Energy Usage in sub-Saharan Africa

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Credit: Robert Finocchio and Solar Sister.

Credit: Robert Finocchio and Solar Sister.


The energy mix in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is characterized by a heavy reliance on traditional biomass fuels and kerosene for home energy use and a reliance on fossil fuels and hydropower for electricity generation.  In most countries, rural areas have no access to electricity whatsoever, and grid-connected areas (which are predominantly urban) are subject to frequent electricity shortages and blackouts.  Those who require consistent access to electricity are often forced to use inefficient backup diesel generators, if they can afford it.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Energy Mix

The energy mix in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is characterized by a heavy reliance on traditional biomass fuels and kerosene for home energy use and a reliance on fossil fuels and hydropower for electricity generation.  In most countries, rural areas have no access to electricity whatsoever, and grid-connected areas (which are predominantly urban) are subject to frequent electricity shortages and blackouts.  Those who require consistent access to electricity are often forced to use inefficient backup diesel generators, if they can afford it.


With 90% of SSA’s households using them to meet their cooking, heating, and lighting needs, traditional fuels are the most widely used energy sources in Africa, as they have been since colonial and pre-colonial times. Traditional fuel sources include harvested biomass, charcoal, candles, and agricultural and animal waste. Biomass is often harvested locally and either burned directly or processed into charcoal, which provides more energy per unit mass and is less polluting than wood or other forms of unprocessed biomass. However, unprocessed biomass usage is more widespread because charcoal markets are not established in all areas and because many families cannot afford to purchase charcoal.

Cooking is the most important use for traditional fuels. In rural Africa, families commonly cook over three stone fires, which are simple, makeshift stoves that have been used in Africa for thousands of years. The use of cookstoves has been growing in recent years thanks to the efforts of governments, NGOs, and social enterprises. Cookstoves are more efficient, safer, and often create less pollution than three stone fires. Some improved cookstoves use technologies such as biomass gasification and may produce charcoal or biochar as a by-product, which can be used as a highly effective organic fertilizer. Lighting is the second most significant use for traditional fuels in SSA. Rural Africans may require lighting at night so that they can study or perform income-generating activities. Kerosene lamps and candles are widely used as sources of light across SSA.

Despite efforts to eliminate their usage, demand for traditional fuels is only expected to grow in the next few decades. Demand for biomass, especially fuelwood, is projected to increase by 40% by 2040. By this time, about 650 million people are projected to still be reliant on these fuel sources. The problems associated with the usage of traditional fuels will be discussed further in another section.

Fossil fuels

Africa is rich in fossil fuel resources but they are unevenly distributed. 90% of oil and natural gas resources are distributed among Northern and Western Africa, and 95% of proven coal reserves are in South Africa. Indeed, Nigeria is one of the world’s major oil producing nations and one of the world’s top five exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Despite its vast oil resources, Nigeria is still a net importer of refined fuel and its national grid cannot generate enough electricity to meet demand, causing frequent power shortages and blackouts.

This paradox is something that is seen in many countries in SSA. Rather than utilizing locally produced oil to meet their needs, nations in SSA often import refined petroleum products from overseas, and are thus vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of crude oil. This is exacerbated by the uneven distribution of oil and natural gas resources in Africa and the lack of infrastructure necessary to facilitate refining. As a result, 38 African countries are net oil importers. In recent years, volatile world oil prices and the depletion of natural resources such as biomass that serve as alternative fuel sources has put a huge dent in SSA’s energy sector and hindered economic growth.

Usage rates of fossil fuels are low due to lack of demand. Africa as a whole accounted for just 3.7% of the world’s fossil fuel consumption in 2010. As infrastructure continues to develop and SSA’s transportation sector grows, demand can be expected to increase. Oil and natural gas are expected to overtake coal because many of Africa’s coal resources are located in remote regions that are inaccessible by current rail infrastructure. Furthermore, South Africa, Africa’s largest coal producer, is implementing policy changes that will decrease its coal usage and extraction rates in favor of the usage of renewables, hydropower, gas, and nuclear.

Kerosene, on the other hand, which is a by-product of petroleum refinement, is widely used as a source of fuel for heating and lighting in SSA. Kerosene is usually sold by village vendors and purchased by families in small quantities of well under a liter per day. It is estimated that Africans spend $10 billion USD on kerosene each year. Its widespread usage is encouraged by kerosene subsidies that have been put into place by many national governments in an effort to help reduce poverty. However, kerosene use causes problems including health issues, financial issues, and CO2 emissions. This will be discussed further in another section.


Africa is rich in hydrological resources that remain largely underutilized, with an exploitation rate of just 4.3%. Africa’s exploitable hydropower resources total to 1750 TWh per year, which is slightly higher than the United States’ total hydropower resources. In the past, there have been a number of hydropower projects financed by colonial powers, the World Bank, and various African governments, notably Egypt’s Aswan Dam, Lesotho’s Katse Dam, the Ghana’s Akosobo Dam, and Tanzania’s Kihansi Dam. Regions such as the Congo Basin have enormous potential for hydropower development.

