The next global crisis: Africa’s renewable energy financing gap

Michael Olabisi,Robert B. Richardson &Adesoji O. Adelaja


Energy consumption across the African continent is expected to increase sharply in the next two decades, largely due to population growth, urbanization, and rising incomes. Much of the energy consumption is in the form of wood biomass, kerosene, and diesel. Africa’s energy demand trajectory points to a future scenario where its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions will threaten global sustainability. Furthermore, existing supply capacity is unlikely to meet the rising demand for energy. Africa’s transition to renewable energy is needed to balance future energy supply and demand with climate-related externalities. A key barrier to this solution is Africa’s energy finance gap, which calls for a concerted effort by investors in Africa’s energy markets and governments, as well as global development partners. We highlight the direct link between Africa’s energy finance gap and the long-run scenario for the global climate crisis.

1. Introduction

Energy consumption in Africa will more than double in the next two decades, with slim prospects for expanded access to grid-based electricity (IEA, 2019). The surge in energy demand will be driven primarily by rapid population growth. Africa’s population is expected to increase between 2020 and 2050 by 1.1 billion, far more than the 200 million expected for the Eastern and Southeastern Asian region which includes China, Japan, and Indonesia, and even more than the 500 million expected for the South Asian region that includes India (United Nations, 2019). The increase is projected to nearly double the current level of population, which is approximately 1.2 billion. Indeed, in 2050, population projections indicate that one in four humans on the planet will be African. Africa’s energy demand growth will also reflect growing per-capita income, increased urbanization and continued economic transformation.

Renewable energy provides a pathway out of the energy challenge faced by many African countries. It is an attractive alternative to the current scenario for many reasons. First, as technologies have advanced, solar and wind power now cost less than conventional fossil-fuel power generation or have nearly achieved cost parity (Borda-Nĩno et al., 2020; IEA, 2019). Examples of the lower costs for low-carbon renewable electricity include wind power in the United States and Europe (Williams et al., 2017) and rooftop solar in China (Zhang et al., 2020). The energy potential for these sources is vastly greater in sub-Saharan Africa (Deichmann et al., 2011; Murenzi & Ustun, 2015; Pillot et al., 2019). Given the right investments, renewable energy infrastructure costs could be lower, with countries “leapfrogging” to distributed energy systems, just like African countries skipped over land-based telephone lines to cellular telephones (Levin & Thomas, 2016). Second, fossil fuels markets are experiencing rising prices and greater price volatility, compared to renewable energy systems, which appear to have more predictable cost trajectories, even after accounting for the intermittency and variability of wind and solar energy. Furthermore, renewable energy options appear more viable for off-grid remote or isolated areas where electricity access remains a pressing challenge (Adelaja, 2020; Foster et al., 2018; Murenzi & Ustun, 2015). An enabling policy environment is needed to deploy renewable energy throughout the continent, especially in the hard-to-reach areas, as their populations grow. The growth in African energy demand is a challenge for the global community.

This paper’s contribution to the literature on a just global energy transition is a clear documentation of the need for financing mechanisms that go beyond traditional public or private finance for Africa’s transition to renewable energy, based on our understanding of the different financial constraints facing African countries. We differ from existing papers on a just energy transition in that our focus is on the need for investment – not permittable pollution credits, as crucial for global energy sustainability. Our focus on the pathways to a just energy transition through investments, builds on related papers on energy access (e.g., Adelaja 2020; Brew-Hammond, 2010), and energy poverty (Nussbaumer et al., 2013; Poblete-Cazenave & Pachauri, 2021). Timely renewable energy investments in Africa come with a sizeable positive externality – lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that benefit all countries. Global policy makers and investors must decide which scenario of Africa’s energy future they support. In one future, the extra billion Africans will continue to power their homes primarily with wood, charcoal, kerosene, and diesel. In the other future, Africans will choose renewable energy options that help their economies follow a green, low-carbon, path to growth and economic development. One future will come with depleted natural resources, excessive pollution, compromised air quality and growing contribution to global warming. The other future will create new green job opportunities that leapfrog the continent into a new economy with an enviable environmental footprint. The investments made today will determine which future we all confront. In the global context, energy-related CO2 emissions need to fall to 9.7 Gigatonnes (Gt) in 2050 to meet the 2◦C goal of the Paris Agreement but are on pace to increase from 33 Gt in 2015–35 Gt in 2050 if no interventions happen (Gielen et al., 2019).

