AU Summit must prioritise renewable energy for Africa’s industrialisation

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As African leaders gather in Addis Ababa this week for the African Union Summit, their work is well cut out for them. This edition of the summit comes at a time  the continent is smarting from the effects of climate change, food insecurity, energy poverty and underdevelopment. 

For decades, Africa’s industrial development has been curtailed by inadequate, unreliable and unaffordable electricity, with the manufacturing sector receding in recent decades. If we are to harness our industrial potential, we must first deal with the continent’s energy poverty in a decisive fashion.  

Thankfully, Africa has an almost infinite potential for renewable energy, with 11 terawatts for solar capacity and 350 gigawatts for hydropower. Yet only about six per cent of this has been tapped.  

Today, most African economies are barely industrialised and economic diversification is limited. Many countries still export majorly low value-added commodities, fetching minimal foreign exchange. We still largely depend on revenue from export of primary commodities such as oil, which are acutely vulnerable to price fluctuations in international markets. This exposes them to geopolitical and external economic shocks. 

Climate change has further upset the applecart. The world is quickly shifting to low-carbon economic activities to slow down the climate crisis. The immediate upshot is a decline in the consumption of fossil fuels as countries increasingly divest from fossil fuels. 

More than ever before, there is pressure for Africa’s oil exporters to diversify their economies. Besides, countries made a commitment at COP28 to start to transition away from fossil fuels. The end of the era of fossil fuels is finally with us. 

This should effectively guide the AU’s first order of business during this summit: to initiate drastic measures that power socioeconomic transformation of the continent. However, this can only be done through elaborate and deliberate structural changes and by recognising that the dream for truly transformed Africa cannot be realised in the absence of reliable and sustainable energy.

Increased industrial activity in Africa will certainly trigger a higher demand for energy in the next few years. This presents an attractive opportunity to develop renewable energy as the means to power this industrial growth. 

The Nairobi Declaration of the Africa Climate Summit to increase renewable energy generation from the current 56 gigawatts to 300 gigawatts is a good starting point. But to do this, the international community must urgently inject 20 percent of the $3 trillion global renewable energy war chest into Africa’s energy projects. 

But even as Africa pursues industrialisation, it must avoid replicating ineffective development models it has courted from the early post-colonial years. 

This summit offers an opportunity to end Africa’s economic structure that is predominantly founded on raw material extraction and proportionally higher trade volumes with foreign countries than within the continent and dependence on dirty fuels. 

The summit must also avoid assembly-line manufacturing that imports energy, capital and intermediate components. It must also shun low-cost labour to produce low-value added products for export. 

To reignite Africa’s Agenda 2063, this shift must start at this year’s African Union summit. The summit must put in place mechanisms that boost the continent’s ability to generate renewable energy and to manufacture strategic inputs as well. More crucially, the continent should retain the bulk of its manufactured goods. 

It is imperative for African governments at the summit to implement strategies that break all forms of barriers to this pursuit, whether financial, legal, regulatory or knowledge. But also establish plans to build and strengthen pan-African linkages that support this pursuit. 

Doing this would firmly anchor the continent on a path to attaining green industrialisation, economic diversification and sustainable development. 

But the real victory for this edition of the AU summit would be to help Africa to break free from the global supply of raw materials and instead become an exporter of high-value finished products. 

It is shameful that more than 60 years of independence have failed to transform the continent’s socioeconomic wellbeing. It is a shame that our people live in darkness and cold half a century later. This summit must change the course of the continent once and for all. Only then will it have served the interests of Africans. 

Amos is a senior climate policy advisor at Power Shift Africa 

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