SWITCH IT ON

An ambitious national solar power strategy to fix Togo’s electricity problem might just work

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

In Togo, the electricity access rate is 28% , far below the West African average of 40%. Both rural and urban households struggle not only with access but with low voltage when it is available. It has to rely on Ghana, its neighbor to the west, to supply some of its power.

However, the Togolese government hopes an ambitious “electrification strategy” will bring millions of its citizens out of the dark. Its target is for electricity to reach 50% of Togo’s 7.5 million-population by 2020, 75% by 2025 and achieve universal access by 2030.

The crux of the strategy is for solar power to serve three million people in communities where the grid would not reach—even after it’s been extended to another 800,000 households. To achieve this, the government would partner with private investors to build 300 mini solar plants across the country and distribute solar kits to 500,000 households. The government has also scrapped the 30% tariff on solar kits. This is in keeping with the World Bank’s recommendations on how to extend electricity to millions of Africans and forms part of Togo’s own ambitions to make renewable energy 50% of the energy mix by 2030.

Despite successes at extending electricity to many, sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the lowest household electrification rate in the world (at 42%) and 600 million people live without it. Collectively, the region has even less installed capacity when compared with India and China. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa needs $50 billion of investment every year to get close to achieving universal access by 2030 as envisioned by the UN’s SDG Goal 7.

There’s long been an expectation and hope that renewable energy—solar power in particular—will play a vital role in filling the huge deficit in Africa’s power generation capacity. One challenge has been how to deliver a consumer proposition that would be affordable for some of the poorest people in developing countries, particularly in rural areas—though there are now more startups that specialize in delivering power at affordable prices.

While sub-Saharan Africa countries have mostly struggled with fixing their electricity shortage problems, North African countries have been leading the way on solar power, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Morocco is a model of what’s possible as the government is pushing for renewable energy to generate 52% of its electricity by 2030. It is also backing that rhetoric with action partly through the construction of Noor Ouarzazate, a solar plant expected to become the world’s largest when completed. More sub-Saharan governments are looking to solar as a part of their electrification strategy. Last November Burkina Faso launched the largest solar plant in the Sahel.

Opposition supporters take part during a protest calling for the immediate resignation of President Faure Gnassingbe in Lome
Opposition supporters protest calling for the resignation of president Faure Gnassingbe in Lome, Togo last September. The banner reads: “Togolese people say: No. 50 years, enough”. (Reuters/Stringer)

As for Togo, while the strategy is sound on paper, it’s an economic challenge as one of the world’s poorest countries. The 12-year plan will cost the country $1.7 billion, its GDP in 2016 was just $4.4 billion. To overcome this, the government is courting private investors to shoulder half the cost and the African Development Bank has pledged to contribute $35 million to the pot.

But in the end, funding might not be the biggest hurdle to fulfilling the ambitious project. Instead, political instability might be a more significant challenge. Togo has been run by a father, and then his son, for 50 years and the country is in the midst of a political crisis with opposition parties bent on ending the Eyadéma dynasty. Continuous nationwide protests which began in August 2017 were sparked by the president becoming the latest African leader to alter the constitutional term limit.

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