FOR the digital revolution to succeed, Africa must improve public access to electricity, delegates at the World Economic Forum on Africa said as they met for a second day in Kigali.
Plugging households in to the grid remains a major challenge on this continent where more than 600 million people have no access to power, said delegates meeting in the Rwandan capital at a three-day WEF Africa summit.
“Without access to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy, Africa cannot really take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution” former UN under-secretary general Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella told AFP, referring to the digital revolution.
“The investors were very clear that you need good, determined governments and public policy that will last and are predictable for 10, 20 years,” he explained after talks between public decision-makers and representatives of the private sector.
But the first step was addressing the continent’s lack of access to power.
“You much recognise that the fourth industrial revolution…is just simply about providing access to electricity,” African Development Bank (AfDB) president Akinwumi Adesina told a press conference.
“Everything revolves around having access to power,” said Adesina who told AFP in February that the AfDB was to invest $12 billion in the energy sector over the next five years to promote universal access to electricity.
‘Like blood in the body’
Last September, the bank unveiled a landmark initiative to solve Africa’s huge energy deficit by 2025, in a programme which Adesina said would boost the continent’s industrial capacity and its competitiveness.
“With that, we will be able to improve the access of small- and medium-size enterprises to electricity, we will be able to improve the industrial capacity that Africa has, we will also be able to improve the competitiveness that Africa has in global markets,” he said.
“Electricity is like blood in your body.”
Although Africa was rich in resources, it lacked the necessary policies to encourage long-term investor interest in energy projects, Yumkella said.
Governments “should do for the energy sector what they did for mobile telephony: you deregulate, you privatise, you incentivise, (and) private capital will come in,” he said.
But some warned of the need to move swiftly, saying regional governments could see opportunities quickly snapped up by eager western investors.
“The negative scenario is, of course, that Africa once again will be exploited by western countries and companies who have invested much higher in the fourth industrial revolution,” warned Adam Ikdal, director of the South African branch of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
“So it is an opportunity, but it is also a potential threat if government doesn’t wake up to the challenge.”