Africa Day: Creating a sustainable future for the continent

Dr Fatima Denton, Director of the United Nations University, explains the role of the private sector in delivering holistic sustainable development for Africa in this critical decade, with a focus on the clean energy transition.

Africa Day: Creating a sustainable future for the continent


Every year, 25 May marks the global celebration of Africa Day – 24 hours set aside to commemorate the founding of the first union of African countries in 1963. This serves as a useful reflection point, allowing one to stop and consider not just how the continent has progressed over the last six decades, but what might – or should – be next on the horizon.

With a relatively young population, an abundance of natural resources, and dynamic economies, Africa is shaped by a vast range of opportunities and challenges. Most notably, its own energy transition.

Despite Africa’s limited contribution to the climate crisis, the continent is heavily impacted by climate-related disasters and extreme weather events. According to the UN, out of the 20 countries most threatened by the climate crisis across the globe, 17 of these are based in Africa.

The crucial need to keep global warming below 1.5C and avoid further dangerous climate change effects relies on a deep decarbonisation of energy systems. Africa’s absence of legacy infrastructure, abundance of minerals, and arable land puts it in a unique position to do just that.

However, this decarbonisation also has the potential to reverse vital gains in energy access and reduce government revenues, with significant consequences for the continent’s development. Therefore, if not carefully managed, the transition could result in detrimental social and economic vulnerabilities.

Making the business case

Despite its challenges, the transition of the continent’s energy systems offers several benefits for African businesses. As these organisations embrace renewable energy and develop new sustainable technologies, the continent has the potential to shift from being a consumer to a producer of global solutions – creating unique opportunities for growth and enhanced competitiveness on the international stage.

This could also see the rise of new industries, which generate investment opportunities and foster innovation across Africa – in turn, leading to the creation of new jobs and opportunities, allowing businesses to employ and nurture local talent, positively contributing to social development.

Green hydrogen is also emerging as essential to the decarbonisation process. Governments and industry alike recognise that hydrogen can be critical to Africa’s new resource map and can enable the region to walk ‘briskly’ towards low-carbon development. Already, it offers the potential to create local jobs during the construction phase and lead to the development of upstream and downstream industries ensuring local procurement of goods and services.

It seems illogical that a continent with a vast abundance of renewable energies is unable to satisfy its fundamental energy requirements. This is further defied when one takes into account, the 600 million+ people in Africa that lack access to modern energy systems. Any transition should aim to rectify this developmental anomaly.

Technologies, markets and local businesses can work in synergy to provide the solutions.  True collaboration between local businesses and international partners can replace old exploitative practices, paving the way for new ventures centred on partnership, knowledge exchange, skill development, and equitable benefit sharing.

Connecting science and policy

The energy transition presents significant opportunities not only for African businesses to drive economic growth and access global markets, but for countries to enhance their overall resilience to climate change.

However, as policymakers continue to deal with economic turmoil, they often lack the fiscal space to develop approaches to the energy transition. Similarly, a disconnect between science and policy in Africa continues to be a significant barrier preventing them from taking action, while the long-term research needed to influence national policies on the transition has been left wanting.

Providing African institutions with best-in-class science on the solutions available to them is therefore critical if Africa is to take meaningful steps on this journey. This is precisely why new initiatives, such as AFTER-Carbon, have been created to fill this gap.

AFTER-Carbon is a policy-to-research hub bringing together experts – from scientists, private sector professionals, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and civil society groups – within a transdisciplinary research programme.

A coalition of key players with the right skills and experience to help tackle the climate crisis and its effects, the programme analyses the most pressing challenges across the continent, arming African institutions and policymakers with the vital knowledge on these issues, alongside a range of solutions available to them.

It is imperative that every African institution, policymaker, and business feels empowered and ready to contribute to a sustainable, resilient continent. But this cannot, and will not, be achieved without real, actionable science and data.

That’s why, this Africa Day, we at UNU-INRA encourage governments, businesses, and civil society to unite and commit to an AFTER-Carbon vision. By linking best-in-class science, private sector insight and policy together, we can ensure that Africa unleashes its potential and takes advantage of its influential position in the global fight against climate change.

Comments (1)

  1. neil blackshaw says:

    How can decarbonisation be detrimental; its not explained here. Decarbonisation if that is the correct word must be approached through better management of and innovation in urban processes. Urbanisation rates in much of SSA are extremely high . The consequence of this in many instances is the creation of unsustainable urban morphology and the embedding of wasteful energy systems as well as perpetuating poor access to sustainable reliable energy systems. The private sector should have an interest in sustainable urban regulation and management.

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