Camille van Gestel has an interesting business card: CEO, co-founder and “agent of light.” That last title captures the passion the Dutch entrepreneur and his business partner, Maurits Groen, bring to Waka Waka, the social-impact company they launched after a 2010 trip to South Africa. Since then, the solar-powered Waka Waka lights and mobile phone charging units have reached more than 1 million people with clean and efficient energy, primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia. The portable units are creating new possibilities in 45 countries – for a hospital and school in Zimbabwe, microbusinesses in Nigeria, flood victim relief in Malawi, and Mali refugee assistance in Burkina Faso.
What this company (and others like it) has achieved is a heightened global awareness of the darkness that still looms across a continent three times the size of Europe. Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa – 620 million people – have no access to electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that 1 billion Africans will –somehow – gain access to power by 2040. Statistically, on the basis of global development and population projections, that would still leave sub-Saharan Africa with the greatest concentration of people lacking electricity on Earth, a distressing prospect that raises fundamental questions about how human development and environmental protection can be reconciled.
Next, by mid-century, Africa’s population is expected to balloon from the current level of 1.1 billion to more than 2 billion. For a continent blessed with the most abundant commodity resources on Earth, but plagued by frequent famines, resource fueled wars, a dire scarcity of agricultural land and limited water resources, that prospect is anything but reassuring. When it comes to electricity production, however, Africa’s clear advantage lies in the obvious: as frustrated Western nations seek to transition their economies away from a century’s worth of dependence on fossil fuel consumption, Africa moves forward without the albatross of 20th century industrialization.
Indeed, Africans by and large won’t need to replace costly old-world infrastructure and move entire economies away from CO2 intensive industries such as coal mining or automobile manufacturing. The opportunity to end energy poverty while reducing greenhouse gas emissions gives Africa a different set of challenges, but those challenges require the West to make investments that go beyond simply providing technology. African nations are wildly diverse, and so is their preparedness and existing infrastructure for clean-energy power. The solution to ironing out the differences between these countries must therefore be found in an expanded implementation of the COP21 climate accord.
Keeping the promises of Paris
Making sure the momentum behind the Paris conference is not lost is the North African country of Morocco, the host of the COP 22. With a laundry list of urgent tasks, the leaders have a daunting task before them, such as accelerating the entry into force of the Paris document and implementing the countries’ pledged contributions to reducing CO2 emissions. But the most crucial aspect of the COP 22, and one that African countries will work hardest to achieve, is mobilizing private sector financing for the development of clean energy.
One of the main results of the Paris Summit has been to recognize the historical debt developed countries have when it comes to accelerating the transition to renewables. Addressing the capabilities gap between developed and developing countries led to the creation of the Green Climate Fund. So far, it has received pledges of $10.3 billion, $3 billion of which should come from the U.S. However, this is grossly insufficient: mitigation finance is estimated at $15 billion per year, a fraction of what is actually needed to respect the Paris agreement. While the UN hopes the GCF will expand to $100 billion annually by 2020, partisan opposition to climate change in the U.S. Congress could sink the fund long before. Republicans have already blocked the Obama administration from supporting the fund, suspending a $500 million tranche slated for this year.
Which is where the private sector and international financial institutions have to step in and make sure that cleantech becomes “the only game in town” for those seeking to provide energy to the 620 million lacking it in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the absence of any sort of long-term, full-throated endorsement of the billions national governments should pledge to the GCF, the West should therefore pressure the private sector in order to step in. For example, the 2017 Astana World Expo will be focused on this very theme of “future energy”, and seeks to bring together decision makers and private actors alike. Since attending the World Expo is a must for any company eager to expand its business contacts and secure new contracts, incentivizing them to embrace green energy was the masterstroke of the Expo’s organizers.
At the end of the day, there is money to be made by cleantech companies willing to pour their money in developing Africa’s energy markets. That investment though should not crowd out African entrepreneurship and should be conditioned on respecting a series of sustainable development guidelines. Through the COP22, which promised to be above else an African event, the continent has a chance to steal the spotlight and direct the world’s attention to the major challenges it faces moving forward.