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Renewables and Energy for Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Renewables and Energy for Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Maxwell Mapako, Abel Mbewe
Energy supply is a key factor in economic and social development, but lack of modern energy in rural areas limits efforts to alleviate poverty and improve living standards. This book identifies the options for providing modern and improved renewables-based energy to low-income rural areas, with special emphasis on the productive uses. In the five countries


Energy supply is a key factor in economic and social development, but lack of modern energy in rural areas limits efforts to alleviate poverty and improve living standards. This book identifies the options for providing modern and improved renewables-based energy to low-income rural areas, with special emphasis on the productive uses. In the five countries represented - Botswana, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe - the contributors focus on the advantages of a decentralized approach to energy delivery, the role of income-generating activities in attracting modern energy services to rural areas, and the barriers as well as opportunities that exist in the promotion of renewable energy technologies. The African Energy Policy Research Network (Afrepren) has built up an enviable reputation as the Continent‘s foremost platform for the development African energy professionals producing policy relevant work. This latest volume in their series of publications is a further contribution to addressing the practical energy needs of Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Renewables and Energy for Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Maxwell Mapako, Abel Mbewe

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2004 African Energy Policy Research Network (AFREPREN)
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-080-7


Renewables and Rural Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa


In spite of the rapid urban growth experienced by sub-Saharan Africa over the last 20 years, the majority of sub-Saharan Africans still live in rural areas. Although this distribution is likely to change in the not-too-distant future, rural sub-Saharan Africa continues to be home to the majority of Africans (Figure 1.1). It is estimated that 68 per cent of the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas (World Bank, 2000a).

The bulk of rural inhabitants are poor, with irregular income flows. Poverty levels in rural Africa range from 50 to 77 per cent if one uses national poverty references (Table 1.1).

The high levels of poverty are reflected in the consumption pattern of modern energy. Per capita consumption of modern energy in sub-Saharan African countries is very low when compared to other regions. The low levels of modern energy consumption prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa are especially low in rural areas, which are characterized by high levels of traditional biomass energy use (Table 1.2).

The provision of modern energy services to this large segment of sub-Saharan Africa's population is expected to assist greatly in reversing the high poverty levels found in the continent's rural areas.

This chapter provides an overview of the rural energy sector in Africa, with specific emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. A review of energy use patterns in rural areas is provided in the next section under three broad categories: household energy use; energy for agriculture; and energy use in SMEs. In the third section we review major trends and patterns in the region's rural energy sector, before offering recommendations in the concluding section on the way forward for providing improved energy services to the rural population and especially the poor.

Energy use in rural sub-Saharan Africa

Biomass energy is the dominant energy form for most African countries. Figures for sub-Saharan African countries indicate that a high proportion of total national energy supply is derived from biomass energy (Figure 1.2). The term 'biomass energy' refers to a wide range of natural organic fuels such as wood, charcoal, agricultural residues and animal waste. Biomass is currently used largely in its traditional and unprocessed form. The bulk of the biomass energy is used for household cooking purposes. Other important end uses of biomass energy in the rural areas include small-scale charcoal production, agro-processing and beer brewing.

As shown in Table 1.3, in the household sector, which is the major consumer of energy, rural households consume higher amounts of energy (Kgoe) than urban households. This is attributable, however, to the high amount of biomass used in rural areas, mostly inefficiently.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the least electrified region of the world, with rural electrifications levels that are routinely below 5 per cent (see Table 1.4). Given that a significant proportion of the rural population is poor, Table 1.4 clearly demonstrates that the rural poor do not have access to electricity in most countries in the region.

Quantitatively, fossil fuels and conventional energy sources such as electricity play a minor role in rural energy supply, as is demonstrated by the low electrification levels. However, the contribution of these energy forms is valuable because of their numerous productive functions. Diesel is used in small agro-processing activities such as grain milling and in rural transport. These are important rural economic activities and may often represent the only major source of income outside the sale of agricultural produce. Similarly, electricity may be used to power equipment repairs and tractors. It is also widely used in small-scale commercial establishments such as restaurants, shops and guesthouses. In addition, electricity is often vital for proper operation of key rural institutions such as schools, dispensaries and hospitals.

With the bulk of the region's poor residents in dispersed rural settlements, conventional grid electrification is considered too costly for most of rural Africa. The dispersion problem is more acute in Eastern and Southern Africa, where, in contrast to the village settlement patterns of West Africa, the majority of the rural population live in dispersed homesteads. The transmission and distribution costs of extending grid electricity to dispersed homesteads is high, thus creating an ideal market for decentralized energy technologies that better match the dispersed nature of sub-Saharan Africa's rural population. As a result, the region is perceived to be the ideal place for the deployment of new and innovative electrification technologies that will be not only cost-effective but also environmentally sound. Renewables are often recommended as the most appropriate energy technology choice for much of rural Africa.

Although the total number of RETs in use is below expectation, substantial numbers have been disseminated in the region. Numerous improved stoves have been introduced in the region with positive results. Wind pumps for water pumping have been disseminated in areas with sufficient wind potential (3 m/s), while pico and micro hydropower have shown potential (Karekezi and Ranja, 1997).

