Can Africa Grow Without Fossil Fuels?

As the developed world demands emissions cuts, the continent’s leaders are asking whether it is possible to industrialize on green energy alone.

Geothermal power station at Olkaria in Hells Gate National Park in Kenya. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Geothermal power station at Olkaria in Hells Gate National Park in Kenya. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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In Hell’s Gate, a two-hour drive north of Nairobi, steam gushes out of the earth’s crust, generating a renewable form of energy that supplies almost half of Kenya’s current electricity needs. The steam is captured in miles of green pipes, which coil across the hillsides like giant pythons towards power stations that convert the volcanic energy into electricity.

What started as a quirky experiment 40 years ago is now a serious industry. Kenya has sufficient geothermal reserves to multiply its current installed capacity by at least eight times, according to the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority, the country’s energy regulator. In theory that would give it the opportunity to massively ramp up renewable-powered industries from green manufacturing to green hydrogen.

Renewable energy—including hydro, wind and solar power, as well as geothermal—accounts for 75 percent of Kenya’s electricity generation, according to EPRA. So abundant are its reserves that, at the moment, much geothermal energy is vented off at night when demand for electricity is low.


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Clearly, not every country in Africa is equally endowed, although 22 nations on the continent already use renewables as their main source of electricity, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, a governance think tank. Some, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, are sitting on massive hydroelectric potential while others, including Namibia, with its long coastline and deserts, are well placed to harness wind and solar power—and eventually hydrogen.

Amid the global drive towards net zero carbon emissions, Kenya raises an urgent question for countries in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Is it possible for a poor country to achieve a high living standard without intensive use of fossil fuels?

Poverty in Perpetuity

Many African officials argue that it is not. Renewable energy, including fashionable off-grid solar used to light villages, is simply no substitute for the hydrocarbon energy intensity needed to make steel, run factories and create jobs for a rapidly growing urban population, they say. By 2050, Africa’s population will almost double to 2.5 billion.

“No one in the world has yet been able to industrialize using renewable energy,” Yemi Osinbajo, vice-president of Nigeria, a big oil producer, told an audience in Abuja, to rapturous applause last month.

With the exception of South Africa and a few countries including Algeria and Egypt, on average Africans consume a sliver of the energy and emit a fraction of the carbon of their western counterparts. Nigerians, for example, produce 0.7 tons of carbon per capita, according to the World Bank, less than one-twentieth of the amount needed to maintain a typical American lifestyle. Africa is responsible for perhaps 3 percent of global carbon emissions—discounting agriculture and deforestation. Yet it suffers disproportionately from climate change.

Many African leaders, experts and energy executives argue it is a gross hypocrisy to insist that Africans freeze their carbon emissions, let alone cut them from already low levels. They say the demand to do so is tantamount to asking a whole continent to stay poor in perpetuity.

“You can measure any country by the amount of gas it has emitted. There is a strong correlation between that and development,” says Mo Ibrahim, whose eponymous foundation last week released a report intended to make Africa’s case in the climate debate. In November, the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference will be held on African soil, in Egypt, giving Africans the chance to redress what they see as a western-biased agenda advanced in the U.K.-based meeting last year.

Ibrahim, like many others, lambasts western banks and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank that have all but abandoned financing gas projects. “It is absolutely immoral and ridiculous for some people to say they are going to cut off funding of gas projects in Africa because they are very nice people who care about the environment — and when they are wallowing in Russian gas,” he says.

As Europe moves to ban the import of Russian oil, it has been scouring the world for alternative energy sources, including in Africa. Botswana says it has been inundated with requests by European states for coal supplies in an apparent volte-face that Carlos Lopes, a professor at Cape Town University, says exposes the hypocrisy of the European position on fossil fuels.

Mamadou Fall Kane, who advises Senegal’s president on energy policy, says Europeans have softened their objection to gas, labeling it a transition fuel—along with nuclear—in their new taxonomy. Since the invasion of Ukraine, he adds, any remaining objections to gas have crumbled. 

“After COP26, they wanted to kill it off. Nobody is talking about that any more. On the contrary, they are desperately looking for new sources of gas,” Kane said.

