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Is 80% of Africa’s population without electricity?

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Has the vast majority of Africa’s population been left in the dark?

The World Economic Forum’s head of Africa said so to a South African radio station at the latest Forum on Africa, which was hosted in the country.

“It is hard to talk about being an effective participant in the global digital economy when, what, only about 20% of Africans have access to electricity,” Elsie Kanza told Power FM, which then tweeted the statement.

Is access that low? a reader asked us.

Claim off the mark, WEF confirms

The World Economic Forum was quick to tell us that Kanza’s claim was off the mark.

Her statement was based on the World Energy Outlook data for 2016, the World Economic Forum’s head of media content, Oliver Cann, told Africa Check. However, the statistic referred to rural sub-Saharan Africa only.

“We regret the slight inaccuracy therefore of her comment,” Cann said.

If not 19%, then how much?

A family in the DRC's North Kivu province takes advantage of the arrival of electricity in July 2016. Photo: AFP/Eduardo Soteras
A family in the DRC's North Kivu province takes advantage of the arrival of electricity in July 2016. Photo: AFP/Eduardo Soteras" />

It turns out that measuring access to electricity isn’t a straightforward exercise.

The World Energy Outlook cited as Kanza’s source is published by the International Energy Agency, an international organisation that provides insight and analysis on energy related matters.

“There is no single internationally-accepted and internationally-adopted definition of modern energy access,” the organisation noted.

Measuring access to electricity shouldn't just involve counting how many houses are hooked up to a grid. The quantity of electricity they consume, depending on their location, should matter too.

45% electrification in 2014

That said, the latest World Energy Outlook report considered a “simpler binary measure” of those who have access to electricity and those who do not. Published in 2016, the report stated that 45% of Africa had access to electricity in 2014.

Energy data was collected from a combination of sources, including “multilateral development banks and country-level representatives of various international organisations” along with data from the World Bank living standards measurement surveys. If no data was available, estimates were provided based on pre-existing data.

The organisation does note, however, that the data quality may vary between countries “due to the differences in definitions and methodology from different sources”.

RegionUrban electrificationRural electrificationTotal
North Africa100%99%99%
Sub-Saharan Africa63%19%35%

Another measure: electricity from grid companies

There are other ways to measure access to electricity, a member of the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre told Africa Check.

“The World Bank has been working on the issue of measuring access specifically through the Global Tracking Framework,” Wikus Kruger said. “Mostly, though, this only takes into account electricity provided by grid companies.”

The latest report provided a similar estimate to the World Energy Outlook report - that 46.9% of the African population had access to electricity in 2014.

Urban electrificationRural electrificationTotal

‘Relatively contentious issue’

Kruger told Africa Check that defining and measuring access to electricity is a “relatively contentious issue”.

Echoing the International Energy Agency’s sentiments, Kruger told Africa Check that “there is not necessarily uniformity in how access is measured across regions”.

Issues of affordability also need to be considered, Kruger added.

“Whereas South Africa’s electricity access rate is in the high 80% range, there is uncertainty regarding how many people are able to use electricity – and use the full range of electricity services,” Kruger told Africa Check.

For a number of households, connection costs alone remain “prohibitively expensive”, Kruger added.

Conclusion: Closer to half of Africa’s population have access to electricity

The World Economic Forum’s head of Africa told a South African radio station that “only about 20% of Africans have access to electricity”.

This should have been in reference to rural sub-Saharan Africa only, the forum told Africa Check. Urban electrification pulled access on the continent up to an estimated 45% in 2014, data from the World Energy Outlook showed.

Another international database put it at 46.9% in 2014.

Energy expert Wikus Kruger told Africa Check that although the figure cited was too low, “it does point to the direness of the situation: electricity access is a major issue on the continent, even for those that have an electricity line at their house.”

Edited by Kate Wilkinson

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