The region has the world’s biggest concentration of people — more than 620-million according to the International Energy Agency — living without reliable electricity supplies.
From Uganda to Zambia and Ghana, politicians are using the issue to lure votes, turning to clean energy as the quickest way to power rural areas. “The power issue is really going to drive elections,” says NJ Ayuk, managing partner in Centurion, a law firm based in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
“It will be a key campaign issue. Africa is moving in a direction of industrialisation. People are beginning to see power as a right.”
Investors see an opportunity for African nations to leapfrog beyond traditional coal-fired power plants where electricity is distributed by sprawling grids. They are proposing smaller-scale renewable plants closer to the consumers, bypassing a generation of technology, much as cellphones have spread across Africa faster than the fixed-line alternative.
The trend is making Africa one of the leading emerging markets for renewables, drawing $25bn in investment in the past six years. Investment rose 68% to $5.2bn last year alone.
“There has been significant growth in investment in renewables in Africa since 2011,” says Nico Tyabji, an analyst at Bloomberg in London. “The majority has been in SA. There are some question marks over whether project pipelines in other countries will actually build out.”
With 48 countries south of the Sahara, 14 have presidential elections this year, and in many of those places electricity is high on the agenda.
In the first contest in Uganda next Thursday, President Yoweri Museveni boasts that he has extended the power grid to 15% of households and that hydropower, along with geothermal, will expand the roll-out in his next term.
Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu reversed a sharp increase in power prices last month when he announced his re-election bid, and is looking for ways to make up for supplies lost due to drought reducing flows through the Kariba hydropower dam on the Zambezi River.
Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama faces voters in November and promises to build new power plants that halt the blackouts roiling the capital, Accra.
The West African country’s minister of power resigned on December 31 in protest at the prolonged electricity crisis.
“When elections are coming up, the ruling party sometimes tries to accelerate development of power projects in the pipeline so they’re up and running before the elections,” says Anthony Marsh, CEO of Frontier Markets Fund Managers in London. The firm manages the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, which has invested in 12 power projects in sub-Saharan Africa.
The entire installed generation capacity south of the Sahara is 90GW, about the same as Britain’s network, according to the International Energy Agency. There is often less power available due to disrepair.
It is not certain that power politics will change many of the results at the polls, says Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at the Chatham House research group in London.
“Chad, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda are run by strongmen and so it will not tilt the results in any dramatic way,” Mr Vines says.
“But it is a massive issue in the presidential elections in Ghana and Zambia and the municipal elections in SA. The energy debate will be really quite central.”
Elections are not always good news for power developers, since officials can hold up paperwork while the campaign is under way.
Mr Marsh says the financial close of a gas-fired project in Nigeria was delayed by almost a year before President Muhammadu Buhari took office last year.
Elections “can cause a delay if you need to have a document signed off”, Mr Marsh says.
At Amsterdam-based Gigawatt Global Cooperatief, president Yosef Abramowitz is planning to install one gigawatt of solar energy in the continent, beginning with Burundi, Liberia and Benin. “Leaders will have to decide if they want to be re-elected, having literally delivered power to their people. Or do they want to use their position for personal gain, while their people continue to suffer,” Mr Abramowitz says.
“These are real battles that are gripping many African countries.”