If Europe needs fossil fuels, Africa has plenty. Mozambique has made prodigious discoveries of gas that can be liquefied and put on ships. Big recent oil and gas discoveries off the coast of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal and Mauritania have attracted keen European interest. Nigeria has the potential to ramp up oil exports, although it has struggled in recent years to even meet its Opec quota of 1.74 million barrels a day.

Africa has 600 million people who lack electricity, one-sixth of whom live in Nigeria. Osinbajo estimates that, given Nigeria’s energy poverty, its fast-growing population and its ambitions to industrialize, by 2050 the country will need 15 times more energy than it currently consumes.

That will be impossible without gas, he says. “You need gas just for the baseload,” he said in his speech in Abuja, referring to the requirement for a stable grid that is not reliant on intermittent power. Fortunately for Kenya, its geothermal energy is stable enough to provide a baseload, but wind and solar are not unless battery technology advances significantly.

NJ Ayuk, executive chair of the African Energy Chamber, a lobby group, has a simple message of Africa’s intent. “Drill baby drill,” he says. “You’ve got to be kidding if you think we’re going to leave a single drop of our hydrocarbons in the ground.”

‘A Just Energy Transition’

Given the strength of feeling about what many see as Africa’s right to exploit its resources through what they call a “just energy transition,” Africans making the case for a renewable-led growth model tend to be drowned out. But they do exist.

James Mwangi, executive director of the Dalberg Group, a consultancy, argues that African countries should go green not through any sense of moral obligation but as a pragmatic response to new billion-dollar opportunities. “The future is a whole range of business models that have carbon as a commodity stream,” he says. “This is neither charity nor philanthropy. It is delivering a very real service to the world—quality carbon credits.”

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Mwangi says that both the rich world and middle-income countries such as China, Vietnam and Brazil are already locked into a carbon-intensive path that will make switching to greener technologies difficult. Most of Africa, on the other hand, has yet to build its energy infrastructure so it should be easier to adopt new technologies such as electric vehicles, hydrogen production and carbon capture.

“What would it take to make Hell’s Gate a global carbon removal hub?” he asks, of the potential to use geothermal energy to pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Kenya could also produce goods such as textiles competitively, not because its labor is cheaper but because it could do so with a lower carbon footprint, thus avoiding the taxes that Europe will impose under its proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.

The belief that the energy transition presents Africa with a one-time opportunity to accelerate development assumes higher carbon prices driven by regulation and trillions of dollars pouring into ESG investments.

“You’ve got companies like Goldman Sachs, Vitol [the Dutch energy trader] and others who are investing on the understanding that carbon is going to be a hot commodity,” says Mwangi. “These are not bunny huggers: they are hardened investment bankers betting on carbon prices of $40 to $50 a ton.”

Given the pressing needs of many people in Africa, at least one-third of whom live in extreme poverty on under $1.90 a day, the idea that Africa can develop without increasing carbon emissions risks appearing out of touch. In a recent op-ed, Osinbajo took a swipe at those with “a naive belief in leapfrogging, the assumption that, like skipping landlines for mobile phones, Africa can ‘leap’ to new energy technologies.”

Yet for those who advocate precisely that path, Kenya—a country with a record of technological innovation going back to its early adoption of mobile money—offers a glimpse of what might be possible. Dozens of companies in Nairobi, many still at a proof-of-concept stage, are seeking to create green solutions that, they say, could be rolled out at scale across the continent.

“I don’t know whether you can industrialize without carbon; history has shown us a carbon path,” says Monica Juma, Kenya’s energy minister. “We are asking ourselves whether there is an alternative. We have done it in digital. Is there a similar leapfrogging in energy? We don’t know, but I suspect there is.”

Countries like Kenya, with the capacity to follow a renewable path, should take it, she says, so long as others meet their obligations too. “If the journey of emissions is a journey to destruction, then the question we should ask is how do we avoid that destruction.”

The Problem of Scale

One big area of investment is electric vehicles. Roam, a company founded by Swedish engineers in Nairobi, thinks the starting point should be motorbikes, which can be quickly and easily recharged, and buses, because recharging stations can be placed along a set route.

