It's been an amazing few years for solar in Africa. If you follow the news you will have seen more and more announcements about the amount of renewables being installed across the continent.

Every new project seems to claim to be "the biggest" or have "the most megawatts" and to be covering huge areas of unproductive, often sandy, land with beautiful high-tech shiny solar PV.

But these solar farms are just one part of a larger race towards clean energy for Africa. Independent mini-grids are also popping up like wild flowers, health clinics and schools are getting solar installed and even villages and outposts in remote areas seem to be benefiting from Solar Home Systems, Pay-as-you-go solar, and pico solar lights. Football is extremely popular across Africa and watching Manchester United on a solar powered TV in their rural home is now a reality for some (relatively) affluent families.

Energy Access, SolarAid, April17

The growth of the African off grid sector since 2010 has been impressive. It has seen:

  • Substantial cumulative sales of over 130 million devices since 2010
  • Increased penetration (-17 per cent) of the global potential market of off – and unreliable – grid households
  • An increase in total sales to USD 3.9 billion
  • More than USD 500 million has been raised in the past two years alone
  • The largest solar deal in Africa in 2017 was off the grid – $80 million for M-Kopa to provide 8MW + appliances
  • And growing acknowledgement from development institutions, for example, more than 25 countries are now engaged in partnerships with the World Bank Group to build capacity and deploy funding to the sector.

So is that it then? Has the grotesque energy inequalities which have left 600 million people in Africa without access to even basic electrical lighting for so long been solved – whilst we in the west squander electricity in the most profligate ways possible? Can we sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that "green capitalism" will solve Africa's energy problems and that wealth will "trickle down" like water and reach the lowest point, the hardest to reach people, and that therefore energy inequality is inevitably solved?

Sadly no. Not all all. Not even close. Despite all the investment, all the philanthropy and well-meaning venture capital searching for a slightly greener 'bang for buck'; despite all the great intentions and truly valiant projects we are not even coming close to solving the problem. In fact, in many ways the situation is getting worse. The Global Off Grid Lighting Association admits that, as things stands, if we continue with "business as usual" there will still be 600 million people in Africa lacking access to clean energy and light in 2030, the year by which we are supposed to have sorted out this mess, according to SDG7. 

Energy Access, SolarAid, April17

So what on Earth is going wrong? How can there be more solar, and other renewables, being installed than ever before and so many people being left behind? How can we be failing to address one of the most basic inequalities the world has ever seen?

High population growth in some of the most poorly electrified regions (especially Sub-Saharan Africa) keeps the market size large in absolute numbers and customers that have already got access to basic solar require replacement devices every two to four years, and therefore remain part of the potential market.

Unsurprisingly the money chases the highest returns. It's easier to serve people in or near cities and larger communities and to make bigger margins selling higher value products. So investment is inevitable skewed away from the poorest people that are locked into a cycle of energy poverty, unable to afford even the most modest solar device.

About a third of total reported solar products sold worldwide in 2016 (nearly 1.21 million) were single light products without mobile charging (typically powered by a panel in the range of 0-1.5 Wp. However, revenues from sales of products in the 0-1.5 Wp range represent only 13 per cent of total revenues due to the lower retail price of such products. The next category, products with a single light and mobile phone charging capability (typically powered by a panel in the 1.5-3 Wp range), account for 43 per cent of all reported sales and generate the lion’s share of overall revenue at $64.76 million, almost 68 per cent of the global total reported sales revenues. 

If you can't afford even the most basic (0 - 1.5 Wp) solar product you don't have many options. You're locked out of the solar revolution. Energy poverty is a particularly acute type of poverty which is fundamentally debilitating on multiple levels. When the sun sets you are left in complete darkness or forced to burn kerosene and candles for light. Life is hard when you can not see what you're doing, or working by flickering light which emits toxic fumes that clog up your nose and lungs with black carbon. Darkness locks people into a cycle of poverty which is very difficult to escape.

Energy Access, SolarAid, April17

The International Energy Agency's ambitious strategy to achieve “Energy for All” describes how countries can build on existing successes to accelerate access at least cost. They acknowledge that for access to electricity, renewables play a growing role in both grid-based electrification and the expansion of decentralised technologies that are essential for remote rural areas. No surprises there then - that's what we have been working on for more than a decade.

For clean cooking, they explain how LPG delivers much of the access in urban areas, while in rural areas progress is achieved largely through improved biomass cooking. The IEA highlights that an additional $31 billion annually is needed to ensure that no one is left behind. They recognise that prize is huge: 1.8 million premature deaths could be avoided and the reduced burden of collecting firewood for women would provide them at least an additional hour each day that can be redirected to other activities.

But, as things stand, there are very few organisations that work exclusively for those locked in energy poverty. Energy inequality is possibly the biggest elephant in the room during international discussions about 'global development' and climate targets. How on earth can we expect the poorest people on the planet to 'leap frog' the carbon intensive lifestyles we have been living in the west for so long and make the transition from burning whatever fuel they can find to 100 per cent renewables without a little help? Walking through any major city at night and counting the number of lights left on in empty office blocks makes the energy-conscious consumer cringe with embarrassment about their "developed" country's ethics.

At SolarAid, our vision is of a world where everyone, regardless of income, has access to clean, renewable, energy. We've been working on tackling energy poverty for over 10 years and are proud to have played a small part in developing solar markets in Tanzania and Kenya, by selling over 1.5 million solar lights and encouraging local social enterprises to take over. We then faced stiff competition as profit-driven businesses entered the market, so we know we are succeeding. For us, closing down operations is an indicator of success.

Energy Access, SolarAid, April17

By 2030, the same year SDG7 has targeted to ‘Ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services' SolarAid wants to have put itself out of business. Since inception in 2006, we have impacted over 10 million people, largely through our social enterprise, SunnyMoney, which trains African entrepreneurs to sell high quality, low cost, solar lights and continually develops innovative business models which prioritise creating energy access for people living in rural, off grid communities.

But we need to do more. We need to increase the level of support for our work and develop campaigns and partnerships which will transform the access to energy landscape. There are still several countries, and hundreds of millions of people, that need our help before we can say we achieved our vision of “a world where everyone has affordable, clean, renewable power” – but at the speed the markets are developing, we believe if we can get more solar lights to ‘last-mile’ users at the ‘base of the pyramid’, we will catalyse more markets, and hopefully one day, SolarAid might not be needed anymore.

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