Given its undisputed importance for almost any aspect of development – from health and educational achievement to economic growth and poverty reduction – access to electricity may have earned the status of a basic human right (Hughes, 2018). At a minimum, it is widely acknowledged as a prerequisite for progress on most of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where it is highlighted as SDG7, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” (United Nations Development Programme, 2019; Stern, 2016; Lloyd, 2017).
Tracking progress toward SDG7, the World Bank (2019a) reports that globally the number of people living without electricity dropped from 1.2 billion in 2010 to about 840 million in 2016. But it also projects that in the absence of stepped-up and sustained action, 650 million people will still be without power in 2030 – and nine out of 10 of them will be living in sub-Saharan Africa. Not to mention the millions who, though connected to a grid, are very far from enjoying SDG7’s “reliable energy” as blackouts and brownouts continue to plague the continent.
“Africa is tired of being in the dark,” African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina said in 2016 as the bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa joined Power Africa (U.S.) and Sustainable Energy for All (UN) among high-profile initiatives to provide electricity for Africans (Nerve Africa, 2016).
Yet despite these efforts, Afrobarometer survey teams on the ground found little evidence of recent advances toward energy for all Africans. While electric grids have expanded since the early 2000s, that forward movement appears to have stalled in most countries during the past few years. Across 34 surveyed countries, about two-thirds of households are within reach of an electric grid – the same proportion as circa 2015 (Oyuke, Penar, & Howard) – and only about four in 10 homes enjoy a reliable supply of electricity.
Stark differences in access and reliable supply remain between countries and between regions, and rural residents and the poor are still at a great disadvantage when it comes to lights and power. This may be why fewer than half of Africans think their government is doing a good job when it comes to providing a reliable supply of electricity.