Politics of Poverty

Unleashing the power of the Electrify Africa Act

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Food vendor Dado Sade builds a fire to begin cooking supper at her home in Kolda, Senegal. Her 2-year-old child, Daude Mballo, sleeps nearby. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

Addressing access to electricity in Africa requires Congress to focus on who needs it most.

Kathleen Mogelgaard is a Climate Change Policy Advisor at Oxfam America.

The House of Representatives passed the Electrify Africa Act by a wide margin today. We at Oxfam are encouraged that members of the House came together to draw attention to the critical need for access to affordable and reliable electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. For too long, hundreds of millions of Africans have lived without access to electricity, and the Electrify Africa Act highlights the chronic, wide-spread challenges that stem from energy poverty.

Electricity is what turns the lights on at night for children doing their schoolwork. When electricity powers a water pump, it can change or save a woman’s life. It keeps health clinics operating and medicines safely refrigerated.

But without reliable and affordable electricity access, development gains will remain beyond reach for many poor communities in Africa and around the world.

Together with the Administration’s Power Africa Initiative and the upcoming African Leaders Summit in Washington, this legislation is a unique opportunity for US to demonstrate leadership in supporting Africa in the development of clean, sustainable energy resources that best meet the needs of those living in energy poverty.

Since the majority of those living without electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa are in rural areas often beyond the reach of the conventional energy grid, efforts to end energy poverty need to emphasize innovative mini-grid and off-grid solutions, powered through renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. This will help to bring the world’s energy needs in line with planetary boundaries when it comes to climate change.

Promoting energy access should also support inclusive, transparent, and accountable processes that place communities in the driver’s seat of their own energy development. Civil society should have a seat at the table when plans for addressing energy poverty are in the making.

House passage of the Electrify Africa Act is a good start, but now we’re looking to the Senate to strengthen the bill by incorporating clear goals for rural access and distributed renewable energy development. Otherwise, an energy development push in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to what we too often see in resource rich developing countries, i.e. projects whose primary goal is to feed electricity to industrial development or extractive industries. Often, this approach can impact the health and well-being of surrounding communities – but with little benefit reaching those most in need.

With limited public investment, the US has a key role to play in catalyzing energy development that is forward-looking and that doesn’t lock the developing world into antiquated, damaging energy technologies. Instead, we are looking to Members of Congress and the Administration to support energy development in sub-Saharan Africa that is inclusive and sustainable.

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