by Ayesha Kajee*
Many Africans view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a European war far removed from them. In reality, the impacts of the conflict are already keenly felt around the world’s poorest continent.
A disaster made by Putin
African countries dependent on Russia and/or Ukraine for food, energy and other commodities have been badly hit. They are experiencing drastic increases in food and fuel prices already, only a month into the conflict.
When fuel prices rise, the price of everything increases. And sadly, it is the poorest countries and their peoples who bear a disproportionate brunt of this made-by-Putin inflation.
The immediate challenge: Food supply and food security
“War in Ukraine means hunger in Africa,” noted Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently.
African countries will have to look elsewhere to offset the food shortfalls. That will be a steep challenge.
Gabriella Bucher, Executive Director of global charity Oxfam International, warned that the expected huge shortfall in aid will be “potentially lethal”. Just consider that, to date, only 3% of the UN 2022 humanitarian appeal for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan has been funded.
Famine in the Horn of Africa
Among the most vulnerable are countries in the horn of Africa, a region already at risk of severe hunger, due to the adverse impacts of drought, the bloody Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, and locust swarms in recent years. Famine in the area is now a distinct possibility.
Kenyan Diyaara Ibrahim Gulie told Oxfam: “We now have to skip meals and resort to one meal a day. And at times we have to prioritize the children`s eating and starve the grown-ups in order to sustain what little food we have.”
Time for serious action
The outlook, while bleak, does have a few potential silver linings. Food insecurity may force African countries to invest more in subsistence and small-scale farming in order to shore up national and regional food sovereignty.
True, food security and development organizations have long been calling for such measures, to limited effect.
Exploring intra-African markets
At the same time, the loss of sources of supply in eastern Europe might compel producers in Africa to explore intra-African markets, which were previously ignored as being less profitable.
Gerrishon Ikiara, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, told VoA that “there are some countries with surplus food – countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and quite a number of others have the capacity to feed a big part of Africa if it’s properly connected.”
A big opportunity looms in the post-Russian energy age
As tough as the food security issue is for Africa, it is important to keep potential opportunities in proper sight. That is the only way to strengthen African economies for the long term.
Putin’s war on Ukraine has created a strong imperative to reduce Western dependence on energy from Russia. That opens up opportunities for some African states to bridge the gap.
This, in turn, offers the prospect of unprecedented growth and development. A key factor that has traditionally weighed against investment in Africa – political risk – in the future will be considered much less of a risk, considering Russia’s most egregious behavior.
Russia has lost its reputation as a reliable energy partner for decades, at a minimum.
Europe would be well-advised to switch away from malicious Russia to an African continent that needs – and deserves – a brighter future.
While those prospects are solid for quite a few African countries, this does not apply all across the continent.
And even in the countries for which it may offer a path to relative prosperity over time, strong political will and sound governance at home, paired with sufficient technical expertise, is required to attract funding for energy projects.
Africa’s natural gas
As to the “hottest” issue in Europe, Africa holds about 7% of global natural gas reserves, much of it underexploited. Gas from Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Algeria, among others, could help Europe reduce its dependence on Russia, in both the short and long-term.
Nigeria already supplies liquefied natural gas (LNG) to several European nations. Together with Niger and Algeria, it has embarked on the trans-Saharan gas pipeline to bolster gas supply to European markets.
Senegal is expected to start LNG production later this year, following the discovery of forty trillion cubic feet of natural gas between 2014 and 2017.
There are currently four pipelines that transport gas directly from North Africa to Europe, but intensive infrastructure investment is required to optimize supply from countries south of the Sahara. In the short-term, plans to ship LNG by sea could yield benefits for African suppliers if sufficient cold-container shipping can be mobilized.
In the longer term, states like Tanzania, which houses Africa’s sixth largest gas reserves, are seeking foreign investment to begin or revive construction of LNG projects during the next few years.
Investment in the required infrastructure in some countries with large gas reserves, including Nigeria and Angola, is hampered by endemic corruption and persistent civil conflict, both of which dissuade foreign investors.
Mozambique alone houses an estimated one percent of global natural gas reserves (about 100 trillion cubic feet), but the ongoing instability in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado region has stymied development.
Similarly, unrest and persistent sabotage in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, rich in both oil and gas, has affected exploration.
What’s in it for Africa? Clean(er) energy supplies
Of course, all of this must be very much a two-way street. What is critical in that regard is that, in mid-2021, the European Union announced ambitious plans to reach a carbon neutral economy by 2050.
Thus, the race to find cleaner energy alternatives was already on before the Russian war on Ukraine.
Now that it is underway, and Europe wants to move away from Russian-supplied sources of energy as fast as possible, the opportunities for Africa’s solar, hydro and wind-powered energy initiatives have increased significantly.
In the short term, Africa could benefit from selling oil, gas and coal to Europe. Clearly, the longer-term prospects for the continent to supply renewable energies are even more exciting.
“Resuming and scaling up solar projects in North Africa could fully replace Russian gas as a source of European energy,” according to Jakkie Cilliers from the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
He adds: “In fact, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could unlock an African energy renaissance that could leapfrog fossil fuel usage in Europe and Africa. It could also stimulate and diversify North Africa’s stagnant economies and make large projects such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Grand Inga hydroelectric scheme commercially viable.”
A grand bargain with Europe?
The transport of solar energy from Africa would require additional infrastructure, such as undersea cables and a strengthening of the Mediterranean Electricity Ring project.
Some construction is already underway, with plans to link Tunisia and Algeria to Italy and France via submarine cables, and similar agreements between Egypt and Greece are in the offing.
Africa also has underexploited potential for power generation from wind farms, especially along its extensive coastlines and lakeshores. Egypt, Morocco and Kenya all currently generate substantial amounts of reliable low-cost energy from wind.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s Roggeveld Wind Farm, owned by independent producer Red Rocket, recently achieved commercial operations capacity. Kenya’s Lake Turkana Wind Farm, the continent’s largest wind power project, generates and sells enough electricity to state utility Kenya Power to supply one million homes. Other countries entering the wind power sector include Ethiopia, Senegal and Mauritania.
While no African producer currently supplies wind-generated power to countries outside the continent, the drive towards greener energy could change that.
A 2020 study by the IFC estimated that Africa possesses an astonishing technical wind potential of almost 180,000 terawatt hours (TWh) per year — enough to satisfy the entire continent’s electricity demands 250 times over!
Of course, commercial viability would be subject to financial, technical and social constraints, but it is an arena worth exploring further.
In summary, there is vast untapped potential for Africa to enter the renewable power sector. The war in Europe could provide the necessary impetus.
Politically stable, business friendly countries are most likely to attract the financial investment required for infrastructure development.
While the risks are not inconsiderable, the rewards could be exponential and would help catapult the continent from widespread poverty to a path to prosperity.
*South Africa-based consultant on governance, human rights and education issues
**first published in: www.theglobalist.com