THAT Africa is rich in mineral resources is a settled matter. What is not settled is how the continent can tap into these resources in the future for a robust economic transformation, clean environment and public health. Against the backdrop of the rising population and the need to meet the energy need of the continent, Africa’s readiness for the future needs to be put in the proper perspective.
The contradiction about Africa’s mineral resources is that only a few among those countries with abundant reserves of minerals are indeed economically strong. As the world marches towards clean, renewable energy, there are fears that many African countries, including those that are rich in mineral resources are unlikely to meet the SDG’s global target of 2030. Two cases will suffice to buttress these fears as real and existential.
The Sahelian country of the Republic of Niger may be bogged down despite the rich mineral deposits. Niger has the world’s fourth-largest uranium reserves, particularly two significant uranium mines providing 7.5 per cent of world mining output from Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores. Yet, Niger is far from having sufficient electricity supply while France, which draws its Uranium for powering its nuclear energy source from Niger, enjoys predictable and stable electricity supply and aspires to be one of the countries with low carbon emissions. The Conference of Parties accord that was held in Paris in 2015 was particularly symbolic for France.
Uranium-fuelled nuclear power is a clean and efficient way of generating electrical power. Nuclear energy reportedly supplies about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity. Of the 31 countries using nuclear energy to generate up to three quarters of their electricity, a substantial number depends on it for one-quarter to one-third of their supply. Nuclear power plants are fuelled by uranium, a source of nearly infinite energy translating to nuclear power.
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The second example is the Democratic Republic of Congo, an undisputed world leader in cobalt deposit. The world of electric vehicles and smartphones will depend much on DRC’s cobalt deposits. However, the country still has a long way to go in terms of translating its natural resources into sustainable wealth on the one hand and a clean, carbon-free economy by 2030 on the other hand. But DRC has been embroiled in real challenges which will remain a barrier to progress. The DRC has been in wars, hostilities and corruption.
All these are happening while the world is using technology to roll back the tide of climate change. There is no real evidence to show that the DRC has any strategic plan in place to combat climate change locally, now or in the future. For instance, in 2011, the DRC was accused of “selling off billions of dollars of mining assets at knockdown prices.” It remains to be seen how the country hopes to position itself to benefit from the unfolding technological breakthroughs aimed at making the environment safer.
Electric road vehicles (EV) and hybrid electric vehicles are beginning to appear in increasing numbers. By the end of 2016, about two million electric cars were on the road. In the USA, 200,000 electric cars were sold in 2017, representing an annual increase of nearly 30 per cent. China, India, Norway, UK, France and Netherlands are already talking about phasing out gas and diesel vehicles in the next decade or two. Government incentives have helped to raise the electric car sales, accounting for 33 per cent of all car sales in Norway. In July 2017, Volvo, owned by Geely of China, announced that from 2019 all its models would be available in either fully electric or hybrid options. Despite this move, DRC will keep depending solely on combustion engine-powered car.”
The French government has announced its plan to end the sale of internal combustion (IC) engine cars by 2040. Most mainstream car, truck and bus manufacturers are increasing their range. In 2017, according to reports, 89,546 electric buses were sold in China. Yutong sold 24,857 of these, BYD 12,777 and Zhongtong 8167 buses. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the “2016 sales of EV/BEV & PHEV cars were 753,000,” and in “2016 there were about two million electric vehicles in service.”
MIT Sloan in the US reported the real barriers to electric vehicle adoption. “The automobile landscape is changing,” it pointed out, but there are still major barriers to adopting electric vehicles. It predicted that “those numbers are going to get much bigger within the next 20-plus years.” The current statistics should bother Africans. For instance, Africa currently accounts for one-sixth of the world’s population, but it generates only four per cent of the world’s electricity. The outliers, however, are South Africa and the countries north of the Sahara, accounting for three-quarters of the continent’s energy consumption.
Nearly half of Africa’s population have no access to electricity, and 780 million rely on traditional solid biomass for cooking (mainly fuel wood and agricultural waste). A study by the University of California, Berkeley, to help in identifying and mapping out the location and energy potential of renewable energy sources in eastern and southern Africa shows that, although the energy generation resources are vast, they are not evenly distributed. The study indicates significant possibilities for wind, solar PV and solar CSP technology. Africa truly has a significant supply of wind, sunshine, hydropower and even geothermal resources. But tapping them will require a lot of investments.
The world is focusing on Africa for the next phase of the industrial revolution. But countries should be well prepared to take good advantage of opportunities as they unfold. The 2030 vision to energise and “light up” Africa and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, would require the use of more renewable energy sources. The interests of development finance institutions in addressing the renewed urgency to light up and power the continent is becoming more obvious. The African Development Bank’s (AfDB) economic transformation agenda has energy at its core of the, and the Bank has more than $12 billion worth of investment commitments to the sector between 2016 and 2020. The World Bank’s Africa Climate Business Plan involves the injection of $16 billion towards renewable energy projects in Africa.
For Niger, DRC or any other African country for that matter, a major hurdle to overcome in electric vehicle adoption is the infrastructure currently available. Africa needs a strategy for renewable energy, whether uranium for generating electricity or cobalt for powering cars and phones. Much gratitude goes to the organisations that have given some supports. But Africans must have home-grown strategies. An estimated $43 billion per year of investment is required for infrastructure in the power sector, according to the World Bank. AfDB and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimate a need for a package of $41 billion per year to finance the development of the energy sector in Africa.
It is now time to take inventory and assess the level of preparedness for a carbon-free future for Africa. But a country that is hardly able to feed its population is unlikely to be able to develop its uranium for nuclear energy or focus on the huge expenses needed to do it. Nor will a country that is constantly at war be able to turn its rich deposit of cobalt into an economic base for the benefit of all its citizens. As the world focuses on Africa, the continent must develop its resources in preparation for low-carbon economy ahead. Then, it will be able to compete in the new global market place.
Those countries must not be left alone to themselves. African countries must not revert to pre-colonial years when our resources were simply shipped abroad to develop other countries at our expense. This time, African countries need a fair share of their precious mineral deposits to develop their countries. They need help. And they must be helped to lift them out of poverty, squalor and missed opportunities. Africa is truly important and central to the unfolding green economy. But, Africa must be green and carbon-free.