Energy Poverty

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Source: David Stanley. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Energy poverty in Africa manifests itself in the form of reliance on traditional fuels and kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting needs. The usage of these fuels causes illnesses, degrades quality of life, and places a significant economic burden on rural families in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Furthermore, it creates a number of environmental problems and contributes to man-made climate change.

The scope of energy poverty in Africa

As mentioned in the previous section, over 80% of Africa’s energy needs are met with biomass, and almost another 15% are met using petroleum products. Biomass fuel usually comes in the form of traditional fuel sources such as firewood and charcoal, and kerosene is the most widely used petroleum product in SSA. Africa currently consumes about 625 million cubic meters of fuelwood per year, and consumption is only expected to increase as Africa’s population continues to grow. Africa as a whole consumes 40.1 million barrels of kerosene per year. Reliance on fuelwood varies on a regional level, as depicted by the map below. In general, reliance on wood fuel is most prevalent in eastern and central Africa.


Source: Solar Cooking Wiki

Health problems

The burning of wood releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter in the form of soot. Charcoal and kerosene are slightly cleaner burning than unprocessed wood. Many of these compounds are dangerous to human health.  In rural SSA, open fires are often kept lit inside the household for hours at a time everyday. The resulting indoor air pollution is worse than the outdoor air pollution found in many of the world’s large cities. For the average rural African, daily exposure to indoor air pollution is about as unhealthy as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The impact of indoor air pollution in the developing world in general disproportionately falls upon women and children. Women are often relegated to the role of homemakers in less developed regions, and therefore spend most of their time inside the house next to the fire cooking and taking care of the children, who also spend much of their lives inside.

Indoor air pollution from traditional fuel sources is the most significant contributor to global disease burden. It is commonly associated with the development of upper respiratory infections, which cause over 2 million deaths annually; more deaths than both HIV/AIDS and malaria. Children are the most susceptible; upper respiratory infections oftentimes progress into pneumonia, which is deadly if left untreated. In the long term, indoor air pollution from traditional fuel sources reduces lung function and leads to a number of chronic diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer.

Economic impact

Wood is collected either by villagers themselves for home use or by firewood and charcoal vendors for processing into charcoal, which is then sold on local markets. In areas where markets are not established, many families are forced to collect firewood from local sources themselves. This is a task that is often undertaken by women. The opportunity cost of fuelwood collection is high; women who collect fuelwood for their families often do so for about four hours a day. This time would otherwise be better spent on income generating activities such as sewing, basket weaving, or undertaking entrepreneurial activities.

Nonrenewable lighting sources, namely kerosene, can cost African families $70-110 USD on an annual basis.  Overall, the African BoP spent an estimated $13.2-17.3 billion USD on non-renewable lighting sources, including kerosene, candles, and battery-powered torches.  This is a significant portion of many African households’ income. Furthermore, a study done by Lighting Africa reveals that more impoverished rural families oftentimes pay more for kerosene than their urban counterparts. Rural consumers often buy kerosene in smaller quantities for daily use, while urban consumers tend to buy petrol and kerosene in larger quantities from the pump in cities.  This drives up unit costs for rural consumers.  On average, rural Africans pay 35% more for kerosene. Since kerosene availability varies on a regional basis, families in regions such as western Africa may pay even more for the kerosene that they use to meet their daily needs. Furthermore, kerosene use makes these families vulnerable to global fluctuations in oil prices. As mentioned before, African countries tend to rely on imported refined petroleum products. A sudden oil price spike could suddenly make kerosene too expensive for many rural Africans to afford, depriving them of their most important source of lighting.


Credit: Robert Finocchio and Solar Sister.

The high cost of traditional fuel sources, in both time and money, keeps families trapped in a cycle of energy poverty that reduces quality of life and disposable income. Because rural families waste so much of their time and money acquiring cooking and heating fuel, their only option is continuing use of traditional fuel sources. This feedback loop is extremely difficult to break, and makes families reluctant to spend what little disposable income they have on improved cookstoves or lighting products that could significantly improve their livelihoods.

Environmental issues

Fuelwood harvesting is one of the most significant drivers of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa. Deforestation rates in Africa are twice that of the world average due to unsustainable harvesting practices. Although wood is a renewable resource, forestry resources are being depleted at a rate faster than they can naturally replenish themselves. Trees are sometimes harvested illegally and even in national parks, game reserves, and other nationally protected areas. East Africa’s unique montane rainforests are particularly threatened by fuelwood harvesting. Kenya, for example, has lost more than 80% of its forests since 1960. In more arid such as the Sahel, fuelwood harvesting contributes to desertification, in which formerly productive land is degraded through the removal of vegetation and the erosion of topsoil.


The destruction of forest for fuel and charcoal production also contributes to climate change. Although this contribution is not significant compared to the emissions of industrialized nations such as the United States and China, it is important to note that Africans will bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts. Climate change is accelerating desertification in the Sahel region; increasing the severity of extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, and floods; worsening Africa’s malaria problem; causing shifts in local climatic patterns; and impacting the livelihoods of African small farmers who are reliant on their harvest. Countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Uganda that rely heavily on the export of cash crops such as cacao and coffee are going to be hit especially hard as rising temperatures impact yields and render certain regions unsuitable for growing these crops.

Taking action

As forest cover continues to dwindle and the threat of climate change looms, rural communities are more vulnerable than ever. As more and more people become trapped in vicious cycle of energy poverty, demand for traditional fuels is only expected to rise, and with that, the rate of destruction of Africa’s remaining forests. Climate change is projected to further increase existing disease burden in sub-Saharan Africa and render many regions unproductive. Some solutions to the puzzle of energy poverty are already being implemented. A number of socially-driven enterprises have stepped into provide both alternative and sustainable sources of fuel and lighting and more efficient cookstoves to help alleviate energy poverty. The following sections will provide a rundown of Africa’s energy market and propose strategies and solutions to overcoming some of the challenges many social enterprises face when working in sub-Saharan Africa.



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