Of all the measures of the continent’s poverty, few are starker than that about two-thirds of its people have no access to reliable electricity. The Africa Progress Panel (APP), a group of experts led by Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, puts the number of Africans without any power at 620m, most of them in villages and on farms. The panel found that in nine African countries fewer than one in five primary schools had lights. A study by the World Health Organisation found that about a quarter of clinics and hospitals in 11 African countries have no power of any kind, and many of the rest get it from generators that often break down or run out of fuel.
Such power shortages cost lives. In Nigeria each year an estimated 36,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, many because they deliver their babies in the dark in clinics such as the one in Makoko, a slum perched on stilts above a lagoon in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest commercial city. It has just a few rough wooden beds in a small room with a doorway so low that people have to stoop to enter it. Straightforward deliveries are done by candle and torchlight, says one local resident, a fisherman. If anything goes wrong, the mother is carefully passed down to a small fishing canoe and taken to a bigger hospital across the lagoon. By then it is sometimes too late. Without power even the simplest health precautions can become difficult. “If you don’t have electricity you don’t have a fridge, and if you don’t have a fridge you can’t store vaccines,” says Jasper Westerink, who runs the African business of Philips, a Dutch multinational firm.
Businesses across the continent have to contend with frequent blackouts, known as dumsor in Ghana, from the Asante words for “off and on”. They rely on expensive backup generators, so the electricity they use is among the costliest in the world. The full impact of intermittent and high-cost energy on Africa’s economy and society is hard to measure, but it seems safe to say that this is the biggest single barrier to development.