expensive, which leads to a situation in Ethiopia in which actual access in rural areas is approximately 3%.

Table: Energy Facts for East African Countries

The numbers for per capita electricity consumption in particular reveal the degree of undersupply when compared to the thresholds defined by the United Nations. According to the UN, the first level of energy supply needed to meet basic human needs, such as lightning, education and health services, is for 50-100 kWh per capita. Of the seven countries portrayed, only three are above 50 kWh per capita.

Besides electricity, there is a basic need for energy. Energy can be consumed in the form of electricity, but due to the lack of availability, this is not the case in Eastern African countries, where most of the energy consumed is produced from traditional solid biomasses, such as the burning of wood. This energy is mainly used in households for cooking.

Sufficient energy supply is needed in order to improve living conditions, especially for women, as it allows more time for education, improves health services and production and eventually allows the establishment of small businesses. Therefore, it can be summarized that a sustainable and sufficient supply of energy is essential to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The use of wood as a solid fuel comes with many disadvantages, the most obvious of which is the problem of deforestation. The following graph shows the decline of the area covered by forest in selected East African countries over a period of 10 years. If one takes into consideration that 40% of the land was covered by forest in Ethiopia at the beginning of the 20th century, it is obvious how severe the situation is. This deforestation not only leads to climate change and soil erosion, it also has severe social implications. Wood becomes less available, forcing women to cover longer distances in order to collect the fuel source. After the collection of water, this is now the second most time consuming activity women face.

Graph: Deforestation in East African Countries

The search for combustibles begins early in the morning, includes several hours of walking, and, in cases where no trees are to be found, digging for roots with bare hands; in some regions this activity is accompanied by the constant danger of violent and sexual assaults. In areas where there is no wood left for burning, cow dung or other waste is used for fuel. This means that this waste cannot be used as an important fertilizer for soils, leading to further soil degradation and lower crop yields. Traditional stoves are not only inefficient in burning the material, but also pose a risk for women due to bad ventilation and indoor cooking, since they inhale the smoke, causing respiratory diseases and lower life expectancy.

Using fossil fuels is the most unfavorable solution to this problem, not only due to emissions, but also from an economic perspective as these countries do not have their own oil reserves and thus need to import. However, East African countries have great potential for green technologies.

Hydropower and solar energy are generally produced in large-scale projects unavailable to remote locations, not to mention their high cost. So how can the energy access of rural areas be secured? More efficient use of wood due to the distribution of efficient stoves and reforestation are only temporary solutions. There is also the option of using modern biomass and biofuels. In reference to energy production, the term biomass refers to biological materials that are either used directly (e.g. burning of wood) or converted into biofuels which are then used for energy production.

The burning of wood is, therefore, energy production with biomass; but as mentioned above, this traditional biomass use can be destructive. New technologies allow for cleaner and more efficient use of biomass. This seems viable especially for East African countries and rural areas, since most are dependent on agriculture. It is assumed that in the Sub-Saharan countries up to 95% of the rural population works in the agricultural sector and adds consistently to national GDP. There the excess biomass or bio-waste could be used for the production of biofuels. Furthermore, it has repeatedly been claimed that biomass and biofuels could provide more employment and alleviate poverty. Thus, it could be assumed that biomass could play a role in fighting rural poverty.

Since the discussion on biofuels and biomass in East African countries is far more complex than can be presented in this short article, Glopolis is happy to provide you an opportunity to find out more about this issue at a series of debates on renewable energy in Africa.

Ilustrační foto/Flickr.com / CIFOR

Editorial Notes: Glopolis is an independent Prague based think-tank dedicated to creating a more responsible economy, smarter energy policies and stable food markets. Suggested by František Marčík, since 2009 a contributor and an editor of the Czech version of Energybulletin available at http://www.EnergyBulletin.cz/ -BA

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