Africa's Quest for Power

Why does Africa remain poor? Civil war, famine, disease, the legacy of colonialism-all have been advanced as plausible reasons for the continent's grinding poverty and economic backwardness. But another factor-probably related in some ways to these others-plays a fundamental role in stifling development: a lack of modern energy sources.

Africa's enormous energy potential remains vastly under exploited. This is a key conclusion of the 2003/2004 African Economic Outlook, published recently by the OECD. While almost half of Africa's 53 countries could profitably produce hydropower, only 7% of this potential is reached because of poor infrastructure and the high costs of initial investments.

Furthermore, despite its large geothermal and solar energy potential, Africa accounts for only 1.3% of the world's installed solar facilities, and only four countries have started exploiting underground heat sources. Of the fossil energy sources - primarily oil - that African countries do exploit, only a quarter is consumed locally.

Limited energy development in Africa has resulted in one of the lowest uses of modern energy sources in the world. More than three quarters of sub-Saharan Africans have no access to electricity, compared to fewer than 14% of Latin Americans and East Asians. As a result, most Africans use biomass (animal and vegetable wastes and firewood) for lighting, cooking, and heating.