The Platform


Today, in sub-Saharan Africa, over 600 million people are without access to electricity, and over 930 million are without access to clean cooking. These are not just mere statistics; these are human faces.

Recently, there has been heated debate on whether it is appropriate for high-carbon emitting, more-developed countries to expect low-carbon emitting, less-developed countries not to exploit hydrocarbon assets. This cannot be swept under the rug, especially now that the discourse seems to be heating up. Oil and gas don’t extract themselves. Looking at who wins from Africa’s oil and gas is crucial, but this needs to be grounded on a data-driven approach.

Africa, which holds up to 17% of the global population, accounts for 4% of global emissions. Africa is the least responsible for climate change. It is not only safe to say that Africa is a net positive regarding emissions but it is a net sink. However, despite contributing the least to a changing climate, it is the most vulnerable.

Africa is disproportionately susceptible to climate change, primarily because of its very low socio-economic base. Yet, waiving the global obligation to stop gas expansion in Africa would only make sense if gas was an excellent long-term choice for Africans—which is not the case.

Raw material extraction in Africa has a long history of making a few very rich, which has left many communities worse off by destroying their environment, biodiversity, and polluting communities to the point of no return.

African companies control 33% of oil and gas production in Africa. The rest is controlled by Western companies, making it highly unlikely that a significant share of the revenues will remain in Africa. Across the continent, we know that the lion’s share of new oil and gas production is concentrated in a small set of African nations. The resource is not universally available across Africa and is concentrated in the north at 55% and the west at 36%.

Cumulatively, less than 50% of countries are known to have proven reserves, and only 12 have significant amounts. If natural gas exploration were to be a policy direction, then over 50% of the countries would be excluded from these developments. The cost of building gas terminals cannot be ignored. While Africa can ensure modern, clean, and affordable energy is accessible to all in the next decade by investing $25 billion each year, building just one new natural gas terminal takes time and money.

The cost-beneficial option is, therefore, to go for clean energy to bridge this gap for Africa – through the clean energy mix and the regional clean energy power pools for cross-border trade in clean power.

A typical example from an African country elaborates on the financing risk that natural gas presents. A project is financed through debt to the tune of $1.2 billion for producing the gas alone but without the critical infrastructure needed to offtake and harness the gas to generate power. For this initial stage, the government signs a public-private partnership agreement with private investors who produce the gas that the government will purchase up to 90% of the amount produced. But without further development to build terminals and plants that can offtake the gas and generate power, or third-party buyers of the raw gas, the government is paying for unused gas.

In 2019, the government’s bill for ‘unused gas’ amounted to $250 million due to a lack of demand for raw gas and delays in building the associated infrastructure needed to offtake this gas. It is estimated that these losses will top $4.5 billion by 2023. This is a big lesson for Africa not to rush into natural gas, especially with the global hype surrounding it.

This suggests that, far from being a solution to pan-African problems of poverty and climate vulnerability, expanded fossil fuel production is more of a short-term boost for a lucky few.

Expanded domestic fossil fuel production alone cannot be made a panacea for addressing the energy poverty trap. Fossil fuels are priced and traded on global markets, inserting a substantial wedge between what the average African can afford to pay for the energy and the price that energy can fetch internationally, even if it was extracted in Africa.

In 2022, oil prices have increased by up to 40% just in a few months compared to 2021. For oil importers in Africa, these increases have meant paying up to $19 billion more and contributed to a 12.2% increase in inflation. But what about oil-exporting countries? Are they getting any windfall? For a start, Africa’s production combined accounts for less than one-tenth of total global output. Their ability to satisfy even a lucrative market is minimal. In addition, the lack of refineries, where most of Africa’s exporters do not refine their oil, means they still have to import expensive refined, usable oil products.

Even with this, just 43% of African households are connected to a national electricity grid. The problem is particularly acute in rural sub-Saharan countries where less than one in four is connected. Expanded fossil fuel production does little to solve this problem; it is not a shortage of supply that is the issue, but rather an inability to get the energy to those who need it most. To spin reality, advocates have turned to development as the fundamental rationale for Africa to extract as much oil and gas as possible. However, the dividend from this narrative is weak as there is no clear evidence that this will create broad-based wealth on the African continent nor alleviate crippling energy access deficits.

Africa holds the highest comparative advantage of solar globally, with the wealthiest solar resources containing less than 1% of the global total decentralized solar installed capacity. The current global fossil fuel price hikes are an opportunity to shift energy policies from fossil-based to clean-energy-based. Utility-scale batteries can replace gas plants used for a short period to cover peak electricity demand.

As a start, a proportion of current fossil fuel subsidies that run into billions of dollars issued every year in Africa to cushion fossil-based electricity generation, cooking fuels like kerosene and LPG, among others, can be set aside to instead incentivize clean solutions of decentralized clean electricity, clean cooking fuel briquettes among others. This can be in the form of tax breaks for enterprises dealing in such clean fuels, encouraging entrepreneurship in these areas, especially by the youth and informal sector.

Implementing sustainable energy systems will create green jobs and drive economic development. African countries must determine if gas is rational for their national interests. Many vested interests and gas lobbyists are pushing hard for African gas—and a quick buck—but cheaper, climate-friendly alternatives are undoubtedly a better medium- to long-term choice for Africans and the planet. Wisdom is not bought from a market. Always remember that “There are no shortcuts to the top of the palm tree.”

Dr. Richard Munang is a multiple award-winning environment and development policy thought leader and climate change and sustainable development expert. Richard is also author of 'Making Africa Work Through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism' in 2018.

Robert Mgendi works with the Africa Climate Change Programme.