Africa needs a power play

Why are dozens of African countries so starved of regular electricity?
Africa needs a power play
Illustration: Shutterstock / Vicky Leta

Hi Quartz members!

Last week, I had an opportunity to talk about the state of innovation in Africa to a group of students. They belonged to Wharton Africa Investing Partners (WAIP), a student-led initiative that supports investments in Africa by providing advisory, market research, and due diligence to Africa-focused private equity and venture capital funds, small- and medium-sized businesses, and entrepreneurs. One of the elements we touched on was power. A Nigerian student asked me if Kenya experiences the same power shortages that Nigeria, South Africa, and several other countries do.

I was pleased to tell him that extensive power cuts in Kenya are a thing of the past. More than 85% of my country’s electricity comes from renewable sources now. I did remember my final years of high school, in 2001-02, when there were national power outages every day, so that our school days ended at 7pm instead of the usual 9pm. We loved those days, not considering how problematic this was for the development of a country. For us, it was time to plait each other’s hair, tell stories, and learn new dances.

But only a few days after my presentation, all of Kenya was plunged into darkness: a five-hour blackout, caused by a fault on a transmission line. Perhaps I’d spoken too soon during my Wharton call.

This week, I was in Cape Town for a conference. Although Quartz had covered the South African load-shedding crisis, in which power is cut off to some as a way of staving off a system-wide collapse, I hadn’t thought too deeply about what 250 planned days of load-shedding this year means in reality. I was fortunate, because the place where I was staying as well as the conference venue had backup generators. As such, my chief annoyance was only that the wifi often refused to turn back on after a power interruption—something I experienced at both the conference and the airport.

With electricity access available to only 48% of Africa’s growing population, and the average firm in sub-Saharan Africa being affected by nine power outages every month, the continent’s development risks being slowed down by a lack of access to reliable power. In 2020, the World Bank reckoned that power shortages cost Nigeria $28 billion a year, or nearly 2% of GDP. But there are unquantifiable effects as well: the exodus of young, talented Nigerians, for instance, attributable in large part to their country’s economic difficulties. For a brighter future, African governments must first solve the problem of lighting their villages and cities.


While each power-starved Africa country faces slightly different reasons for its shortages, some of the main common causes are:

🏚️ Aging infrastructure that cannot keep up with the demand of a rapidly growing population

⚡ Generation and transmission issues, which lead to lots of energy losses through the power network

🪓 A slow start in harnessing renewable resources in some countries, leading to an increased reliance on dwindling stores of fossil fuels

😟 Corrupt and sometimes highly inefficient authorities

🤝 Vested political and business interests that keep citizens dependent on diesel generators

🌧️ Low rainfall, affecting hydroelectric power

🥷 Vandals destroying gas pipelines and grid infrastructure


$13 billion: South Africa’s expected economic losses from load shedding this year

250: Number of days in 2023 when South Africa expects blackouts

80%: Percentage of South Africa’s electricity that is generated from coal

6%: Percentage of electricity generated by nuclear reactors

45,000 megawatts: The installed coal power capacity of Eskom, South Africa’s power utility

22,000 megawatts: The coal power capacity that Eskom plans to retire by 2035

4,000-6,000 megawatts: Total annual power deficit in South Africa

$6.1 billion: Estimated cost of rehabilitation of power systems in the 2024-25 financial year


Image for article titled Africa needs a power play
Graphic: Samanth Subramanian


In a continent where 600 million people lack power, the diesel generator comes to the rescue of homes, industries, offices, and shops. At least 17 African countries have so many diesel generators that their collective off-grid capacity is greater than that of the power grid itself, according to data from Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy. It isn’t that these generators are cheap, necessarily; a primary health care facility in South Sudan, for instance, may spend $5,500 a year on diesel for its generator, money that a poor country can ill afford. But the absence of power altogether is a far worse prospect.

In that reliance on generators, though, there is hope. While countries build their grids up, generators can potentially be replaced by solar panels. They incur an installation cost, but the sunlight thereafter is all free. The off-grid solar market across Africa is estimated to be worth $24 billion. If solar spreads across Africa as comprehensively as mobile banking, the stress on national grids might ease up enough for governments to truly repair and expand them.



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Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.

Have a bright weekend,

— Ciku Kimeria, Africa editor; Faustine Ngila, Africa correspondent; Samanth Subramanian, global news editor