Africa’s Solar Power Revolution


For quite some time now, I have been scouring the ideas landscape for a set of transformative technologies and associated industrial value chains that have the capability to enable the economy of the African continent to charge ahead at double-digit rates over the next 50 years, which is the absolute minimum required if the continent is to succeed in shaking off the destructive forces of poverty, hopelessness and despair, whose signs are already here for all to see.

It has finally dawned on me that such technologies and the industries they will spur must belong to the future rather than the past if they are to have the effect we seek, which is to bring about radical change in the livelihoods of Africans by creating jobs for millions of the continent’s young population, by causing a momentous change in industrial and individual productivity across all manner of human endeavours and all the while, keeping the continent’s environment and bio-diversity safe.

In other words, a 21st century industrial revolution right here in Africa. It sounds like a tall order but it is not only possible, it is the only way forward for Africa.

The developed world, led by US, Europe, Japan, the emergent nations of South East Asia, India and South America – in other words the rest of the world; is powering ahead into the bright new future where Nano-technology is king, 3-D printing is the new way of manufacturing goods and outer space is the new frontier for the 21st century tourist.

The developed world may be facing its own set of challenges, not least those caused by the global economic slowdown that started with the 2007 global financial crisis and the spectre of endless wars, but they pale in comparison to the challenges facing Africa and its people. The commodity boom that propelled Africa’s economic growth during the past thirty years ended almost as abruptly as it began two years ago and although the end was not unexpected, it has caught most Africans unprepared and unable to adapt quickly enough to their new circumstances.

It is not the first time Africa has experienced the end of a commodity boom, but it seems that the continent has never been a particularly good student of history. The Angolan president declared his country bankrupt a few weeks ago, in itself a shocking and unprecedented event given the amazing wealth and double-digit growth that the country experienced not so long ago.

Other resource dependent economies such as Nigeria, Ghana and Zambia, that along with Angola were Africa’s shining examples of economic growth and prosperity during the last two decades, are now visibly struggling to stay afloat with all indications being that things will get much worse before they get better.

And although Africa’s second biggest economy South Africa remains the most modern economy in Sub Saharan Africa, its growth is being overwhelmed by the demands of its young and fast growing population. According to a report published in April 2016, eight out of 10 hungriest nations on earth are African and they include Zambia, which not so long ago was declared by the World Bank and IMF as having attained middle-income status.

– Africa’s share of global trade for example is around 2 per cent today, down from 3 per cent 30 years ago. Compare this dismal trade performance with Africa’s share of the world’s population (15 per cent) or its share of usable commodity reserves (estimated to be as high as 40 per cent)

– African agriculture that is responsible for a big chunk of the continent’s GDP has failed to modernise, remains largely in the hands of subsistence farmers and hence incapable of creating meaningful jobs or production. Africa today lives off imported food (83 per cent of all processed food consumed in Africa is imported and recent studies have shown that more than 70 per cent of the tilapia fish consumed in East Africa, the indigenous home of the species, is now being imported from China). Compare this with Africa’s share of arable land (25 per cent) and its share of fresh water resources (the African great lakes alone account for more 29 per cent of the fresh water available to all mankind)

– The much talked about demographic dividend that economists have repeatedly predicted has not materialised, mainly because most of Africa’s young people are unemployed or unemployable.

– To make matters worse, Africa has de-industrialised during a period when other nations have intensified their industrial output

– Worryingly, this has come at a time when the population of the continent has crossed the one billion mark and at 2.8 per cent p.a., it is growing faster than any other population group in the world. Credible statistics claim that between now and 2050, Nigeria alone will add more numbers to the world population than any other country in the world and the total African population is projected to grow from 1.1 billion today to 4.2 billion by the year 2100.

– Last year, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 19 million first time job seekers in a market that creates less than 500,000 formal jobs every year. This figure is projected to grow to 27 million by the year 2030 while Africa’s capacity to create new jobs is at best, expected to remain the same if we continue down the current path. This makes Africa a uniquely intriguing economic development case study.

A ticking time bond needs diffusing As said earlier, the developmental gap between Africa and the rest of the world is widening very rapidly and thanks to modern technology, millions of young Africans are able to see that they are indeed falling behind, a situation that has led to frustrations, social tensions, breakdown of law and order and even wars.

This is necessarily so because the continent remains an integral part of today’s globalised, interconnected and interdependent world. Unable to find economic opportunities at home and left without hope of a better future, young Africans have taken to migrating to places where they hope to find a better life.

Thousands of young Africans have perished while on the perilous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Southern Europe. Many have landed in the hands of brutal human traffickers who prey on desperate people in Africa and other poor regions of the world. Those who remain at home are quickly becoming part of a ticking time bomb that mass unemployment creates in all societies.

