Satellite photographs of Africa by night betray the injustice of the global divide. They do so through the medium of energy poverty, the darkness of a continent blanketing the human frustration in millions of homes. Globally, there are 789 million people without access to electricity and 2.8 billion without clean cooking facilities.
A large proportion of those who do enjoy a connection to a grid in poor countries experience unreliable services characterized by high charges and interminable periods of load shedding.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the implications of energy poverty, particularly in Africa. Even if adequate vaccine supplies were available, the logistics of distribution would be hampered significantly by lack of refrigeration capacity. And it has come as a shock to populations of richer countries to learn that home working and schooling are concepts without meaning in the absence of adequate and reliable electricity, let alone internet connections.
Even in normal times, education cannot flourish in its core purpose if evening study in the home is impractical, nor in its broader sense if computers and televisions remain the stuff of dreams. Basic lighting facilities can extend the potential hours of workshop or retail livelihoods. And if mobile phones are to fulfil the social and economic potential that has so excited development experts, then the capacity for routine recharging is essential.
Although the provision of electricity alone is insufficient to underwrite social and economic development, there is close correlation between countries with the lowest energy capacity and those classified as Least Developed Countries. The Africa Progress Report 2015 warned that “energy-sector bottlenecks and power shortages cost the region 2-4 per cent of GDP annually, undermining sustainable economic growth, jobs and investment.”
Conversely, the champions of poverty reduction can boast almost universal access to electricity. China has connected 500 million people in rural areas since 1990 whilst Vietnam increased coverage from 20% to 80% in just 9 years, prior to achieving universal access.
In the absence of modern energy sources, household cooking and heating is dependent on rudimentary stoves that burn solid fuels such as wood, charcoal or agricultural waste. Scientists say that kitchen pollution caused by this combustion is equivalent to a child smoking 3-5 cigarettes per day.
Recent research demonstrates links between pregnancy in this domestic environment and hampered cognitive development of the child. The World Health Organization has stated that “the use of inefficient fuels for cooking alone is estimated to cause over 4 million deaths annually, mainly among women and children. This is more than TB, HIV and malaria combined.”