The Greening of African Technology

JOHANNESBURG – Technological innovation offers Africa huge possibilities. That is why I joined Africa’s movers and shakers last week at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. We were there to discuss how the digital economy can propel the kind of radical change the continent needs.

At the same time, though, we had to think about some old tools that our ancestors passed down to us – namely, how to think for the long term and how to work together. These tools are a form of technology that we need to use now, so that future generations have a chance.

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Climate change is the ultimate test of whether we can use the old and new technologies to safeguard our children’s future.

Africans must take decisive action to combat the threat of global warming, by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and by helping one another to adapt to climate change. If we fail to make progress in these areas now, future generations will judge our inaction as expensive, unjust, and immoral.

Africa is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change. Yet it accounts for only 2.3% of global CO2 emissions. That is partly because two-thirds of Africans – 621 million people – do not have access to electricity.

To meet the double challenge of climate change and this energy deficit, African countries need to help themselves and one another. Developed countries – the major contributors to global warming – must live up to the promises they made at the COP21 climate talks in Paris last December.

Alongside reacquainting ourselves with old-tech methods of thinking about the long run and working together, new technology is essential if Africa is to cope with climate change. Innovations in biotechnology and farming methods are needed to deal with disease, pests, and drought.

New technology can also help Africa to leapfrog over dependence on fossil fuels and into a low-carbon future. The continent has a great opportunity to develop new low-carbon energy strategies that build resilience and support growth that benefits everyone, reducing poverty faster. We show how this can be done in the 2015 Africa Progress Report, “Power People Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities.”

Renewable sources will replace fossil fuels gradually. It cannot happen overnight. Africa needs a judicious and dynamic energy mix. Most of all, it needs much more energy, now: Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, excluding South Africa, currently generates less electricity than Spain.

The state of education in Africa is one telling consequence of the continent’s energy crisis. I have worked in education most of my life, as a teacher and minister of education in Mozambique. Experience has taught me that a country’s schools are the key to its success and prosperity. Yet in many African countries, 80% of primary schools do not have electricity, severely compromising the quality of instruction.

Shortages of electricity also cost lives. Almost four in five Africans rely for cooking on solid biomass, mainly wood and charcoal. As a result, more than 600,000 people die each year from household air pollution. Efficient cooking stoves would save them, liberate millions of girls and women from the chore of gathering firewood, and generate wide-ranging environmental benefits.

The steps that Africa’s leaders need to take are clear. Long-term national interest must take precedence over short-term political goals, vested interests, and political patronage. African leaders need to root out graft, make the governance of energy utilities – some of which have been centers of corruption and inefficiency – more transparent, strengthen regulations, and increase public spending on energy infrastructure. They also need to redirect the $21 billion spent in Africa on subsidies for loss-making utilities and electricity consumption – which mainly benefit the rich – toward connection subsidies and renewable-energy investments that deliver energy to the poor.

There is also a clear course of action for the leaders of major CO2-emitting countries. They need to put a proper price on their emissions by taxing them, instead of continuing to subsidize them by spending billions on fossil-fuel exploration. G-20 countries must set a timetable for phasing out such subsidies.

And rich countries need to mobilize international development finance, which can play a key role in helping African countries meet their energy needs. The fragmented, under-resourced and ineffective system for financing climate policy has failed Africa. It needs wholesale reform. Unfortunately, the world’s largest emitters have shown little commitment to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.

Corporate leaders have a responsibility to act as well. They should demand a price on carbon, drive innovation, and seek opportunities to fund low-carbon development across Africa. Natural gas and renewable energy sources, such as sun, water and wind, are an opportunity, not a risk, in Africa. Millions of energy-poor, disconnected Africans earning less than $2.50 a day constitute an energy market worth $10 billion a year.

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Some hope for rapid change may be glimpsed in the fact that Africa now leads the world in adopting many new technologies. It is bypassing earlier ones and jumping straight into the digital age. East Africa’s M-Pesa system for transferring money via mobile phones is spurring new microfinance services, such as peer-to-peer lending. Commodity exchanges are enabling farmers to access real-time prices.

Let us put those timeless, old-tech skills of far-sightedness and collaboration together with new technology. If we do, the current generation of African leaders has a unique opportunity to protect future generations from a climate disaster, deliver on the promise of energy for all, and build shared prosperity.