How Prometheus sheds light on Africa’s energy future

Guest Author
A man holds a solar panel on the back of a motorcycle weaving through dense traffic.
A motorcyclist transports a solar panel in dense traffic in Bukavu in Eastern Congo. Photo credit: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Human progress has always been intertwined with our ability to harness energy, propelling us from one era to the next. From the myth of the Greek God Prometheus stealing fire to the present-day energy transition, our collective journey has been marked by ingenuity and adaptation.  

Throughout history, we have transitioned from primarily using wind, water, biomass and animal power to relying on the power of the ancient sun locked in hydrocarbons buried deep beneath Earth’s surface. These shifts were driven by the pursuit of efficiency, enabling us to live more humanely by freeing us from mundane tasks and elevating our quality of life. 

The current energy transition isn’t humanity’s first, but it is perhaps the most monumental. Unlike its predecessors, this transition is urgent — and must benefit everyone.  

While people in wealthy economies have enjoyed the benefits of modernity, others have been disproportionately burdened by the consequences. Emerging economies, which reaped few rewards from the feast of energy progress, paradoxically now find themselves paying the price for the rise in quality of life in wealthier nations. 

A successful transition will require wealthy economies, like the United States and Europe, to massively reduce their use of fossil fuels while scaling up new energy technologies. Crucially, it will also require fostering economic opportunity, social progress and climate resilience in emerging economies. 

The narrative of transitioning to a low-carbon economy implies we need to move from a high-carbon one, overlooking the pressing issue of energy access. More than 600 million Africans live without electricity, impeding their economic development and potential.  

Solving this challenge is not insurmountable. Universal access to modern energy across Africa would require an investment of $25 billion a year, just about 1% of global energy investments today, according to the International Energy Agency.  

Diesel generators highlight the complex energy landscape of many African nations. A staggering 120 gigawatts of backup fossil-fuel generators consume over $20 billion in fuel imports, straining already fragile economies. (This is equivalent to three times the total installed power generation capacity of New York state.) These generators are a lifeline for small-scale industries and critical infrastructure and are indispensable for many communities dealing with an unreliable grid. 

The replacement of standby diesel generation with solar would bring opportunities to reduce costs and provide both environmental and health benefits to communities by reducing pollution from burning fossil fuels.  

The sun, abundant in Africa, holds the promise of energy freedom. Yet, the upfront costs of solar panels and the limited availability of local financing make it difficult to realize this goal. The continent’s solar energy potential remains largely untapped, accounting for just a fraction of global clean energy investment.  

But the tide is turning. The energy shift presents an opportunity for collaboration — a chance for entrepreneurs to unite and create cost-effective power generation and distribution systems. These systems can be tailored to fit the unique demands of the African context, integrating green technology and reducing the need for costly fuel imports.  

Household solar units operating on a pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) basis are gaining traction in parts of the continent. This mode of payment takes into consideration the daily wage of each household and can easily replace kerosene and biomass as the primary sources of heating and lighting. 

Entrepreneurs, driven by private investment, are leveraging Africa’s solar potential and the flexibility of these models to bridge energy gaps. In East Africa, young companies like BBox, Mgas and Mkopa Solar are utilizing PAYGO technology to spread household solar and liquid petroleum gas as a clean cooking fuel. As of 2020, 40 million PAYGO units had been sold worldwide and the number was continuing to grow, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency 

At a larger scale, manufacturers have formed corporate power purchase contracts with private, independent power producers like PowerGen Renewable Energy and Nuru that provide rooftop solar plants to serve entire communities, such as Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

To further unlock Africa’s energy potential, governments, investors, researchers, developers and innovators must learn from one another and rally behind initiatives that promote sustainable energy solutions.  

The time has come to transform Africa’s abundant solar energy into a force for progress, breaking the cycle of energy poverty and fossil fuel dependency.  

In the story of the energy transition, we are all not merely observers; we are protagonists, shaping the narrative for the generations to come. Just as Prometheus gifted fire to humanity, we now have the power and responsibility to ignite the flames of innovation and collaboration, lighting the path to a brighter, more equitable future for all.