Most of Africa’s hydropower projects are relatively small. Lack of access to funding, political corruption, and small market size have limited the building of new hydropower projects. Further, hydropower itself also comes with a number of social and environmental impacts. They often disrupt local ecosystems, can lead to the displacement of large numbers of people, and may precipitate regional conflicts over water resources. For example, Tanzania’s Kihansi Dam destroyed an 800 meter high waterfall, adversely affected 20,000 villagers, and caused the extinction of the Kihansi Spray Toad.

Source: ZSM.  Licensed through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Source: ZSM. Licensed through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.


Solar power is gaining traction in SSA. Much of SSA receives a significant amount of isolation a due to its positioning in the tropics. Africa as a continent receives about 3,000 hours of sunlight per year on average. Many countries are already beginning to take advantage of these abundant solar resources and are already building smaller and larger scale solar installations that are both on-grid and off-grid, bringing power to both cities and rural populations. For example, there is a 50 MW solar plant being planned to power Garissa, Kenya and a 155 MW solar plant is already under construction in Ghana. International development agencies such as the World Bank are helping to fund such projects. Most solar installations in Africa are projected to be off the grid in the coming years because of the high costs associated with grid expansion. Some countries, such as Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Liberia, are already integrating off-grid solar into their rural electrification programs. This includes off-grid solar installations, the installation of solar home systems, and the distribution of small solar-powered lighting devices.

Many social enterprises are also taking advantage of solar power to deliver lighting, mobile phone charging, and electricity services to rural Africans. Enterprises such as d.light Design manufacture and distribute affordable solar lanterns that displace the usage of traditional fuels in rural Africa. Others, such as Off Grid Electric, sell pre-paid lighting and electricity services that are powered by solar energy.

Other Renewables

There are ample opportunities for the exploitation of other renewable resources in Africa. Geothermal is projected to be the second most important source of electricity in East Africa by 2040 due to the rich geothermal energy supply provided by the Great Rift Valley. Africa’s desert regions, mountains, and coastline are rich in wind energy resources, but they are highly underutilized. About 99% of installed capacity in 2010 was located in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Africa’s West Coast alone has the potential to provide in excess of 3.75 MWh of wind power. However, the bulk of these wind resources are located on the northern and southern reaches of Africa’s western coastline. Much of sub-Saharan Africa, namely central Africa, lacks significant wind energy resources.

Biofuels are also gaining traction in SSA. Businesses such as Africa Biofuel and International Research and Development, Africa facilitate the planting of crops such as croton nuts, sweet sorghum, and Jatropha that can be processed into cellulosic ethanol or biodiesel for local consumption. SMEFUNDS’ subsidiary Green Energy & Biofuels is currently researching the processing of invasive water hyacinth into ethanol biofuel that can be used to power cookstoves in place of biomass or charcoal. Widespread adoption of biofuels would displace the usage traditional fuels for cooking and heating and could eventually displace the usage of fossil fuels in the transportation sector.

Electricity Access

Africa comprises almost a seventh of the world’s population, yet it only generates about 4% of the world’s electricity. SSA alone only generates about 1% of the world’s electricity. According to USAID, 600 million Africans, or 70% of SSA, lacks electricity. Access to electricity and national power grids varies considerably by country. Existing grids are kept online by improperly maintained, aging power plants and burdened with high demand, leading to power shortages and blackouts. Furthermore, many African countries have high electricity tariffs and generation costs, making electricity prices in Africa much higher on average. The problem is only compounded by skyrocketing urban populations. New grid connections associated with urbanization are further burdening the system. Overall, within the next few decades, population growth is expected to outpace electrification.

From Szabó et al.

From Szabó et al.

During the 1970s and 80s, a number of power generating facilities were built by African governments in conjunction with the World Bank, the IMF, and other international development agencies. These electrification efforts did not do much good, and ended up saddling many nations with massive amounts of debt. Today, many of these power plants have fallen into disrepair, are improperly maintained, or are on the verge of reaching the end of their operating life.  Overall, a fourth of Africa’s power plants have fallen into disrepair and are not reliable sources of electricity.  Nigeria is an exceptional example, where only 17 of 79 power plants in the country are still operational.  These power plants do constitute much of Nigeria’s 3.5 GW generating capacity, but the country as a whole demands 7.6 GW of electricity. In a nutshell, the inadequate infrastructure that has been in place for decades has been slowly crumbling. See the map below.

Source: IEA

Source: IEA

Meanwhile, grid connection is lagging behind population growth. Grid expansion into rural areas would be costly and take a considerable amount of time. Many SSA nations simply lack the resources to achieve and retain universal electrification. As a result, many governments have turned towards off-grid electricity as a solution to their countries’ energy woes. Regional integration and power pooling can also help reduce national shortages, as it would allow countries with surplus electricity to pick up the slack for countries that are experiencing high demand.


Next Section: Energy Poverty