Going Green: Africa’s Clean Solution

Ten percent of the world’s proven oil reserves lie underneath African soil [1].  While these reserves may seem fortuitous at first glance, outsiders will be hard pressed to find many Africans celebrating their apparent luck.  Frequently, revenue generated from oil never reaches the vast majority of African citizens; far from contributing to the welfare of the people, domestic dependence on oil for income reduces the need for local infrastructure, which would otherwise be needed for alternative economic activities. As a prime example, South Sudan, a country composed of nearly 250,000 square miles of land, in which oil income amounts to 98% of its $13 billion gross domestic product, is home to a mere 186 miles of road [2]; surplus revenues head to the hands of the wealthy elite instead of empowering the people through infrastructure.  Furthermore, by depending on oil for income, a government renders itself unstable as its economy would fluctuate along with global oil prices. This fluctuation is the reason why Russia’s economy is still reeling from the aftereffects of the country’s oil market collapse in the early 1990s as a result of increased drilling costs [3]. Now that the U.S., previously one of the largest importers of oil in the world, will become a net energy exporter by 2020 due to newfound fossil fuel resources [4], African oil markets are at risk of collapsing.  Furthermore, the effect of the billions of dollars of aid which foreign powers continue to feed Africa is largely diluted due to poor evaluation of where the aid is needed most [5]. Consequently, through increased investment in alternative energy sources in Africa, green energy has the potential to solve both environmental and political corruption in Africa.

Africa is doubly blessed; not only does the continent hold vast oil reserves, but it also holds enormous potential to develop alternative energy sources.  One alternative energy source prime for implementation is wind power.  Africa possesses both the large tracts of undeveloped land as well as the prevailing winds essential for effective use of wind power.  A common consensus is that the minimum wind velocity necessary for modern wind turbines to function with viable efficiency is 3.5 m/s [6].  In a study conducted by the German Weather Service from 1979 to 2010, researchers observed mean winds at 100 meters above ground to travel 5 m/s just north of the equator and to average 3.5 m/s throughout Central Africa as a whole [6] while averaging between 7.2 and 9.8 m/s near Cape Point [7].

For this reason, Africa is believed to currently possess over nine terra-watt hours of potential wind energy [7].  Additionally, although the countless cataracts present in Africa’s waterways lend themselves conveniently to hydropower production, a lack of funding has restricts Africa to harness just 7% of the potential energy that could be generated from hydroelectric power [7]. Ironically, small-scale, grass roots implementation of hydro power is often the most efficient way to supply Africans with energy; almost 30% of all Africans live in regions where local reserves of hydro power are the most effective sources of energy for nearby populations [6]. Not surprisingly, many African villages already rely on alternative energy sources. Since the 1950s, biomass, not oil, has traditionally been the main energy source of rural populations [6]. Today, 97% of Nigeria’s household energy needs are met by biomass energy reserves [7]. In several cases, the creations of cheap, local power grids that feed off alternative energy have significantly helped African citizens.

While it is well known that oil adversely affects the environment, the environmental effects of oil are especially poignant in Africa.  First of all, indigenous tribal populations in Africa vehemently oppose oil drilling as it violates their basic cultural belief in preserving the environment at all costs.  The Ogoni tribe southeast of the Niger Delta is one such group of people who count themselves blessed with natural territory [8].  According to one Ogoni elder, “land is viewed as the abode of our ancestors from where they oversee our lives, it is also a god and we revere it as such.”  However, the recent discovery of oil fields on Ogoni soil has drawn foreign drill companies to the territory, eclipsing the Ogoni’s traditional fishing and agricultural activities [8].  This dilemma persists in much of Africa, where the fossil fuel extraction adversely affects indigenous populations.  For example, methane poisoning in rural water wells is largely attributed to shale-gas fracking, the result of CH4 gas leaking during the drilling process [9].  Water pollution because of frequent oil spills due to oil companies’ inadequate regulations have also led to the dramatic decline of Africa’s coastal fishing industry, which has in part contributed to widespread hunger among rural populations [10].  Switching to green energy would supply these same rural and tribal populations with adequate energy reserves with far less of an environmental impact than fossil fuel extraction.