As an urgent matter, collective efforts are needed to finance Africa’s transition to renewable energy as its energy demands grow. Everyone, not just Africans, should be concerned about the continent’s projected contributions to greenhouse (GHG) emissions over the next few decades, in a scenario without substantial investments in renewable energy. In 2019, approximately 580 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lacked access to electricity, which amounts to around three-quarters of the global total (IEA et al., 2019). As their incomes grow, this segment of the global population will get access to electricity, one way or another. Whether Africa’s energy will come from clean, renewable energy options such as wind or solar power; or from diesel generators, charcoal and firewood, with devastating impact on the environment, is what the global community must confront. The prospect of this global crisis is linked to the renewable energy financing gap – the difference between the level of investment needed to avoid a climate disaster and the current financing available to support a renewable energy transition.

2. Challenges

2.1. Growing energy demand

The next two decades will require massive investments to supply energy for a growing number of African households and firms. Within the larger category of energy demand, electricity demand in Africa is expected to increase from 700 to 1600 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year by 2040 (IEA, 2019). Two factors will drive the demand growth: (1) the percentage of Africans using electricity will increase, and (2) electricity usage per capita will increase, as people use more lighting, refrigeration, and portable electronic devices. The foregoing estimates focus on electricity – suggesting that to cover the full scope of energy needs, even more investments are needed. Other primary energy uses on the continent could grow faster – as electricity is still not available to many, particularly in rural areas. If we put the projected demand growth next to the limited expansion of the electricity supply infrastructure, it is clear that demand is likely to exceed supply capacity in Africa by the year 2040. Nevertheless, the energy poverty challenge outlined in this paragraph should not be taken as a homogenous sub-Saharan African issue. Access to electricity for example, ranges from as low as 5.1% in South Sudan, to more than 80% in places like Ghana and South Africa (World Bank, 2020).

The growth in energy demand as well as electricity demand presents an extraordinary economic opportunity to private investors, as well as governments. For governments, growing populations and growing income are the ingredients for economic potential, while for private investors, the opportunity to invest early in a growth market promises greater economic returns (Michaelowa et al., 2021). However, translating the economic potential into viable ventures raises questions about funding mechanisms that fit the circumstances while meeting the needs of future energy users. As grid assets struggle to keep up with demand, companies and households adopt carbon-intensive options (Togo & Arulappan, 2021). The lack of investments in clean energy now, creates a greater need for investments in clean energy later.

2.2. Investment challenges

According to the African Energy Outlook 2019 report, cumulative investments of $2.6 trillion will be required between 2019 and 2040 in energy investments to provide accessible energy to Africans (IEA, 2019).1 This translates into approximately $125 billion per year. A report by the Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy puts the estimated renewable energy financing gap for electricity generation and grid assets -as a subset of total energy investments, at over $20 billion per year (Stuebi et al., 2020).

The Copenhagen Accord established the Green Climate Fund to address the gap highlighted in this paper. However, global commitments to the Fund are not being met. Commitments of $100 billion a year by 2020 were promised in 2009, to scale up public and private climate finance for developing nations (Stadelmann et al., 2011). The parties to the Accord recognized that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 of affordable, clean energy for all cannot be achieved, if Africa was left out. The Paris Agreement was established on the expectation of higher annual goals by 2025 to build on the Copenhagen Accord’s $100 billion target for 2020. The EU and its member states lag on their commitments to this fund and its companion Global Environmental Facility (GEF), even as the Conference of Parties summit (COP26) approached. The challenges of GEF and the Green Climate Fund in raising finance for developing economies’ low-carbon energy transition extend beyond the EU. Many other high-income countries lag even further behind the EU in supporting the Fund (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2020).

