Technological Leapfrogging: Africa’s growing solar industry

by Charles Kusi Minkah-Premo

Joseph Amankwah-Amoah writes an informative piece on solar energy in Africa with an emphasis on how the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry has made huge strides in the continent particularly in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. I spent a great part of my high school years living through one of Ghana’s worst periods of energy crisis. For most of my junior year, I had to make use of candles and rechargeable lamps at night to study and get assignments done because of a notoriously unreliable load-shedding scheme. It’s been uplifting though, to see concerted efforts from the government and the private sector in recent years, to move the country away from its over-dependence on hydroelectric power and towards more sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Many African countries depend on hydroelectric power to sustain and drive domestic and economic activities and a majority of the continent’s population has had to contend with unreliable grid power. An estimated 600 million people in Africa still have no access to electricity. [http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30805419]

Off-grid homeowners and entrepreneurs spend about $10.5 billion a year on kerosene —an environmentally unfriendly and inefficient energy source— to power up their homes and businesses. Until a few years ago, it was almost as if most of the continent had forgotten that it had yet to harness to one of the most abundant and cost-effective energy sources available —the sun.

Technological leapfrogging is a process through which developing countries circumvent the resource-intensive (and expensive) form of economic development by skipping to the most advanced technologies available rather than investing in old and inefficient technologies. Africa’s solar photovoltaic industry is a prime illustration of this phenomenon with South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria being its main vanguards. Globally, the solar industry has been growing phenomenally and it is projected to become one of the fastest-growing markets in Africa. Key factors in the solar PV industry’s rise in Africa are that the price of solar PV panels have fallen by as much as 50% due to increased production in China and a number of technological breakthroughs that the industry has seen. One notable breakthrough is the thin-film PV cell, which is known to have low defects, is easier to manufacture and is cheaper than the more ubiquitous crystalline-based solar panels. [http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/thin-film-solar-cell.htm]

Technologies like these are being quickly diffused in Africa and are driving its ‘leapfrog’ in the solar industry.

Kenya and South Africa are the continent’s trailblazers given how they are attracting and using capital from the private sector to improve the development of solar energy. Kenya’s strengths lie in its strong solar PV market, which is focused on small home and commercial systems, which has had a huge buy-in from its domestic market. As far back as 1990, Kenyan household consumption represented about 40% of all solar PV sales. In addition, there are no taxes on solar products and other renewable hardware in Kenya, which has no doubt helped with the diffusion of solar technologies and is helping local firms compete in both domestic and foreign solar markets. The governments of South Africa and Kenya have formed strong commitments towards renewable energy and are creating attractive environments for both foreign solar panel makers and investors, and local solar panel developers —a model that Ghana and Nigeria are following closely albeit through private-public partnerships.

Despite the promising signs of Africa’s solar revolution, there are still a number of barriers holding back the scaling-up process. For most African countries, the high up-front costs of solar panels still remains prohibitive. Furthermore, the lack of proper financing schemes and human-capital development for solar initiatives in low-income countries is affecting the rate at which solar technology is spreading across the continent. However, on a smaller scale, there is a growing consensus that Africa is finally beginning to realize the potential of this energy source to its energy sector and economic development as a whole.

 

Amankwah-Amoah, J. (2015), Solar Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Challenges and Opportunities of Technological Leapfrogging. Thunderbird Int’l Bus Rev, 57: 15–31. January 30 2016

 

BBC News (http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30805419)

 

HowStuffWorks (http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/thin-film-solar-cell.htm)

 

 

 

TWEET: Look out for #Africa’s #solar leapfrog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s