Africa’s 54 countries together host the world’s youngest and fastest growing population. They are also among Earth’s poorest and most energy-deprived.
Average per capita electricity use among sub-Saharan Africa’s 1.1 billion people is a tiny fraction of the USA’s. It’s equivalent to having power 1-2 hours a day, a dozen hours a week, 500 hours a year – unpredictably, often for a few minutes or hours at a stretch. Lighting and refrigeration are minimal to nonexistent.
Millions die every year from infectious diseases modern nations haven’t encountered for decades, and from inhaling pollutants from open fires or ingesting bacteria-laden food and water. Corruption, conflict and terrorism also remain rampant.
All this may be about to change, as a new spirit builds across the continent – documented by “The African Youth Survey 2020: The rise of Afro-optimism.”
Conducted and prepared by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, the Survey is based on extensive interviews with young people from 14 countries who are “literally the leaders of tomorrow.” They are “imbued with optimism about the future” and determined to “shape their own destiny.”
Moreover, as Foundation chairman Ivor Ichikowitz emphasizes in his foreword to the Survey, Africa’s youth are not just hopeful, “not just optimistic about the much-vaunted African century.” They refuse to “shy away from the very real challenges” Africa faces.
They are “honest about what needs to be done and what their role has to be to achieve this.” Just as important, “they are overwhelmingly keen to make that difference.” The young Africans he spoke with “know their destiny is in their own hands” and “they can achieve greatness” if they “seize the opportunities provided by the modern world.”
Mr. Ichikowitz goes on to say he has “always believed” Africa’s “redemption” would become possible only when “those who were not born either under the yoke of apartheid or carrying the scars of colonialism were finally ready to take their rightful place” as leaders, shapers and doers. “That time is now,” he forcefully states.
The crises of confidence and Covid in Europe “have been a godsend,” he believes, “because now the continent has to look within for solutions, not hold out its hand in supplication” or be dismayed by those who said Africans “could do nothing without foreign help.”
Young Africans are media savvy, familiar with technology, and well-connected to the world via the internet. As the Survey found, they believe in individual responsibility, entrepreneurship, pan-African identity and unity, and “democratic values of participation, tolerance and freedom.” They want to tackle and defeat the problems of disease, terrorism, corruption and energy deprivation.
My trips to Africa and discussions with its young men and women affirm these exciting findings. They confirm my belief that Africa’s biggest immediate challenge is providing reliable, affordable electricity sufficient for its enormous needs. Without that electricity, its optimism and aspirations will wither.
Some say Africa should avoid and “leapfrog” fossil fuels, and rely entirely on wind, solar and hydro power. But as South African nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm points out, there are huge problems with this. For one, continental Africa is larger than the United States, China, India and Europe combined.
Going from near-zero electricity over this expanse would require millions of wind turbines, billions of solar panels, billions of backup batteries, millions of miles of transmission lines, and incomprehensible amounts of raw materials. The impacts on Africa’s magnificent scenery, habitats and wildlife populations would be horrific and intolerable.
Sunshine is absent at night and often for days. Wind is intermittent and seasonal. The continent is dry, prone to droughts, and lacking the canyons, fjords and elevation changes that make hydroelectric viable.
However, much of Africa is blessed with abundant coal and natural gas. Harnessing these resources for African needs would generate abundant electricity, jobs, revenues and prosperity – and indeed over 1,000 coal and gas power plants are already planned or under construction. Nuclear, especially Small Modular Reactors, will also play a vital role.
Anti-development Western banks may well continue refusing to finance such projects. But Chinese banks could step in, as they have – and Africa itself could do so.
The United States and Europe, Canada and Australia, China and India, had few foreign godfathers like the World Bank and USAID. Their own people, banks, companies, consortiums and governments conceived of needed projects, raised the capital, secured the necessary materials, and built the infrastructure, factories and other projects. Each successful project created jobs, generated new wealth and prosperity, and laid the foundation for subsequent programs.
Africa could certainly do likewise – and turn the African Youth Survey optimism into full-fledged reality. What a thrilling prospect!