Because global commitments to the Green Climate Fund are not met, investments in renewable energy lag behind the need. Figure 1 highlights the differences between Africa and other regions of the world in spending on renewable energy. Spending is scaled by population, to highlight the fact that as Africa’s population grows, each person – by definition each energy consumer – needs outlays of capital to produce the energy they will consume. If the investment choices made today are not environmentally sustainable, the long-run consequences reach everyone on the planet.2

Figure 1. Renewable Energy Investments per Capita by Region. Renewable energy investment is reported for regional aggregates on an annual basis. The regions are paired with population estimates for the respective geographic areas – for the Middle East and Africa, the Western Asia subregion and Africa are combined. Source Data: Population from World Development Indicators (2020). Renewable Energy Investments from BNEF/FS-UNEP (2020).


To emphasize the financial constraints that African economies face, all of the spending by all the governments in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019, an estimated $230 billion (World Bank, 2020), would not be enough to cover the nearly $700 billion dollars needed to fully transition Africa’s economies to renewable energy.3 The investments needed to transition just the electricity segment of energy demand alone, would take up about half of the total government spending estimate at the start of this paragraph. Other less-constrained regions have made progress. The increase in renewable energy investments in the Americas include several notable projects in Brazil, and Mexico. As expected, the US contributes the most to the expansion of renewable energy in the Americas – in response to the policies and declared intents of many states towards an energy transition (e.g., Adelaja et al., 2010; Kilinc-Ata, 2016).

2.3. The immediate consequences of inaction

In the absence of low-carbon renewable or grid-scale electricity solutions, many African households and businesses resort to small-scale fossil-fuel power. The poorest households buy kerosene for their energy needs (Brew-Hammond, 2010; Togo & Arulappan, 2021), while the less poor buy diesel-or gasoline-powered generators for household appliances and lighting (Howells et al., 2005). The prospect of an Africa with twice the population, and more than twice the burning of fossil fuels for lighting and cooking, is concerning and unsustainable. The GHG emissions from petroleum-based sources alone could be non-trivial.

The evidence for growth in fossil-fuel powered generators is clear. Figure 2 shows that imports of diesel-and gasoline-powered generators grew at a faster rate for African economies than other regions of the world (with the Americas coming second). Off-grid small-scale fossil-fuel generation on the continent remains a small part of the total energy portfolio, so we have an opportunity to nip the problem in the bud. The generators are more polluting than the grid and have higher operating costs -–about $0.5/kWh, more than 10 times the costs of the least expensive low-carbon renewable energy options (Jacobs, 2016; Li et al., 2019; Szabo et al., 2011).

Figure 2. The Wrong Kind of Energy Transition. Imports of diesel and other fossil-fuel powered electric generating sets for each region were divided by the region’s imports of generators in 1995, so that all regions are scaled to 1 in 1995, and the vertical axis shows how imports have grown relative to that baseline. For example, the plot shows that Africa’s imports of generating sets in 2016 were more than 10 times the value for 1995. Source Data: UN COMTRADE /BACI (2020).


If public and private investments enable renewable energy in place of the small-scale fossil-fuel generators, the planet could win while low-income households on the continent win access to low-cost electricity at the same time. Small-scale energy generation with fossil fuels creates challenges and is more costly per unit of power. Diesel-powered generators appear affordable in the short term but end up costing more in the long run.

Furthermore, the renewable financing gap represents a threat to African’s forests. Urbanization, economic growth, and large-scale land acquisition for agricultural use on the continent are causing dramatic levels of woodlands loss (Davis et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2019). Deforestation continues to be a major driver of forest cover change, with a net loss of woodlands of 8.4 percent (Borda-Nĩno et al., 2020; Gondwe et al., 2019). Deforestation is linked to household energy use and urbanization. As the continent urbanizes, a disproportionately large share of African households in urban areas use charcoal for cooking (Brew-Hammond, 2010; Zulu, 2010; Zulu & Richardson, 2013). Demand for charcoal is likely to rise with increasing urbanization. Kerosene and other fossil-fuel alternatives do not appear to have a noticeable effect on the demand for charcoal, including in urban areas (Olabisi et al., 2019). Therefore, the concern remains that increasing charcoal production on the continent will deplete sensitive ecosystems that should be subject to conservation and restoration.