In general, energy use in rural areas can be subdivided into the following three broad categories:

• household energy;

• energy for agriculture;

• energy for small and micro enterprises (SMcEs).

We shall review energy use patterns in each of these categories. Energy use in medium-scale and large rural enterprises — such as sugar, tea and coffee estates — is not addressed because of its indirect link to poverty.

Household energy

The bulk of energy consumed in rural areas is used in households. Households require energy mainly for cooking, lighting and space heating. Cooking accounts for between 90 and 100 per cent of energy consumption. The rest of the energy consumed is for lighting, provided either by woodfuel (cooking fire), kerosene lamps or candles. Space heating is required in areas with cold climates, and is often catered for by energy used for cooking (WEC/FAO, 1999).

Household energy consumption levels and the types of energy used depend on a variety of factors, such as the availability and costs of energy sources. Table 1.5 shows that, as incomes increase, the use of modern energy becomes more prevalent in rural households. For instance, while low-income rural households rely mainly on biomass fuels for cooking, high-income households use modern fuels such as kerosene and LPG.

Firewood remains the most common fuel for cooking in most African countries. As shown in Table 1.6, Botswana, South Africa and Djibouti are exceptions in that although a substantial part of their rural populations use firewood, the use of modern fuels such as kerosene, LPG and electricity is fairly high (World Bank, 2000a).

The predominance of firewood as the dominant source of cooking energy, despite its inefficiency and harmful impact on human health, could be attributed to its availability as a 'free' source of energy. In most cases, firewood is collected and not purchased.

Studies have shown that there are links between biomass combustion and respiratory illnesses in women and children (Karekezi and Ranja, 1997). Women and children are more likely to be adversely affected by particle emissions from biofuel smoke because they spend much of their time near biomass-based cooking fires. Approximately 4-5 million children in developing countries die annually due to acute respiratory infections. A recent study in a rural area in Kenya found that women, who undertook most of the cooking at household level, were exposed to twice as much particulate emission as their male counterparts, and were on average twice as likely to suffer from respiratory infections (Schirnding, 2001).

As shown in Figure 1.3, particulate emissions from the use of fuel-wood are significantly higher than the recommended average. In a recent study of indoor air pollution levels, the recommended level concentration of particulates below 10 microns in diameter was set at 150 µg/m3. The concentration in most homes using biofuels in developing countries, including sub-Saharan Africa, averages 200 to 5,000 µg/m3 (Ezatti and Kammen, 2002).

The link between rural household biomass energy use and women is one that is often ignored; yet its importance cannot be overstated. The relationship between biomass energy and women's work and well-being is evident in women's role as users of energy sources, producers of traditional biomass fuels, and educators on the collection, management and use of fuels. In addition, women and children are the most vulnerable group in terms of energy scarcity and adverse environmental impacts associated with biomass energy production and use (WEC/FAO, 1999).

Kerosene is the most widely used modern energy source for lighting in rural areas, as in the examples of Botswana and Uganda (Table 1.7). The use of kerosene implies that rural households are willing to incur the relatively high cost of kerosene lamps (wick and pressure) and fuel. Firewood is another important fuel for lighting, and it does not require additional investment. For high-income rural households, electricity (either from the grid or gensets) is an option. Owing to its high up-front costs, electricity is not an important option for low-income households for lighting.

In the recent past, solar PV has been promoted in rural areas for meeting household lighting needs. In Kenya between 1998 and 2001, for example, the PV industry undertook more than US$10 million worth of business (Hankins, 2001). Assuming that most of the PV systems were sold in rural areas, this substantial amount of investment does not seem to have had a significant impact on the level of rural electrification, which is roughly 3.8 per cent (Kamfor, 2002).

Energy for agriculture

The agricultural sector accounts for a substantial proportion of the region's GDP: over 20 per cent in most countries (World Bank, 2000b). Agricultural commodities such as coffee, tea and tobacco often dominate the export sector of most sub-Saharan African countries. For the foreseeable future, heavy dependence on agriculture is likely to continue being the norm rather than the exception for most countries in the region. This is, however, not the case for countries with large mining and oil industries.

In spite of abundant energy resources, available estimates of Africa's energy consumption indicate limited use of modern energy resources in the agricultural sector. The continued low consumption of modern energy is a source of concern. This could be an indication that the agricultural sector is not getting adequate attention from policy makers in the region in terms of provision of high-grade energy services.

The energy needs of agricultural production in rural areas range from intensive power use in transport, water lifting and pumping, land preparation, and primary and seedbed cultivation, to lighter power requirements for weed control, planting, transplanting and harvesting. Limited use of mechanized agricultural practices in Africa means that human labour continues to be an important source of power for agricultural activities in the continent (FAO/ADB, 1995).

Human power, however, has limited output compared to mechanized power sources. Humans are nevertheless flexible and skilled, and can make sophisticated judgements and adjustments as they work. Table 1.8 estimates animate power requirements for various agricultural activities.

