600,000 deaths caused in Africa by lack of electricity, but continent has huge untapped 'green jobs' potential

Tackling poverty, environmental sustainability and joblessness in one go...

THE Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Friday launch its 2015 report on climate and energy at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa.

The report focuses on the need for Africa to accelerate development and adapt to global warming, whilst also addressing the region’s urgent energy crisis. It says two in three Africans lack access to electricity.

The report says 600,000 deaths a year, nearly 50% of them children, are being caused by household air pollution caused by the burning of charcoal and firewood for cooking.

The annual Africa Progress report says there is an opportunity for Africa to bypass fossil fuels and move straight to low-carbon sources of power if aid is combined with higher taxes, an elimination of subsidies and a crackdown on illicit transfers to tax havens. 

It calls on the international community to help finance a new $20bn fund to provide low-cost solar panels for the two thirds o that lacks access to energy on the continent.

It optimistically describes how Africa could leapfrog into a new era of power generation and touts the huge potential renewable energy could have at the forefront of the changes sweeping Africa, which is registering some of the most remarkable advances in solar, geothermal and wind power. It describes a “triple win” that is within the region’s grasp, as renewable technologies create opportunities to increase agricultural productivity, improve resilience to climate change, and contribute to long-term reductions in dangerous carbon emissions. 

Green jobs

The report however doesn’t touch on the fourth win, the potential for job creation or employment possibilities. More than 7.7 million people worldwide are now employed by the renewable energy industry, this according to a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This is an 18% increase from last year’s figure of 6.5 million.

The 10 countries with the largest renewable energy employment figures are: China, Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, France, Bangladesh and Colombia.

In Africa’s case, the potential for job creation is still yet to be realised, with the IRENA report saying that renewable energy-related employment “remains low” on the continent as a whole, except in a few countries, like Kenya, Morocco and South Africa. 

Yet, given Africa’s abundant solar and wind resources, the continent could become a gold mine for renewable energy. A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that by 2040, renewables could provide more than 40% of all power generation capacity in the region, varying in scale from large hydropower dams to mini and off-grid solutions in more remote areas. 

For example, a study by Greenpeace titled “South African Energy Sector Jobs to 2030” states that by 2030 the sector will provide at least 73,000 and countless thousands of other indirect jobs in less than 20 years. 

Looking at the global data, there are clear areas of future possibilities which can be translated into the African context: the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry is the largest renewable energy employer worldwide with 2.5 million jobs, followed by liquid biofuels with 1.8 million jobs, and wind power, which surpassed one million jobs for the first time this year. 

In solar PV, jobs are created through the manufacturing of parts, installation and maintenance. China remains the top solar energy job market, retaining its undisputed lead in manufacturing while also expanding its domestic market. In the United States, installations continue growing, driving job creation linked to solar PV and other solar activities. 

The Bangladesh case

Solar employment is vast and can grow fast in countries whose populations have limited energy access. An example given in the report was Bangladesh where installations of solar home systems (SHS) have grown rapidly in the last decade, to 3.8 million units and benefitting over 20 million people. Related employment expanded accordingly, reaching at least 115,000 jobs in 2014. In addition, 50,000 jobs are induced in downstream businesses thanks to the availability of solar electricity in rural areas.

The latent potential for solar PV employment in Africa is huge for two reasons - resources and low electrification. Except for parts of Central Africa, there is widespread potential for the exploitation of solar energy across the continent, with the highest PV opportunities in Algeria, Egypt, Namibia, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania. Furthermore, because because more than half the countries on the continent have less than 50% of their populations on power grids, the demand for SHS is big.


Liquid biofuels remain a large employer, accounting for nearly 1.8 million jobs worldwide. Brazil has reported to have the largest workforce, with 845,000 employed. Countries with mechanised harvesting and processing will limit employment compared to countries with more labour-intensive operations. Indonesia’s labour-intensive palm oil-based biodiesel industry, for instance, supports 223,000 jobs. 

This would be highly beneficial to Africa, with a population of over one billion people, expected to double by 2050, labour-intensive industries will be a valuable resource and the potential for biofuels is also there. In the case of bioenergy, the equatorial region offers the greatest potentials for biofuels from cultivated energy crops, due to its climatic conditions and the associated growing conditions for many plants. In the case of rain-fed sugarcane, Madagascar (5.8 billion litres), Uganda (3.7 billion litres), and Mozambique (3 billion litres) show the highest potential, making up for 80% of the total. 


Global wind employment crossed 1 million jobs in 2014, up from 834,000 the year before - an increase of 23%. Leading the surge is China, here wind jobs surged from 356,000 in 2013 to 502,400 in 2014.  

This is one sector that has lagged even though sub-Saharan Africa’s wind potential is estimated at around 1?300 GW, which would produce several times the current level of total African electricity consumption. 

The ability to tap into this resource however is limited. According to the IEA, in sub-Saharan Africa, high quality wind resources are confined to a few areas, mainly the Horn of Africa, eastern Kenya, parts of West and Central Africa bordering on the Sahara and parts of Southern Africa. Somalia has the highest onshore potential of any country, followed by Sudan, Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Madagascar and Kenya. 

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