The share of charcoal in households’ energy mix is expected to increase significantly, due to the expected increase in urbanization (Sepp et al., 2014). Consequently, the demand for solid wood biomass is projected to grow at an annual rate of 1.9 percent up to 2030, with most of the expected increase to occur in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Figure 3 illustrates the severity of Africa’s energy challenge from the perspective of woodland use. Other regions of the world are seeing declines or stable trends in charcoal production, while Africa’s annual charcoal production grew from about 24 million tonnes to almost 35 million tones in less than two decades (FAO, 2020). The impact of the trend in the graph is underscored by the fact that charcoal production is itself an energy-intensive process. Wood-to-charcoal conversion efficiencies of 15–35 percent mean that, on average, more than two tonnes of wood are burned to create each tonne of charcoal (Mabele, 2020).

Figure 3. Charcoal Production in Africa vs. Other Regions. Source Data: FAO (2020).


Timely investments in renewable energy can mitigate the crisis. Investments are needed to uncover technical solutions that will make prices low enough for solar cook-stoves, solar-powered ovens and electric-powered options, to stimulate adoption by households with limited resources. The technical breakthroughs needed must also be paired with innovations that address non-financial barriers to the adoption of renewable energy. Likewise, investments are needed to support commercial deployment mechanisms that sustain a robust transition to new energy systems -for cooking, heating, cooling, lighting, appliances and other uses.

3. Options and opportunities

So, which financing approaches could close the gap between future energy demand and planned energy capacity? Which approach to renewable energy investments can avoid a climate disaster? The options range from pure market-based approaches, through many hybrid alternatives to government-funded energy generation and distribution. The pure market alternative calls for utility companies to make investments in renewable energy, and recoup their investments from by billing African households, much like a deregulated version of utility companies in most high-income economies. At the other extreme is the pure public sector approach, where African governments self-finance to pay for needed renewable energy development – including a distributed energy strategy to drive economic development in areas that are both on and off-grid. A third option transfers the cost and potentially, control of renewable energy development to development partners, including international financial institutions. Finally, several blended approaches are possible that allow the burden of investments, and the risks of income flows from the energy assets are shared between the private sector, international financial institutions and donor communities.

The pure market-based situation described above may be difficult to implement, especially for the Africans that currently live below the global poverty line. According to the Brookings Institution, 422 million Africans lived below the poverty line in 2019, (Hamel et al., 2019). The average annual per capita income for sub-Saharan African countries is less than $2,000 in 2019 (World Bank, 2020). The limited income in US dollar terms, means that most private investors in high-income countries do not see sufficiently high returns to support the costs of running utilities for African households, especially those living in remote locations and rural areas. However, low incomes today do not rule out prospects for high income in the future, nor does it exclude other reasons for investing — in fact, the low incomes faced by many Africans is the reason investments in renewable energy are needed.

The implied public good nature of energy for many Africans suggests that investments in energy must be the purview of the public sector. This view is supported by the fact that energy investments accelerate economic growth which can yield significant future public revenues. However, the pure public sector investments scenario is also fraught with problems. Most African nations cannot afford to bear the full cost of the investments in electricity and energy infrastructure that will bridge the energy financing gap. Furthermore, for national governments, electricity investments compete with investments in transportation infrastructure, schools, public health, public water supply, and food security, among other public goods. Rural people who could use distributed renewable energy systems rarely have political influence or voice. As such, the priorities of governments do not always favour electricity supply, especially electricity from low-carbon renewable sources. Pure public efforts in our assessment, will yield limited results without support from external sources of finance and technical expertise.

