Although impressive economic growth rates have been recorded over the last 15 years - with an average increase in GDP of 5% between 2001 and 2014, compared with growth of 2% in the previous 2 decades - the African continent is still suffering from serious problems from a political, economic and social point of view. From the point of view of energy too, in spite of the great potential available, the vast majority of African countries recorded poor performances in per-capita consumption and electrification rates.
A situation that is fuelling a vicious circle, made even more problematic by rapid demographic growth rates, the urbanisation process and the dynamics of climate change, which risk exacerbating social inequalities and exclusion, as well as the environmental degradation and impoverishment of the land. Acting in a forward-looking and consistent manner to create an energy sector which ensures the sustainable development of the region is therefore a priority which has not been discussed at a continental level.
Energy: the litmus test for a continent in transition
The energy sector represents the counter-evidence of a situation of great transition within the continent of Africa. As stressed by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Africa is an area extremely rich in energy resources, especially if one considers the potential contribution from renewable energy, but still poor when it comes to energy procurement. Although African citizens represent 13% of the world's population, they only have access to 4% of global energy production.
The figures for the electrification of the continent are even more remarkable. In Sub-Saharan Africa only 32% of inhabitants have access to electricity: 620 million people are still living with no electricity at all. In this context, the inter-regional imbalances, as demonstrated by rates in the Maghreb area, where access to electricity stands at around 98%, compared with 23-25% for Eastern and Central Africa, appear particularly harsh.
This situation cannot help but exacerbate the negative trends regarding economic, social and human development in a continent where 3 citizens out of 4 live in poverty, while the persistent inequalities limit the benefits of economic growth favoring the less well-off bands of the population. Imbalances which see the energy variable as one of the main causes of vulnerability, and which therefore require institutional and industrial players to define sound strategies to promote the creation of an energy sector that is effective, integrated, sustainable, resilient and fair.
Priorities for action in the energy sector
Currently the energy mix of the African continent is largely based on the traditional use of biomass fuels, which contribute around 50% of consumption in Africa and guarantee access to energy for approximately 730,000 inhabitants across the entire continent. Oil and oil products account for 22% of the total energy mix, while coal stands at around 14%. The pairing of natural gas and renewable energy, which currently accounts for less than 1/5 of the African energy mix, is far smaller.
The contribution of gas and renewable energy to current energy consumption growth rates (3% per year, more than any other area in the world, with demand destined to increase by 88% between 2014 and 2035), however, could represent the key to rapid and sustainable electrification in Africa. There is definitely no shortage of resources in this situation. The potential of solar power in Africa is practically unlimited, while the contribution from the hydroelectric sector - to a large extent developed thanks to macro-projects funded by the World Bank - could be optimised if the construction of a network of micro-dams were to take off, promoting access to energy for large sections of the population.
In this context, natural gas could definitely play an important role in the integration of renewable energy, and guarantee access for over 600 million Africans still without electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa's gas reserves stand at approximately 9 trillion cubic metres (Tcm), while production is limited to less than 100 bcm, most of which is exported to overseas markets or is involved in gas flaring. It is precisely the waste and under-use of available resources that represent a potential opportunity for the continent: based on the IEA figures, if the gas flaring volumes alone were used to supply gas-powered plants, electricity production in Sub-Saharan Africa would increase by 35%.
Renewing the European-African energy partnership?
Sub-Saharan Africa undoubtedly represents a preferred energy partner for Europe, especially for Italy. Added to this is the fact that political, economic and social developments shaped by the instability in the area have clear implications for Europe and threaten security, as demonstrated by the migrant issue.
An Africa on a solid path of social and economic development is therefore a priority for the EU and its member states, and access to energy - as discussed - is an essential element with this happening in a balanced and sustainable way. In this context, a decisive change in the approach to European-African energy relations appears to be urgent, with the traditional (sometimes almost predatory) North-South dynamics being abandoned, accompanied by the need to develop new cooperative dynamics which place the sustainable development of the region from an economic, social and human aspect, at the centre.
In this sense, there is an opportunity, in Africa, for creating a low-carbon energy market virtually from scratch, which is potentially capable of sustainably satisfying domestic demand which is expanding at an extremely rapid rate. The 3 cornerstones on which these efforts should be based are: regulatory type certainties; the availability of financial resources; access to technologies and know-how. European institutions, working hand-in-hand with energy companies and international lenders, could play an important role in promoting and encouraging energy development of this kind in the continent. Provided that it involves an "effectively African" process, thanks to which the main economic, industrial and social impacts will benefit Africa, its citizens and its economic and industrial organisations.