Africa’s Bumpy Road to Sustainable Energy

Credit: Johannes Ortner

By Eleni Mourdoukoutas
NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 26 2018 (IPS)

For years, Kenyans freely used and disposed of plastic bags. The bags were ubiquitous—in the markets, in the gutters and in the guts out of 3 out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter.

Nakuru, a town northwest of Nairobi, was a particular eyesore, with a poorly managed dump site that left bags strewn across the roads. It drove Nakuru resident James Wakibia to desperation and then to activism. Wakibia wrote letters to local papers, posted on social media, launched the hashtag #banplasticsKE and joined local group InTheStreetsofNakuru to petition the Kenyan government to ban single-use plastic bags.

It got people talking.

Finally, in August 2017, Kenya passed a landmark law banning the purchase, sale or use of plastic bags. Offenders risk four years in prison or a $40,000 fine.

“Plastic bags were virtually all over the place,” Wakibia told Africa Renewal. “But now the once-clogged drains are flowing and roadsides are free from plastic bags. There is a visible change.”

The trash and plastics nightmare can be found across the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa produces approximately 62 million tonnes of waste per year, including plastic waste, according to the World Bank. With Africa’s rapid urbanisation and economic growth, environmentalists expect that figure to double by 2025.

New uses found for waste

Yet Africa’s epidemic of waste may very well contain the seeds of a solution to another stubborn problem—the energy shortage.

In sub-Saharan Africa some 609 million people (6 out of 10) have no access to electricity, and about 80% of those in rural areas lack electricity access, according to 2017 data by the World Bank. Manufacturers in sub-Saharan Africa experience an average of 56 days of shutdown time per year due to power outages, the African Development Bank noted in 2017.

To achieve universal energy access, Africa requires an investment of more than $1.5 trillion in the energy sector between 2018 and 2050. Without such an investment, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to an estimated 89% of the world’s energy poor by 2030, according to a 2017 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organisation that advises governments on energy policy.

To meet demand, exploration is underway to convert the mounting piles of rubbish into much-needed energy—and some countries are already showing how that can be done.

This year Ethiopia completed the Reppie thermal plant, Africa’s first waste-to-energy plant, which has the capacity to incinerate 1,400 tons of waste per day. The plant handles 80% of Addis Ababa’s waste and converts it into electricity that, when the plant becomes fully operational, will serve 3 million people—thus providing 30% of the capital city’s needs.

To execute the $120 million project, the Ethiopian government partnered with China National Electric Engineering Co., which worked with Cambridge Industries and its managing director Samuel Alemayehu, a Stanford-educated engineer and former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

“The Reppie project is just one component of Ethiopia’s broader strategy to address pollution and embrace renewable energy across all sectors of the economy,” Zerubabel Getachew, Ethiopia’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told UN Environment. “We hope that Reppie will serve as a model for other countries in the region and around the world.”

With only 4% of the continent’s wastes being recycled, Africa’s waste management is still in its infancy, according to a 2018 report by UN Environment and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South Africa–based research organization.

South Africa may be an outlier. PET Recycling Company, a South African recycling company, reported in 2016 that plastic bottle recycled tonnage has grown by 822% in the country since 2005.

“Currently South Africa does not have mandatory punitive legislation in place which makes separation of recyclables [from the waste stream]… in homes, offices, restaurants and bars compulsory. Mandatory separation at the source will ensure greater recycling success in years to come,” said Shabeer Jhetam, executive director at the Glass Recycling Company.

Without legislative backing, Wakibia is sceptical about sustainable practices across Africa.

“I think the biggest hindrance to environmental protection is when politicians have vested interests,” he told UN Environment. “For example, many politicians are shareholders of companies engaged in lumbering, or are shareholders in companies dealing with plastics. So it becomes hard for them to support any initiatives calling for sustainable forestry or a ban on single-use plastics.”

“I’m glad the government of Kenya has called for massive tree planting across the country,” he continued. “I hope they will walk the talk.

Morocco tops in solar energy

The sun could be another source of sustainable energy in Africa. Africa has 117% more sunshine than Germany, the global leader in solar energy.

Due to its decreasing cost and increasing convenience, solar energy is projected to become the world’s largest source of energy by 2050, states a 2017 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation promoting sustainable energy.

Lighting Africa, a World Bank–supported project started by music icon Akon, his childhood friend Thione Niang and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily, is tapping into Africa’s vast solar resource. The group hopes to provide solar energy solutions to 250 million people across sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.

Since its establishment in 2014, Lighting Africa has provided electricity access to nearly 29 million people in 25 African countries, including Benin, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone.

Morocco leads the pack in solar energy in Africa. With 32% of its energy needs currently coming from renewable sources, the country is on track to hit 44% by 2020.

Morocco’s solar energy ambition is anchored on the $9 billion Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS), also called Noor Power Station (noor means “light” in Arabic), located in the Drâa-Tafilalet region. The OSPS is expected to produce electricity for over 1 million homes by the end of 2018. The Spanish consortium TSK-Acciona-Sener is helping to develop the project.

