Simon Bransfield-Garth imagines a new energy infrastructure renaissance in Africa

As African leaders seek to dispel myths regarding the risk of doing business in Africa this week in Davos, the infrastructure challenge lingers as a cloud over the future of the continent’s long-term development potential.

According to the World Bank, Africa’s poor infrastructure is considered one of the most significant barriers to sustaining its growth. It is estimated that US$ 93 billion will be needed per year over the next decade to stem the continent’s infrastructure deficit – a deficit that is widening further as the continent’s economy and population grows.

At the De-Risking Africa discussion this week at the Annual Meeting in Davos, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma defended the notion that Africa is no more risky than anywhere else. With all leaders agreeing that infrastructure is the key to the continent’s development, is it helpful to engage in a de-risking dialogue?

Or, as fellow South African Graham Mackay, CEO at SABMiller suggested, should our focus instead be turned to how best we can actually take off the brakes from development?

Power represents Africa’s largest infrastructure headache, with rural communities hardest hit. About 600 million people are enslaved by the hours of darkness to light their homes using kerosene or candles, at a cost that is out of all proportion to the energy delivered. The grid is expanding, but in many countries grid electricity is struggling to keep up with the increasing demands of the electrified population, most of who live in cities, leaving little progress on the huge task of electrifying rural communities.

What if we take a bottom-up approach to power instead? Providing rural households with their off-grid power supply can deliver both infrastructure and growth in tandem, representing a disruptively different approach to complement big infrastructure projects. Clean and affordable home solar power can dramatically change the typical working day of a rural family, enabling more time for productive work and study. The result is a virtuous circle – electricity enables development that builds earning power that makes more electricity affordable.

This new energy architecture vision of the rural “un-grid” is one where Africa’s communities can effectively skip the grid and use local power to progressively benefit from lighting, communications, the Internet (via the phone network), radio, TV and other trappings of the knowledge economy. As such, it is a huge leveller. A tweet looks the same whether it has come from a New York office or a hut in Ethiopia.

This suggests that, just perhaps, Africa will not follow the historical developmental path of the West but rather carve its own new pathway and leave a trail for others to follow.

As noted by Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman of Bharti Enterprises “…the last bastion of big growth is the African continent. A billion people, of which 500 million are connected, and 500 million are yet to be connected.”

The time has come to drive the economic engine of a new energy infrastructure renaissance.

Author: Dr. Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Azuri Technologies.The mission of Azuri Technologies is to develop the technologies, channels and processes that will bring off-grid solar power to a new generation of users, transforming lives and accelerating economic development. Using IndiGo technology and a mobile phone, the company delivers solar electricity to communities in Africa as an affordable pay-as-you-go service. It is cheaper than kerosene, the most common source of power at present, and much cleaner and safer. Azuri was selected as a Technology Pioneer 2012 by the World Economic Forum.

Image: Pictured heavy traffic in Nigeria REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye