INFOGRAPHICS: When the lights go out in Africa, and the charcoal and candles come out

Surprisingly, even relatively wealthy households in Africa still use biomass fuels like charcoal and firewood, even when they can afford not to.

JUST a few years ago, Ghana was on a glowing path to prosperity, and was widely lauded for managing five peaceful and democratic transitions of power since 1992. 

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country in 2012, he called it “a wonderful success story economically,” and praised its government for “working for the people of Ghana, and not just the few.”

But that same year, blackouts became a regular occurrence in the capital city of Accra; just three years later, they’ve become an ongoing catastrophe. Residential power outages take place in 12-hour blocs, every 36 hours; commercial ones can be even longer. 

When the lights go out, factories go idle in the middle of production and people conducting business are forced to make their way to the lobbies of hotels that have their own generators. Desperate and angry citizens turn to dedicated apps to track the outages or just vent about them.

In February, Ghana’s auditor general provided some tinder to an already explosive situation when he revealed that money earmarked for providing electricity had instead been spent on 38 luxury cars for government officials. Not long after, large street protests broke out over the power outages, and the government mismanagement allegedly responsible for them.

It’s the same story in South Africa, where rolling blackouts – or “load shedding” – have gone from being a very rare occurrence to a common feature of everyday life, as shoddy maintenance of the country’s power generation and transmission network has forced national utility Eskom to institute power cuts of up to two hours twice a day. 

At the current trend, it’s a 1360% rise in the number of hours in darkness due to blackouts in South Africa, from an average of just 50 hours per year prior to 2014, to 730 hours per year in 2014 - 2015.

Electricity tariffs have been low in South Africa because the bulk of power is generated from coal, which is cheap. Because of this, far more South Africans use electric stoves to cook than in the rest of Africa, where doing so would send power bills skyrocketing beyond belief. 

So because the average person is so much more dependent on electricity, load shedding is likely to be felt much harder.

But in countries like Nigeria, an astonishing 2400 hours a year are plunged in darkness due to power cuts, the equivalent of 100 days, or nearly a third of the year, according to data from the African Energy Outlook 2014.

It’s remarkable that the country has managed to become Africa’s biggest economy with such a shambolic electricity supply. Nigeria is said to have the biggest concentration of generators per square kilometer in the world. 

The country accounts for almost three- quarters of electricity supply provided by back-up generators in Africa – nearly 12 terawatt hours - while generator use is relatively low in East and Central Africa, where grid access is more limited.

But a government subsidy keeps prices of kerosene low in Nigeria, so the majority of people use kerosene stoves to prepare food.

In most of the rest of Africa, biomass fuels like charcoal and firewood are more popular – even in the cities, except in the urban areas there is a greater tendency to use charcoal as it has higher energy content and is easier to transport than fuelwood.

But surprisingly, even relatively wealthy households in Africa still use biomass fuels, even when they can afford not to.

This is because a rise in income does not necessarily translate into a switch to cleaner, more efficient fuels; people would rather use the extra income to pay for education, health care and leisure, and deliberately keep their fuel bills low.

It’s particularly prominent where biomass fuels are cheap and easily available – or even “free”. In that case, increasing incomes are not a critical trigger for households to switch to modern fuels. In fact, the more abundant fuel wood is, the more of it that people will use – scarcity tends to reduce use, while easy access increases consumption, and deforestation and land degradation becomes more of an issue.

- Additional reporting by Adam Minter, Bloomberg

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