Speaking at the Tana Forum for Peace and Security in Africa in April this year, the President of Somalia said that none of his citizens under 30 who grew up in Somalia have ever seen the inside of a classroom and the only way they know how to make an income is by the gun. He must have been talking about more than 70 per cent of his country’s population. Similar conditions exist in numerous African countries.

Climate change is not only real, it is deadly for many Africans The effects of climate change, aggravated by large scale deforestation, overgrazing and poor response to floods and droughts; is eating away at the continent’s productive soils, drying its rivers and lakes and turning Africans into hungry and desperate people. And the city offers no respite from poverty and despair.

And our cities are bursting at the seams due to relentless urban migration. The city of Lagos in Nigeria for example grew from 300,000 residents in 1950 to an estimated 25 million in 2015, but the supporting infrastructure build has lagged behind, turning the city into a difficult place to live, and that is putting it mildly. Very clearly, Africa is engaged in a life and death fight for survival and relevance in this.

What comes before an industrial revolution?

I suggested earlier on that Africa needs nothing less than an industrial revolution to kick off its transformation in this 21st century and this is what I mean: Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain 250 years ago is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.

The vital lesson we can take from the historic events that marked the industrial revolution is that any transformative wave of economic change is almost always set in motion by the discovery of new, more powerful, widely accessible source of energy; the kind that is capable of radically changing the manner in which production is done and consequently, the speed at which economic growth can occur.

It is important to note that the industrial revolution was powered by the famous steam engine. Infrastructures such as railways, roads, and canal transport systems radically transformed productivity and paved the way for the next wave of industrialisation and rapid economic growth across Europe 80 years later.

There is no doubt however that without the discovery of steam power, the revolution would not have been possible. The right industries at the right time in recent years, a good number of African leaders, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), the World Bank and many respected economic think tanks have proclaimed industrialisation as the newest imperative for the development of the African continent. I agree with them but at the same time, I note with concern that none has taken the trouble to seek the discovery of a new source of energy that Africans will need to succeed.

Existing power generation models are inaccessible to the majority of Africans, too expensive even for the rich, too ineffective and too harmful to the environment. Another concern I have is that the proponents of industrialisation in Africa have not yet identified industries that have true transformative potential.

Many are instead hoping to go 250 years back in time to pick up textiles, cement, glass, mining, leather, pharmaceuticals, construction materials, farm implements and other basic industries of a long gone era to transform Africa’s economies today. This I am afraid will not work. There is a saying that goes: “It is possible to drive forwards by using the rear-view mirror but it is difficult, and chances are you won’t get far before something terrible happens”.

It follows that in order to develop; Africa must look forward not backwards, but that doesn’t mean we should not learn from history. As a matter of fact we should do so with all the seriousness it demands. Let’s remember that textiles were the first major industries of the industrial revolution era 250 years ago.

Along with them came metallurgy, machine tools, chemicals, cement, glass, paper machines, mining and many more. The agricultural revolution also took off at around the same time as a result of early innovations coming out of the new factories of the industrial revolution era. Most of these legacy industries are still around today and they retain some economic relevance, but the world we live in has changed beyond recognition since then.

For starters, globalisation has changed the way people and states engage with one another, technology has transformed the way we work and produce, the African population has grown tenfold in the last 250 years and the distribution of wealth has become even more uneven across the globe. These changes are a fact of life but also they represent a source of numerous tensions and challenges.

The only thing that has not changed throughout this period however is the place that Africa occupies in the global food chain, namely the lowest and worst. We can in all seriousness not expect to transform African lives by trying to build industries that saw their heyday 250 years ago.

It is also a fact that technological advances, in particular the automation of machines have made these industries so efficient and so independent of human intervention today that despite the utility of the goods they produce at extremely low cost; they clearly no longer have the transformative power they exhibited during the industrial revolution era.

Africa must therefore take the search for new ways of working and producing to a more ambitious, bolder, even audacious level. It must do so in ways that have never been seen before. Africans must be brave, courageous, self-confident, determined and disciplined. We must find the 21st century equivalent of the steam engine and textile industry. Africa’s problems are unique, so must be the solutions In order to succeed in the new age of global over-production of literally every imaginable product characterised by technological disruptions at a frequency of a dozen a day, Africa must identify innovative ways of addressing the many challenges it faces especially those that are hindering the continent’s economic growth.

First and foremost, Africa must radically improve its productivity by tapping into an energy source and associated industrial value chains for which it has unique competitive advantages on a global scale, where Africans can at once be significant if not the biggest producers and consumers of the goods they produce and their impact on the environment is sustainable.

A new attitude is needed; a new mind-set is vital for success. It is said that adversity is the mother of invention. This unfortunately has not been true for Africans in recent human history. We have more often than not, reacted to adversity by resigning to our circumstances or looking elsewhere for help. We have not invented much let alone invested seriously in innovation and this attitude has over time become embedded in our character as a people.


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