Oil reigns supreme

However, some countries’ reliance on fossil fuels for energy and revenue may be hampering investments in renewables. Nigeria, for example, produces and sells about 2.2 million barrels of oil per day, which accounted for 69% of its revenues in 2017, reported Nigeria’s Central Bank.

Without the capacity to refine sufficient oil for domestic consumption, Nigeria subsidizes fossil fuel production by up to $2.5 billion yearly, notes the IEA, which warns that such subsidies put undue strain on governments’ budgets and create obstacles for emerging low-carbon businesses and the renewables sector.

Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, among other countries, each subsidized fossil fuel production by more than $1 billion in 2015, states the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSG), a Geneva-based organization that promotes sustainable development through trade-related policies.

Even South Africa increased its subsidy for fossil fuels from $2.9 billion in 2014 to $3.5 billion in 2016, despite a commitment the country made at the 2009 G20 summit to phase out subsidies, notes the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose members are the world’s richest nations. South Africa is also home to 31 billion tonnes of recoverable coal, the sixth largest in the world.

Both the Paris Agreement and Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require countries to focus less on fossil fuels and more on renewables. African governments are concerned that phasing out subsidies could trigger hikes in the cost of petroleum products and electricity, leading to social unrest.

“Subsidies to fossil fuel power are provided [by African countries] to compensate for electricity tariffs, which cover only 70% of the cost of power production,” states ICTSG.

Fingers crossed, Morocco’s success in solar energy development, Ethiopia’s Reppie thermal plant and renewables successes elsewhere may encourage other African countries to pay attention to sustainable practices.

*The article was originally published in Africa Renewal, published by the United Nations.

With Poor Human Rights Record, Repatriation Not Possible

Rohingya after they fled Myanmar in 2017 arrive at Shahparir Dip in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Credit: IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

Policies that allow for impunity, genocide, and apartheid are “intolerable” and make repatriation of Rohingya refugees impossible, say United Nations investigators.

While presenting an annual report to the member states at the U.N., Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee expressed disappointment in Myanmar’s government under State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, stating her hope that it “would be vastly different from the past, but it really is not that much different.”

“The government is increasingly demonstrating that it has no interest and capacity to establish a fully functioning democracy for all its people,” Lee said during a press conference.  

She also added that the Nobel peace prize laureate is in “total denial” about the mistreatment and violence against the Rohingya which forced over 700,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh, and questioned her staunch support for the rule of law.

“If the rule of law were upheld, all the people in Myanmar, regardless of their position, would be answerable to fair laws that are impartially applied, impunity would not reign, and the law would not be wielded as a weapon of oppression,” Lee said.

The Chair of the U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, who also presented a report to the U.N., echoed similar sentiments, noting that the government’s “hardened positions are by far the greatest obstacle.”

“Accountability concerns not only the past but it also concerns the future and Myanmar is destined to repeat the cycles of violence unless there is an end to impunity,” he said.

One of conditions that contributed to the atrocities committed since violence erupted in August 2017 is the shrinking of democratic space, they noted.

While the arrests of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo gripped international headlines, the government has been increasingly cracking down on free speech and human rights defenders in the country.

Most recently, three journalists from Eleven Media—Nayi Min, Kyaw Zaw Linn, and Phyo Wai Win—were detained and are being investigated for online defamation. If charged and convicted, the journalists face up to two years in prison.

Lee and Darusman also expressed concern over the apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar that persist today including restrictions on movement and access to services such as healthcare and education.

While the government is building new infrastructure for both Rohingya still inside the country and those who fled, Lee noted they are usually segregated from Buddhist communities.

If a policy of separation rather than integration continues, atrocities will be committed yet again.

“It is an ongoing genocide,” Darusman said.

In the fact-finding mission report which looked into the past year’s events, investigators found that four out of five conditions for genocide were met: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

Of those, three conditions can still be seen in the country.

For instance, in 2015, Myanmar’s government imposed “birth spacing” restrictions on women, requiring a 36-month interval between children with forced use of contraception in the interim.

The Population Control Healthcare Bill was introduced in response to a 2013 government report that saw “the rapid population growth of the Bengalis [Rohingya] as an extremely serious threat.”

Prior to this, the government enacted a two-child limit on the Muslim community in Rakhine.

And it is because of these conditions that Rohingya refugees cannot go back.

“Repatriation is not possible now. Unless the situation in Myanmar is conducive, I will not encourage any repatriation. They should not go back to the existing laws, policies, and practices,” Lee said.

She urged for the civilian government to adopt laws that protect and advance human rights for all, and for Suu Kyi to use “all her moral and political power” to act.

“Myanmar now stands at a crossroads—they can respond as a responsible member of the United Nations and take up the call for accountability or they can be on the same self-self-destructive road,” Darusman said.

Of the actions that can be taken towards the path to accountability is the pardoning of human rights defenders and journalists who have been arbitrarily detained in order to restore democratic space.

Myanmar should also allow for unhindered access for humanitarian actors and U.N. investigators, Lee added.

“I think we are at a point where Myanmar and the international community both are at [a] juncture where the right choice to make will determine the future of not only Myanmar but peace and security in the region and the world,” she said.