Self-financing by African governments alone has not worked. Even if the desire and political will were there, the financial environment is fraught with limitations. For example, on the Eurobond markets, African governments pay higher interest (coupon) rates than their debt ratings can justify (Olabisi & Stein, 2015). The bond markets, it should be clear, are only accessible to the healthiest economies – aggravating the gap between the need for energy investments and the needed financial resources. Other financial sources for public funding come with challenges. The conditionalities pushed by international financial institutions, for example, have had negative public sector consequences in many African countries (Dreher, 2006; Easterly, 2005). Consequently, several African countries have not yet approached either the private lending markets or international financial institutions for energy financing. Furthermore, some countries already carry a sizeable debt burden. Five African economies have public debt in excess of GDP in 2017 (Cabo Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Mozambique) while 24 exceeded the 55 percent debt-to-GDP ratio suggested by the International Monetary Fund (Onyekwena & Ekeruche, 2019).

Donor agencies have provided technical support to African countries in the areas of grid and off-grid solutions to electricity and energy problems, notable examples include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Deutsche Gesellschaft f¨ur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). However, grants and aid from the agencies are not enough to bridge Africa’s renewable energy financing gap. The extremely conservative estimate of $20bn per year for a decade for the financing gap is more than half of the total annual budget for USAID. The higher end estimate of $100 bn per year is around twice the total development aid of $52bn to Africa in 2017 (OECD, 2019). Much of development aid is earmarked for social, and economic programmes, as funds transferred from developed countries account for less than 12% of non-OECD climate investment (Fankhauser et al., 2016). That said, opportunities for participation exist for organizations like the African Development Bank. Its share of development assistance was 5 percent of the global total in 2014, compared to 21 percent for the United State, 13 percent for EU institutions, 7 percent for the United Kingdom and 7 percent for Germany (OECD, 2019).

Our perspective is that no homogeneous solution will apply to all of Africa. Related works show that countries in the region have varying levels of income per capita, government capacity and resources (Adelaja et al., 2021; Jayne et al., 2021; Olabisi & Stein, 2015). In Jayne et al. (2021), countries in the region are grouped by income – low-income vs middle income, and by governance related factors – resource rich and fragile states. The between-country differences suggest that despite some shared challenges related to economic development, the solutions required for an effective transition to renewable energy will differ across the countries. What is even more interesting, is considering a hybrid of solutions tailored to meet the circumstances of the country groupings. We follow a concise variant of the categorization in Jayne et al. (2021) – organizing countries into the following categories: [1] resource-rich, and or middle-income [2] low-income or fragile.

For each group we propose different solutions. Some of these solutions are innovations we consider worthy of further assessment by policy makers. For the low-income and fragile group, we propose partnerships between donor organizations, community groups and contributions from high-income countries through instruments like the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The partnerships address the dual challenge of low-income and technical limitations by leveraging external funds not linked to unsustainable debt, in addition to skills and implementation-know-how from the combination of community groups and development partners. We do not expect much from the private sector in this segment, as the profit potential is limited in the short term.

For the resource rich and middle-income countries, we propose partnerships that connect accountability for the funds with resources at scale. One possibility is a partnership between the African Development Bank (AfDB) or regional banking institutions – who control the use of funds, with funders from the private sector and the GEF at lower than market rates. For the middle-income African countries with high future income potential, the most promising option for bridging the renewable energy financing gap therefore appears to be a set of combinations in a partnership model that potentially leverages funds from the private sector, contributions from development partners and international financial institutions, as well as resources and personnel from the public sector. Each country’s mix is expected to be different – given each country’s resources, needs and level of development. Larger economies like Nigeria and South Africa can have a greater share of funds from bond markets in the mix, while others like Angola may have more opportunities to tap commodity windfall funds. Partnerships to share know-how and resources will be needed in every case. In sum, closing the renewable energy finance gap in Africa will require a paradigm shift in terms of scale, as well as the nature of the partnerships needed to achieve a lower carbon footprint while supporting economic growth for African economies. The blended approach, and there are many possible blends, offers opportunities to share the burden of investment, mitigate risk through partnerships, and leverage the strengths of multiple stakeholders to achieve their respective overlapping set of objectives. Carefully targeted options in this partnership model can help Africa economies leapfrog into energy security on a low-carbon footprint.

