UK signs off-grid solar agreements with Nigeria, Sierra Leone at launch of Energy Africa Campaign

Luminaries from the world of music, politics and business have given their backing to a new global campaign launched this week designed to bring solar power to the 620 million people in Africa currently reliant on polluting forms of energy.

The Energy Africa Campaign will deliver a leapfrog model energy push to 14 sub-Saharan African nations, bringing off-grid solar power to thousands of regions to usurp kerosene, wood and candles as the primary source of power for rural areas.

The project was kickstarted by a development agreement signed between the U.K.’s Department for International Development and the governments of Nigeria and Sierra Leone for the supply of off-grid solar technology to those living in remote locations.

Bob Geldof, Richard Branson and Kofi Annan – as well as a number of politicians and business leaders – attended the launch of the campaign, with former UN secretary general Annan calling the current energy imbalance – which sees some of the world’s poorest people pay the highest rates for power – "intolerable, avoidable and profoundly unfair".

"Lack of access to electricity is an injustice that robs millions of our fellow citizens of the dignity, opportunity and freedom that comes with access to modern energy," Annan said. "At present rates of progress, 300 million people in Africa will still lack electricity by 2040."

Annan added that investors are losing out on a wealth of market opportunities in Africa, while the potential of many African nations’ most valuable natural resource – its people – remains untapped.

Solar power, which is increasingly affordable and efficient, offers Africa the chance to avoid the carbon-intensive pathway set by its neighbors in the West, and can instead leapfrog directly into a cleaner energy mix.

"The UN climate change conference in Paris must draw a line in the sand," Annan said. "Major emitting countries should seize the opportunity to put in place credible carbon pricing and taxation systems and to stop wasting billions on fossil fuel subsidies."

Britain’s proactive involvement from the off is to be applauded, despite its pro-solar stance in Africa being rather at odds to the seemingly anti-solar position being adopted back home. Its involvement in Nigeria could help deliver off-grid solar capacity to the 96 million people in the country without access to electricity, said Nigerian vice-president Yemi Osinbajo.

The U.K.’s involvement will not initially involve direct investment. Rather, its weighty presence across Africa will be leveraged to oversee a smoother introduction of solar technologies, including offering the use of its offices, financing partners and logistics, revealed international development minister Grant Shapps.

"It is about using our influence, getting the commercial markets to work for some of the poorest people of the world," Shapps said. "This is about more than switching on lights. It means that the day doesn’t end when the sun goes down."

Leading voices speak up

Pop star and founder of Live Aid, Bob Geldof, spoke at the event about the impact that mobile phones have played – and will continue to play – in Africa’s solar-powered future, while Branson revealed that his company Virgin plans to invest in a number of solar projects across the continent.

"Energy poverty and economic poverty are two sides of the same coin," Branson remarked. "Access to sustainable energy live solar can change all that. It fuels entrepreneurship, it boosts educational opportunities, and it’s an incredible source of women’s empowerment."

The tycoon also added that solar is good for business, and he views the transition to a cleaner, more distributed energy model "not as a burden, but as a historic opportunity".

Branson’s words followed the news this week that Tanzania- and California-based Off Grid Electric had raised $25 million to provide solar power to homes in Africa – the largest round of venture capital funding for distributed energy in Africa to date.