Grant Shapps: Energy Africa - kick-starting a solar revolution across the continent

Speech by the Development Minister at the launch of Britain's #EnergyAfrica campaign, held at Facebook UK's headquarters in London.

Energy Africa logo

It is unacceptable that two-thirds of Africans have no electricity.

And whilst in the last 15 years we have made incredible strides through the Millennium Development Goals on issues like health, education and sanitation.

On the current trajectory, Africa will not achieve universal energy access at home until 2080 – 200 years after Edison invented the lightbulb.

Now, we have all just signed up to a Global Goal which says everyone should have energy access by 2030 –15 years’ away.

And of course, getting everyone in Africa connected to electricity – and providing businesses with power – will require a range of energy sources.

From hydro to wind; geothermal to gas. There are any number of ways to solve Africa’s energy crisis. And of course, expanding the grid will be key.

But whilst only a few can access and control Africa’s rich energy wealth, the sun belongs to us all – and it is in greater abundance on that continent than perhaps any other.

Moreover – all serious projections for meeting Africa’s energy needs recognise that the grid will only ever be able to meet 40% of that need. So we have to look elsewhere too.

Now until recently, many people have argued that solar can’t deliver. And they were right – for 3 reasons:

  • photovoltaic cells were too expensive
  • batteries couldn’t store enough power
  • and appliances demanded too much energy.

But the situation has changed:

  • over the last few years the price of solar panels has crashed
  • thanks to the development of lithium batteries, power can at last be stored up during the day & used at night
  • and appliances like LED lights, but also TVs and fridges are much more energy efficient.

Just as relevant though is the spread of mobile phones and the development of mobile money – like the remarkable British inspired M-PESA payment system, popularised in countries like Kenya and Tanzania.

This means consumers can now obtain solar energy on a micro, pay-as-you-go basis via their phone & effectively pay for their solar system in the process.

A few days after I become Minister of State for International Development I found myself in Tanzania.

I was visiting the home of a 62 year-old women called Elizabeth Mukwimba who lives in Mwanza region - a 16 hour drive from the capital, Dar Es Salaam.

Until recently, Elizabeth had to buy expensive, toxic kerosene in order to cook and light her home.

To charge her mobile phone, she had to walk to the village and pay exorbitant rates, many times what we pay to charge our phones.

But now, thanks to a DFID-supported project, she has a solar power in her home, as well as a clean cook-stove.

This has transformed Elizabeth’s life, but don’t take my word for it, please watch her video.

Meet Elizabeth Mukwimba - a Tanzanian farmer who now has solar energy

Getting electricity at home through a solar system has transformed Elizabeth’s life. And it will transform others.

This is about more than switching on a light:

  • it now means the day doesn’t end when the sun goes down
  • it means women and girls spending less time gathering fuel to burn
  • it means being able to start a small business at home and perhaps continuing to do the accounts at night
  • it means not having to walk miles to charge a mobile phone
  • it means saving money – because kerosene is one of the most expensive fuels in the world
  • and it might mean not having to give birth by candlelight or in the pitch dark
  • it means helping your children learn after school
  • and when they’re sick, it means not having to light a candle or burn kerosene to check they’re ok.

That’s the big difference with Energy Africa.

Often when people talk about addressing energy poverty, they do so in terms of megawatts. There are megawatt targets, megawatt transactions, megawatt costs.

But I think this focus is wrong. All this talk means nothing if there’s little chance of the grid ever being connected to your remote home.

So energy Africa will focus on delivering results for individuals like Elizabeth and 600 million others like her.

But it can go further by working for the inhabitants of mega-cities like Lagos where many of the 20 million dwellers use expensive and unreliable diesel generators too.

Energy Africa is a new way of doing aid.

DFID maybe a super-power in terms of its development spend and commitment to 0.7% but, Energy Africa isn’t about spending millions; rather it’s about getting commercial markets to actually work, and to work particularly to benefit the world’s poorest consumers.

So we’ll partner with African governments to programme in detail and to tear down legislative, policy and bureaucratic barriers that stifle the household solar market.

The kind of things which block mobile-money payments, impose restrictive duties on solar, whilst subsidising dangerous Kerosene.

The financing space which prevents innovative companies funding the 12 to 36 month gap between making the equipment and it being paid for by the home owner.

We’ll also work closely with other donors and organisations – like SE4ALL and Power Africa – to provide the technical support and knowhow needed to make those reforms happen.

Finally, we’ll bring investors together with solar energy companies – highlighting the massive opportunity; helping finance to flow and businesses to grow.

And that work starts today. Right after this event, I’ll sign partnership agreements with Nigeria and Sierra Leone – which set out our commitment. With a dozen more of these national agreements to follow.

But to deliver, we all need to work together: as countries, as organisations, as people.

That’s why I’m so pleased that you are all here today – and in particular I’m grateful to Madam Zuma, Vice President Osinbajo, Mr Kofi Annan and Mr Bob Geldof for shifting incredibly busy schedules to make today’s event and for using their considerable influence to bring this issue to the world’s attention.

Published 23 October 2015