Central Africa a backwater? Think again—exciting, and green, things are happening

Everyone jostled to be visible, ranging from the African Union, business lobbies to players such as Ethiopian Airlines and French oil major Total

POINTE-NOIRE, Congo: Its rather ubiquitous bumper swept up neatly into the retreating bonnet much like a coif, the Bluecongo jeep rests in the foreyard, a sight that turns many a head.  

A concept car as far back as 2005, the electric vehicle begun popular life in the streets of Paris under a car-sharing programme in 2011, before going into the retail market a year later.

Because its maker, Bolloré Group, straddles much of the African market through its billion-dollar logistics and infrastructure business, it was only a matter of time before the cars, made by the French conglomerate’s Blue Solutions subsidiary, were introduced into the regional market.

As such, the vehicles can be sighted in a clutch of roads from Cameroon to Ivory Coast but were first shipped to the “other” Congo, Brazzaville, last year in time for the All-Africa games, where they trailed competing cyclists.

The company’s admittedly ambitious venture, which is backed by the petro-state of Qatar, aims to use “innovative” technology to help bridge the energy deficit in the Congo.

But it is its claim to clean energy milestones that could be significant to the region. The car’s selling point is in the efficiency of its battery system, built on the firm’s much-touted lithium technology. At its recharging stations, photovoltaic panels trap the sun’s energy, which is then transmitted and stored as electricity in a giant battery, which is then placed at recharging stations for the cars to fill up.

250kms run

 A single charge of the 30kWh battery can run the car for 250 kilometres, Bolloré says, attaining a top speed of 130 km an hour—enough for daily use in most clogged African cities.

Bolloré claims its battery technology is entirely renewable and environmentally friendly including its ease of recyclability. 

The car, along with its bus sibling, was one of the attractions at this year’s International Green Business Forum, that took place in this Atlantic port city, and which is strongly backed by both regional governments and big business.

Everyone jostled to be visible here, ranging from the African Union, Central African governments and business lobbies to players such as Ethiopian Airlines and French oil major Total.

The push into green growth by Central African states is notable. Middle Africa, as the wider region is referred to by the UN, is somewhat viewed as a “black hole” on the continent, often associated with conflict, abundant but poorly managed natural resources, and long-serving rulers. The region, despite its natural wealth, also lags in most global indicators of wellbeing, a problem further deepened by an absence of reliable data.

Yet it has since 2010 looked to seize the challenge of greening its businesses with gusto, growing the forum from the ambition of its founder and Pointe-Noire chamber of commerce chair, Sylvester Mavouenzela, into the current multi-country effort.

For the city, highly dependent on its marine resources, the alternative to not doing and mitigating climate change is sobering, Mavouenzela says, calling for constant “daring” in taking the advantages that green business represents.

Featured names included StartupBrics, YALI fellow Amadou Cissoko’s Chico Innovations and artisans marketplace La Ruche.

Green futures

This year’s meeting focused on technological innovation, highlighting businesses in the region, both established and start-ups, that are staking their future on green growth, in what is repeatedly termed a “real opportunity” to be seized.

“We must think of solutions to the needs of our populations. After COP21 the green economy is no longer a choice but an obligation,” Honoré Tabuna of the Economic Community of Central African States, known by its French acronym CEEAC, said in reference to last year’s major climate change meeting in Paris.

The willingness by the region to take the lead on green growth is given policy heft by the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, which recently released its flagship Greening Africa’s Industrialisation report.

As a latecomer, the continent can “leapfrog” traditional carbon-intensive methods of growth, the study says.

“The continent can take advantage of new innovations, technologies and business models on a pathway that uses our natural resources optimally and efficiently as inputs to an industrialisation process powered by our endowments of clean sources of energy,” said UNECA executive secretary Carlos Lopes.

For the continent, pursuing a green development path will ensure “truly sustainable and inclusive growth” including the creation of green jobs in Africa, the research says.

“It is this new niche that we recognise as a winning formula, a “no regret” option that will secure Africa a central space in the world economy. Such a transformation will make significant productivity gains in rural areas with vibrant hubs of agri-business and linkages to industrial activity,” added Lopes.

Many African countries have been laying policies for green growth, but Central Africa’s push is notable for its organisation at regional level.

It certainly has incentives to do so: much of its wealth is derived from fossil fuels, which in addition to current floor-level prices, is finite. With the varied business players having interests in resources, anticipating disruption has many benefits.

If the current heady approach by Central Africa is sustained, it could see the continent’s least heralded area take the lead in the global push towards green growth. At the very least, it could give the region a measure of control over its post-resources order.


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