African Clean Energy Transition Debate Must Acknowledge Country-wise Diversity

Aligning climate objectives with development goals key to clean energy in Africa

October 27, 2022


The immense benefits of a high renewable energy share in the African energy mix are indisputable, but the objective can be met only by adopting a country and context-specific strategy instead of treating the continent as a monolith, research published in Nature Energy said.

The research was carried out by a team of 40 African researchers who belong to various institutions, including the Berlin-based climate research institute MCC (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change), University College London, the UN Economic Commission, the Climate Compatible Growth Programme and the University of Oxford.

Lopsided Narrative

For a vast continent like Africa, the energy transition pathway would have to account for the diversity across 54 countries analyzed in the research. “For example, Ethiopia is headed for an accelerated green-growth pathway, but Mozambique is at a crossroads of natural gas expansion with implicit large-scale technological, economic, financial, and social risks and uncertainties,” the research said.

Further, African countries need local leadership to carry the energy transition mantle as these initiatives tend to be more entrenched, unlike efforts by external sources. Infrastructure projects driven entirely by non-local entities tend to be out of sync with the local development agenda and prone to drop if donors lose interest.

“Calls for one-size-fits-all solutions—fossil or renewable—undermine the critical local ownership of development objectives,” the research said.

Another shortcoming in the debate about Africa’s transition towards renewable energy sources is the lack of country-specific evidence and literature. Most studies analyze Africa as a whole and present a simplistic picture that can be categorized as: “Poverty will be entrenched if fossil fuels are either continued or stopped in African contexts.”

Correcting the Framework

The research seeks to address the shortcoming by combining country-specific extant energy scenarios to showcase the different starting points for their energy transition path.

Further, the study incorporated the African Union’s Agenda 2063 vision to extract transition objectives for various countries and the embedded risks and opportunities.

“We applied this framework to demonstrate large country-specific differences as to the types and uncertainties of African countries’ potential energy system pathways,” the study said.

The updated methodology provided interesting granular details about the continent. For instance, the research found that the levelized costs of electricity from solar photovoltaics are 2.5 times higher in Liberia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone than in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Morocco.

Similarly, electrification rates in North African countries, South Africa, Ghana, and several island states are five times higher than in most Sahel countries, Burundi and Malawi.


Country-specific differences of current energy systems and relative generation technology favorability in Africa


The research also illustrated the various uncertainties involved in African countries. For instance, South Africa has low-cost renewables, but entrenched fossil fuel interests also operate, which implies a contested energy transition. Botswana and North African countries are similarly placed.

Separately, Burkina Faso is seeking to increase energy access and generation capacity but is also dealing with uncertainties about the right energy mix. Sahel countries and Madagascar mirror Burkina Faso in the energy mix conundrum.


The study recommended:

  • African leaders and international actors must acknowledge the impact of international energy systems on Africa. It should be established through a nuanced debate that assesses trade-offs between climate and development objectives.
  • Country and context-specific public policies are needed to navigate the interplay of different political actors’ interests.
  • Mobilizing greater financial resources that involve domestic financial institutions and private African capital is key to the energy transition.
  • It is imperative to create a scientifically sound, in-depth, and all-encompassing evidence base that features country-specific pathways for all African countries, with priority for those countries with the largest pathway uncertainty.

A recent World Meteorological Organization report said despite Africa being home to 60% of the world’s best solar resources, the continent has only 1% of installed photovoltaic capacity.

The International Renewable Energy Agency called for a calibrated policy framework centered on renewable energy to help resolve many of Africa’s social, economic, health, and environmental challenges. It said the transition can help the region with a 6.4% higher gross domestic product, 3.5% higher economy-wide jobs, and 25.4% higher welfare index by 2050 than under the current system.