An important view to consider when estimating the amount of human energy available for agricultural activities in rural areas is the amount of calories contained in food intake. In many countries in the region, daily per capita calorie supply is below 2,000 calories (2.32 kWh), as compared to the recommended daily average calorie intake of 2,200 calories (2.55 kWh) (National Energy Foundation, 1995). For low-income rural inhabitants in sub-Saharan Africa, the typical daily calorie intake is significantly less than 2,000 calories. The daily per capita calorie intake needs to be used with caution because it includes allocations for children, who may not be fully involved in agricultural activities, and is partly based on an average per capita calorie intake figure that includes urban and higher income groups.

It would appear that the daily per capita calorie intake in rural areas is insufficient for a full day's agricultural work (Table 1.8). If one factors in the debilitating impacts of frequent food shortages, famine, disease, drought and floods, it is most likely that few in rural sub-Saharan Africa have access to an adequate calorie intake.

Another potentially important source of power for agriculture found in rural areas of the region is animal traction. Cattle and donkeys can provide transport, pull implements, lift water and be used in agro-processing activities such as cane crushing and threshing. In contrast to much of Asia, use of animal power is underdeveloped in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Reasons for this state of affairs vary; the prevalence of animal diseases such as trypanosomiasis is often mentioned as an important barrier to wider use of animal power (FAO/ADB, 1995).

Semi-mechanized technologies include basic hand tools (hoes, slashers), semi-mechanized hand tools (hand-driven threshers) and animal-drawn tools (ox ploughs). Reliance on hand tools has generally been the norm throughout the region (FAO/ADB, 1995), with limited use of semi-mechanized hand tools and animal-drawn tools. Mechanized technologies such as tractors are not widely used in the region. The stock of tractors in Africa was estimated to be about 540,000 in 1994. Over half these tractors were in three countries: Algeria, Egypt and South Africa. This is less than half the total number used in Latin America, which stood at 1,214,093 tractors in 1994 (WRI, 1998).

A number of RETs have demonstrated an encouraging level of success in meeting the demand for energy for agriculture in rural Africa (Table 1.9). The following technologies have shown promise: small hydro plants for shaft power and electricity generation; biogas plants, which provide sludge for use as fertilizer; and solar crop dryers.

One technology that could have considerable impact in the region's agricultural sector is wind-driven machines for water pumping and for irrigation. Most countries in the region have wind energy potentials that are sufficient for water pumping (3 m/s). Positive results have already been registered in the Ala Plains of Eritrea, where this technology is in use (Habtetsion and Tsighe, 2001). However, as shown in Table 1.10, with the exception of South Africa and Namibia, this potential has not been exploited fully in most countries (Karekezi and Ranja, 1997), mainly because of the high initial costs: US$1,000–7,000 (AFREPREN/ FWD, 2003).

Energy use in small and micro rural enterprises

A wide range of SMcEs can be found in rural areas. The term refers to entities that largely rely on family/household members, with limited use of non-household members. Most of these enterprises are based in the informal sector, and can be categorized into commercial/service enterprises and production enterprises. Commercial/service enterprises include small shops, rural guesthouses, beerhalls and battery recharging centres. Production enterprises are largely agro-based or forest-based activities, and include saw milling, grain milling and pottery making.

The various small and micro enterprises in different rural areas of the region share similar characteristics, such as reliance on family labour. However, the types may vary depending on cultural and socio-economic conditions. Table 1.11 presents an inventory of rural micro-enterprises in three Eastern and Southern African countries.

Biomass consumption is still dominant in many rural SMcEs. Examples of enterprises that largely rely on biomass include beer brewing, fish smoking, baking and tobacco curing. For example, tobacco curing uses 23 per cent of total fuelwood consumption in Malawi (Kgathi and Mlotshwa, 1997; McCall, 2001), while beer brewing consumes 25 per cent of total fuelwood annually in Zambia (ZERO, 1998). Lighting, motive and shaft power needs of SMcEs are invariably met using modern energy sources, for example, electricity from the grid or from gensets, kerosene or solar PV. Other renewables that have shown potential for meeting energy needs of SMcEs are shown in Table 1.12.

Estimated power requirements for small industries in rural areas are significantly higher than those of typical rural households. As shown in Table 1.13, these range from 2,000 W (power mills) to 163,000 W (oil mills) (WEC, 1992).

Diesel generators are preferred for applications requiring 3 kWp and above. Micro and pico hydropower is also used to provide motive and shaft power in some countries. Wind pumps and wind generators can be instrumental in the provision of energy to small and micro enterprises. Table 1.14 shows the typical uses of different sizes of wind generators though the dissemination of wind turbines in the sub-Saharan African region has been very limited. This is partly attributable to low wind speeds and high costs (Karekezi and Ranja, 1997).


Excerpted from Renewables and Energy for Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa by Maxwell Mapako, Abel Mbewe. Copyright © 2004 African Energy Policy Research Network (AFREPREN). Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Maxwell Mapako is Director of the African regional office of the Biomass Users Network. He is the author of numerous publications on biomass energy technologies that have been instrumental in shaping Zimbabwean renewable energy policies and programmes.

Abel Mbewe is an energy and environment consultant for the Annobil Group. He has attended several courses on energy and environmental issues and his previous appointments include Executive Secretary of the National Energy Council, Zambia.

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