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Thoughts on why Africa should switch green: Vision of an early-career scientist from Africa

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Blog Series

Delivering water, energy and food for all in a sustainable and equitable way is a major challenge faced by society. The water-energy-food nexus concept aims to address this by better understanding how interactions between water, energy and food are shaped by environmental, economic, social and political changes and how the synergies and trade-offs among them can be better planned and managed. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is a network of people and organisations which fosters transdisciplinary research and communicates the importance of holistic system approaches across water, energy and food systems. Acknowledging that the nexus concept is often described as overly academic and not practical on the ground, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is organising this blog series to illustrate the role of the nexus concept in addressing local and national challenges of sustainable and equitable access to resources. Understanding the perceptions and entry points with which local and national stakeholders can engage with the nexus concept is key to further implementing nexus approaches, especially in the Global South.

Learn more about the Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network. 

Thoughts on why Africa should switch green: Vision of an early-career scientist from Africa

By Faten Attig-Bahar


The situation


For so long, Africa has been—and still is—referred to as a less developed continent, which is under-represented in terms of its economy and business, politics and governance, as well as education and infrastructure development. The situation is exacerbated by Africa’s growing population, which is projected to grow from one billion in 2010 to two and a half billion in 2050 and more than four billion in 2100 (UN World Population Prospects 2017). To put this in perspective, that’s an increase from one out of six people living in Africa in 2010, to one in four in 2050 and one in three by 2100.


It is perhaps easiest to illustrate some of the challenges to sustainable development that African countries face by listing some key statistics:


  • Twenty-five of the thirty-one countries classified as low-income economies, with a gross national income of $1,025 or less, are in Africa (World Bank 2017)

  • The eleven countries with the highest proportion of residents living in extreme poverty are in Africa (World Poverty Clock 2018)

  • Despite Africa only emitting an estimated 2 to 3 percent of world total carbon dioxide emissions (UNFCCC 2006), the continent is predicted to bear the brunt of climate change and extreme events (World Bank 2013)

  • The unemployment rate across the African continent is about 7.9 percent (International Labour Organisation 2018), which reaches as high as 46.1 percent in the Congo (Trading Economics 2018)


In 2013—prior to the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015—the African Union put forward their 2063 Agenda, which is guided by their vision for “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in international arena.” The 2063 Agenda is a global strategy to optimize the use of Africa’s resources for the benefits of all Africans through inclusive growth and sustainable development.


Key to achieving Agenda 2063, as with the Sustainable Development Goals, is understanding the synergies and trade-offs which exist between the different targets. For example, the management of energy systems underpins not only affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) but also access to clean water (Goal 6) and food (Goal 2). Furthermore, energy consumption patterns impact local livelihoods, including poverty, unemployment and crime rates. That is why it is important to consider potential energy management strategies from a systems perspective, such as the nexus, to understand and therefore anticipate any trade-offs or synergies.


The role of renewables


Africa has abundant natural resources, including solar, wind, hydro and biomass, which are not yet being utilised to their full potential. Worldwide, 9.8 million people were employed by the renewable energy sector in 2016, a 1.1 percent increase over 2015 (IRENA 2017). African countries have the opportunity to join China, India and Brazil as the countries with most renewable energy jobs (IRENA 2017). In particular, the Maghreb region, which consists of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, has the potential to become the gateway to an African renewable energy market.


The Maghreb countries have significant potential for renewable energy, with one of the largest solar energy potentials in the world (AfDB 2016). For instance, in Morocco, an investment of 1 billion EUR (approximately 1.62 trillion USD) in concentrated solar power plants could generate between 29,000 and 35,000 jobs (DII 2013). Furthermore, the jobs generated by decentralised renewable energy systems occur on both the supply and demand sides. For example, in Tunisia, the solar power sector has the potential to generate more than 3,000 jobs related to research and development, while another 14,500 jobs would be generated through the operation and maintenance for each 1,000 megawatts produced annually (GIZ, ANME 2013).


