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Energy transition: Africa must bridge technological gap, step up dialogue around innovation

"Our current challenge is to get Heads of State to adopt a joint, green hydrogen policy by the end of this year," said Francis Sempore, Executive Director of the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Monday 27 February 2023 in Niamey (Niger).

"Green hydrogen in West Africa may sound utopian now, but so did the ECOWAS leaders' decision to adopt a regional policy on renewable energy in 2013. Yet it has become unthinkable for a country not to have solar energy in its energy mix," he added.

Mr Sempore was speaking at thefifth African Science, Technology, and Innovation ForumHigh-level policy dialogue on emerging energy technologies along with a panel of African and UN experts who called for a deep overhaul of Africa's approach to energy issues to break the vicious cycle of outdated technologies, respond more efficiently to electricity needs and speed up economic development.

The case of Niger, where the conference was held, is a stark illustration of the contradictions West Africa and the rest of the continent are experiencing today.

In addition to its immense energy potential (solar, hydroelectric, wind), the country has some 90 million tons of coal, 953 million barrels of oil, more than 24 billion m3 of natural gas, and one of the largest reserves of uranium in Africa, according to Saïdou Madougou, Professor at the Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey.

In 2022, however, access to electricity only benefited 16 percent of the country, and 6 percent in rural areas. Biomass (fuelwood) presently covers more than 87% of household energy needs in a country where 200,000 hectares of land are lost to desertification every year.

To increase Africa's energy production capacity, policy makers will have to act at multiple levels. They would need to ensure their countries have enough know-how for the use of renewables; set up special mechanisms to attract investments in renewable energies and create capacity for research. They will also need to take the social context into account as energy poverty means that some communities do not have the energy to start projects in the first place, said UNESCO Regional Director and Representative for Southern Africa, Lidia Brito.

Another significant area of intervention would be the strengthening of qualified human resources. Many of our countries invest substantively into education, the university system, but when it comes to extracting national energy resources, governments still bring professionals from abroad, said Africa Development Futures Group Chair, Nkem Khumbah, who called for a three-way dialogue between governments, universities and big companies to ensure university programmes become drivers of Africa's aspirations.

We should not look at energy as an enabler only, but also as an opportunity whether in terms of productivity or innovation, explained Somila Xosa, Director of Transport Fuels, at the South African Department of Science and Innovation. Mr Xosa called on African countries not only to encourage innovation, but also to generate a culture of innovation where inventors can take off and thrive.

ECA Senior Environmental Affairs Officer, Linus Mofor urged Africa to bridge its technological gaps by initiating a conversation between countries in the priority areas of intervention and strengthening scientific and technological research.

We also need to consider how we finance innovation: while we need to challenge African governments to invest themselves, we also need to keep in mind that few governments have financial scaling capacity. Then again, energy access can increase incomes by up to 39%, said ECA Director for Technology, Climate Change and Natural Resources Management, Jean Paul Adam.

Held in Niamey on 26-27 February 2023 ahead of the 9th African Forum on Sustainable Development, the Fifth African Science, Technology and Innovation Forum was jointly organized by ECA, UNESCO, the African Union Commission and the Department of Science and Innovation of South Africa. Discussions aimed to consider how science, technology and innovation can support African efforts to achieve an inclusive and green recovery from multiple crises and the integrated and full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Agenda 2063.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
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