Roam, among others, has started manufacturing small quantities of electric motorbikes in Nairobi for local motorbike taxi fleets. Its pitch to drivers is not that they are saving the environment but that the bikes are cheaper to maintain and run, says Albin Wilson, Roam’s chief marketing officer.

Sophisticated components, including the engine and tires, are currently imported from China and India, but other parts, including sections of the body and the saddle, are made locally, he says. In time, Roam hopes to source more in Kenya to drive down the price and to help build an industrial ecosystem around electric vehicles.

The eventual aspiration is that batteries—the raw materials for which, including cobalt, nickel and tantalum, are sourced in Africa—could be produced, or at least assembled, locally too.

Another promising idea is being developed by Koko Networks, a company that aims to replace cooking charcoal with bioethanol, a byproduct of sugar or starch that burns cleanly and is 40 percent cheaper, according to the company. Residents of Nairobi’s huge informal settlements spend $15 a month on average on charcoal, part of a $30 billion African industry that is among the biggest causes of deforestation—together with conversion to agriculture—as well as being a major killer through smoke inhalation.

Koko distributes ethanol via local “fuel ATMs” in small quantities and sells clean-cook stoves, manufactured in India, at cost or below. What sounds like a small idea from a well-meaning NGO has the makings of a huge business with the potential to change cooking habits and arrest deforestation across the continent, says Greg Murray, a former investment banker who co-founded the company. The Congo Basin Rainforest in central Africa is second in size only to the Amazon.

Koko has signed up one-fifth of Nairobi’s households in about two years and is adding 1,500 new customers a day. Its profit comes mainly from selling carbon credits—derived from audited calculations of avoided emissions—which it sells at an average $20 a ton to South Korea. So-called compliance markets, including the EU’s Emissions Trading System, were worth $850 billion last year, according to Refinitiv, a financial data provider.

McKinsey, which produced a report on the potential for a low-carbon industrial future in Africa, identified more than 20 green business opportunities, several of which it estimates could make an impact at scale this decade.

One recommendation is manufacturing wind-turbine towers. Standing on a ladder inside one of the airplane-sized towers at Kipeto, a 100-megawatt wind farm south of Nairobi, Norbert Ombese, a field service engineer with GE, says: “Everybody’s going green out there and we are trying to move with the times.” The towers at Kipeto were made in China but local manufacturers think they could produce them locally.

A bigger opportunity still is hydrogen, argues Seyni Nafo, former chair of the African Group of Negotiators in the UN climate change process and now a board member of the African Hydrogen Partnership.

“We have the potential to industrialize the continent by producing reliable, affordable, sustainable, scalable green energy,” he says of the prospect of turning wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power into hydrogen. This could be shipped in liquid form to western markets or used locally to produce green fertilizer or green aluminum and steel.

Foreign investors have sensed an opportunity. Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, chair of Fortescue Metals, struck a tentative deal with DRC’s government last year to lead an $80 billion development of the Inga dam. The dam complex on the Congo river could potentially be twice the size of the 22.5 gigawatt Three Gorges dam in China, producing enough energy to power much of southern Africa with plenty left over to convert into hydrogen.

“We’ve been talking about it for five decades,” says Ibrahim of grandiose plans for the Inga dam. “It is time to make it real.”

But such hugely ambitious plans take time, says James Mwangi (no relation to Dalberg’s Mwangi), chief executive of Equity Group Holdings, a Nairobi-based regional bank. Talk of carbon capture and hydrogen production must be tempered by the reality of what people need now, he says. “The technology for a [green industrial revolution] has not been fully invented yet. So you can’t tell Africa to wait until it is done.”

African countries will transition at different speeds, he says. “Kenya has chosen not to go down that legacy path,” he says of the model of fossil-fuel dependency. “You don’t have to dirty the environment and then start cleaning. But look at countries like Nigeria that have legacy systems. They are stuck where they are and it will be a gradual process to change.”

The one thing he is certain of is that rich countries cannot propose solutions that keep some countries poor. The result of such unjust propositions, he says, would be both predictable and devastating: millions of people crossing the Mediterranean heading for Europe in search of a carbon-heavy lifestyle.

This story originally appeared in the June 1, 2021 edition of The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

Reprinted with permission.