4. Discussion and conclusion

4.1. Sustainable growth calls for renewable energy investments

An urbanizing African continent powered by renewable energy will be positioned to meet many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Principal among these is SDG 7, which aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” (United Nations, 2015, p. 21,). The goal comes with five targets to be achieved by 2030: (i) ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services (7.1); (ii) increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix (7.2); (iii) double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency (7.3); (iv) enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology (7.a), and (v) promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology (7.b). Energy is central to every development opportunity and challenge, yet 13 percent of the world’s population still lack access to modern electricity, and approximately 3 billion people rely on firewood, charcoal, or animal waste for cooking and heating (IEA et al., 2019).

There is no business-as-usual scenario. The crisis scenario in which Africa’s population nearly doubles, without the investments needed to transition towards renewable energy due to public financing constraints on African governments, combined with limited contributions from their development partners, means that the whole planet suffers, as annual GHG emissions from the continent increase from 1.3 Gt to more than 2.5 Gt, more than a quarter of the emission limit needed to avoid catastrophic warming.4

On the other hand, renewable energy investments can be a catalyst for economic growth and for African economies that support a global agenda of sustainable development goals while supporting the welfare of their citizens (Edenhofer et al., 2014; OECD, 2011). One must balance this view with the recognition that other challenges must be overcome, in addition to the financing gap. Nevertheless, the past success and current plans for other large scale renewable projects (Adenle, 2020; Aghahosseini et al., 2020; Kazimierczuk, 2019), suggest that the risks and non-financial barriers to a renewable energy transition can be overcome or mitigated.

4.2. Conclusion

Africa’s renewable energy financing gap points to a drastic worsening of the global climate crisis, in the absence of urgent global investments. No other region combines the multiple challenges of population growth, energy-per-capita growth, and changes to climate-impact per-capita than Africa does. At the same time, no other region offers the promise of truly leapfrogging to a distributed low-carbon energy infrastructure, bypassing the large fossil-fuel based generation and distribution infrastructure that form a burdensome legacy for other countries. The financing gap calls for concerted action with partners.

The financial resources of Africa’s governments are not up to the task, and the lending terms faced by the governments have not historically been favorable. The region’s development partners have limited aid budgets that may not match the scale of investments needed. High income countries have not met their commitments to the Green Climate Fund, eliminating another potential source of needed investments. Therefore, the most promising option for bridging the renewable energy financing gap appears to be a partnership model that leverages funds from a combination of public and private sector actors, tailored to each country’s resources and income level, while geared to avoid a global climate crisis, by meeting sustainable development goals with timely renewable energy investments for countries in the region.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information

Notes on contributors


Michael Olabisi

Dr. Michael Olabisi is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University and he his affiliated with both the department of Community Sustainability (CSUS), and AFRE. His work sits at the intersection of sustainability, trade and economic development.


Robert B. Richardson

Dr. Robert B. Richardson is an ecological economist at Michigan State University with interests in the study of the environment and development. He is Past-President of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, and a member of the International Society for Ecological Economics.


Adesoji O. Adelaja

Dr. Adesoji O. Adelaja is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. His work in public policy includes serving as advisor to state and national policy makers.


1 Published in November 2019. See

2 There is the debate about why the commitments to the Green Climate Fund are not met. What is clear amid the debate is that the financial decisions of policymakers do not match the urgency of the situation, as shown by the United States reneging on its commitments to the Fund in 2017, and Australia refusing to ‘tip money’ into it

3 Estimates from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) are at this link: https://irena. org/newsroom/articles/2020/Mar/The-Investment-Case-for-Energy-Transition-in-Africa

4 The projection used a simple, but conservative extrapolation based on the growth rate of African GHG emissions in the past four decades (c.f., Ameyaw et al., 2019; Ameyaw & Yao, 2018)


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