As prominent political scientist Larry Diamond points out, “not a single one of the 23 countries that derive most of their export earnings from oil and gas is a democracy today.” [11] Rather, much of these countries are ravaged by corrupt, authoritarian regimes.  Diamond elaborates that because these governments are flooded with oil revenues, they often cannot even organize a proper taxation system [11].  While this may seem to benefit citizens, these governments use the fact that their citizens do not pay adequate taxes as an excuse to keep revenues generated from oil to the governments themselves.  In fact, because governments in these countries rely so much on oil exports, they frequently are heavily involved in the oil business themselves and often end up keeping profits from citizens [12].  Because most jobs in the oil industry constitute low-wage, unskilled labor, the average African citizen benefits marginally.

Switching to alternative energy sources may remedy all of the above problems.  Alternative energy can be employed to supply small-scale power grids on a village-by-village basis, thus limiting the central governments’ role [6].  Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress, equivalent investments both in the oil industry as well as the alternative energy sector would result in nearly four times as many jobs being created by investing in the latter sector [13].  Of these jobs, roughly three times as many created by green energy would constitute what the report defines at “good” jobs, meaning they would pay over sixteen dollars an hour, compared to the oil industry [13].

Currently, many foreign powers such as China are currently discouraged from investing in African oil production facilities due to disagreements over fluctuations in the price of oil [14].  However, by investing in green power plants, foreign powers could ensure a profit while providing high quality jobs to African citizens.

Alternative energy sources have the potential to counteract several of the environmental and societal problems currently resulting from an overdependence on oil.  In many cases, such as the fishing industry, fixing environmental problems will alleviate societal problems as well.  While it is widely acknowledged that green energy is a cleaner source of power than fossil fuels, often overlooked is the positive impacts alternative energy will have on mitigating the power of corrupt governments and increasing the independence of rural populations in developing regions such as Africa.

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2. Ngor M. Road-starved South Sudan eyes a $4 billion road network. Reuters [homepage on the Internet]. Aug 10, 2012 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/10/us-southsudan-roads-idUSBRE87915220120810
4. Pollin R, Garrett-peltier H, Heintz J. Green Recovery – A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy. Center for American Progress [homepage on the Internet]. Sep 2008 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) Web site: http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2008/09/pdf/green_recovery.pdf
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7. Karekezi S, Kithyoma W. Renewable Energy in Africa: Prospects and Limits. [homepage on the Internet]. Jun 2003 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: The Workshop for African Energy Experts on Operationalizing the NEPAD Energy Initiative, Web site: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/nepadkarekezi.pdf
8. Pyagbara LS. The Adverse Impacts of Oil Pollution on the Environment and Wellbeing of a Local Indigenous Community: The Experience of the Ogoni People of Nigeria. [homepage on the Internet]. Aug 2007 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://search.un.org/search?ie=utf8&site=un_org&output=xml_no_dtd&client=UN_Website_en&num=10&lr=lang_en&proxystylesheet=UN_Website_en&oe=utf8&q=workshop_IPPE_pyagbara.doc&Submit=Go
9. Stephenson M. Environmental impacts of shale gas extraction. British Geological Survey (BGS) [homepage on the Internet]. 2012 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/energy/shaleGas/environmentalImpacts.html
10. The Economist. Africa’s oceans: A sea of riches. [homepage on the Internet]. Feb 18, 2012 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://www.economist.com/node/21547867
11. Diamond L. Why Are There No Arab Democracies? Journal of Democracy [homepage on the Internet]. Jan 2010 [cited 2013 Jan 4].;21(1) Available from: http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/article/why-are-there-no-arab-democracies
12. The Economist. Africa, oil and the West: Show us the money. [homepage on the Internet]. Sep 1, 2012 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://www.economist.com/node/21561886
13. Pollin R, Garrett-peltier H, Heintz J. Green Recovery – A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy. Center for American Progress [homepage on the Internet]. Sep 2008 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) Web site: http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2008/09/pdf/green_recovery.pdf
14. AllAfrica. Chad: Oil Price Row Closes China-Built Refinery. [homepage on the Internet]. Jan 20 2012 [cited 2013 Jan 4]. Available from: http://allafrica.com/stories/201201200941.html

Image credit: (public domain): Europa Portalen, Arbyreed. “Italien vill vänta med BP:s borrplaner”. Flickr. Accessed January 2, 2013.

Rohith Kuditipudi is a student at The Harker School. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.