Taking advantage of their strategic location close to Europe, the Maghreb countries could bring significant business and investment opportunities to Africa by supporting the manufacturing of renewable energy technologies and developing the associated knowledge and skills. Once the Maghreb countries are able to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and meet their own internal energy needs with renewable energy, they would then be able to transfer the associated business opportunities to the rest of the continent. Furthermore, by generating jobs, encouraging renewable energy entrepreneurship and market investment could go some way towards addressing unemployment. Increasing employment would not only mean a decrease in poverty, but also in crime, by decreasing income inequality (World Bank 2002).


Renewables and the nexus


Renewable energy technologies can boost the water-food-energy nexus. In fact, water security, energy security and food security are inextricably linked and any actions in any one area will immediately impact the others. Sustainable and efficiently managed modern bioenergy can improve accessibility, affordability and safety, in across the three key sectors of water, food and energy (IRENA). For example, the photovoltaic sector could play an important role in agricultural production in Tunisia. In fact, photovoltaics have the potential to deliver 38 percent of the total electricity consumption of the agriculture and agri-food sector, which was estimated to be 2882 Gigawatt hours in 2016. This is very interesting, given the heavy dependence on fossil fuel and the serious energy deficit which characterises the energy sector (GIZ 2014). Moreover, renewable energy technologies have the potential to be used in the fishing and agriculture sector for water pumping purposes (El Haddad 2016), in fact, there are already several solar pumping farms in Tunisia and in Morocco (GIZ 2017).


The role of early-career researchers in shaping the energy transition


Investing in early career researchers means investing in the future of Africa. Given the tools they need, including knowledge, good training, efficient mentorship and sufficient opportunities, this young generation could be the positive driving force the continent needs to develop sustainably and prosper. However, youth and early career researchers in Africa are facing many challenges, as described by Dike et al. 2018. The lack of decent job opportunities in Africa has forced many highly educated and skilled young professional and researchers to seek opportunities abroad.


This brain-drain is severe in the Maghreb region, with 33 percent of Tunisian-born and 44 percent of Algerian-born physicians having moved abroad in 2000 (African Development Bank). The result of the brain-drain is a dramatic reduction in the skilled labour force, which has decreased direct investment and hindered the development of high-knowledge industries and new initiatives, particularly in the Maghreb region. Investing in renewable energy has the potential to build a new scientific community of energy technology specialists, which would reduce the ‘brain drain’ in the energy sector.


Such a shift in the labour market would especially benefit young people, who make up an increasing proportion of Africa’s population (UN 2017). Early career scientists and professionals working on renewable energy would have more opportunities to apply their knowledge in and to their own countries. They would become a force from within their own country, pushing for sustainable development and revitalizing the economy through their own ideas and initiatives, as these African startups have done.


The private and public sectors are increasingly supportive of entrepreneurship programs in Africa, including AfriLab, The Akilah Institute for Women, The African Leadership Academy and The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology. These initiatives have helped many young people to follow through on their ideas, which, either directly or indirectly, help improve the economic situation in Africa. In Tunisia, there are about 37 programs launched by the public and private sectors, which support the initiatives of young entrepreneurs (EOT 2018). Among them, the Univenture program, by the Carthage Business Angel, has participated in the mentoring of multiple startups in the fields of energy and agriculture since 2013. However, more initiatives and programs that involve early career researchers in defining and planning Africa’s renewable energy roadmap are required.


There are also specialised training programs in Africa which offer courses in environmental protection, water and waste management, renewable energy and energy efficiency. These programs, which are targeted at master students and professionals, could help build the skills required for local renewable energy projects. In Algeria, such programs are offered by the Pan African University’s, Institution of Water and Energy (PAUWES).


Africa needs an energy management strategy which strengthens the two pillars of the energy transition, namely renewable energy and energy efficiency, and early career researchers have a significant role to play. However, to succeed, the renewable energy transition needs the support of decision-makers, the private sector and governments. Defining a roadmap for sustainable development in Africa should involve strong willingness and eagerness to transform energy use and generation in the continent. The choices and decisions we make concerning energy impact not only the Earth's natural systems, but also the economy and human well-being because the true value of energy is more than just dollars, euros, dinars or cents.




Young Earth System Scientist, YESS-Community

The YESS Africa Group: Early-career researchers representing 10 different countries in Africa gave feedback on this writing.