Electricity is key to addressing food security

©Mick Haupt on Unsplash

There is an exam question that parliamentarians all over the world must answer: What are you doing to ensure that local energy resources in the developing world enable the population to access energy for creating jobs and food security so that instability is avoided?

The recent coup in Gabon is a symptom of the instability disease that affects resource-rich countries where the population lack access to energy, are unemployed and at risk of food insecurity.

The need for additional electricity supplies to address poverty and malnutrition was also highlighted at the recent summit of the BRICS nations. In addition to a donation from China to South Africa, of equipment to keep the lights on at hospitals and other public institutions, the countries also discussed collaboration to improve access to affordable energy and a move to cleaner power production.

The developments highlighted one of Africa’s pressing problems – Africa desperately needs more electricity. Without a reliable electricity supply, economies will not grow, businesses will not create jobs and poverty levels will increase. The result: more hunger, less food security and less social stability.

South Africa is an example of what can happen. The country has been subjected to almost daily power cuts for nearly a year, as the national electricity utility, Eskom, struggles to meet demand. When the power cuts increased to more than six hours a day earlier this year, there were multiple warnings from business and agriculture that food security was under threat.

Electricity is essential to modern agriculture, for crop irrigation, for round-the-clock operations such as poultry production, and for food processing and packaging. It is essential, too, for retailers who rely on extensive refrigeration. Without electricity, food rots.

Warnings about food security in South Africa were coupled with concern that poverty, hunger and unemployment were creating conditions for a repeat of the riots that broke out in two provinces in July 2021.

The severity of the power cuts has lessened in recent months, but food insecurity has increased because of rapidly rising food prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa is food secure at a national level, but not at a household level, mainly because poor people cannot afford to buy the food that is available.

This is the situation in South Africa, which has Africa’s largest economy and a well-developed agricultural sector. Elsewhere in Africa, the situation is far worse.

Africa has the world’s fastest growing population – its 1.4 billion people are expected to increase to 1.7 billion by 2030. However, access to electricity is going backwards. The International Energy Agency (IEA) linked this directly to increasing poverty and declining food security.

The IEA reported last year that 4% more people in Africa lived without electricity in 2021 than in 2019.

“There are also deepening financial difficulties of utilities, increasing risk of utilities, increasing risks of blackouts and rationing. These problems are contributing to a sharp increase in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, with the number of people affected by food crises quadrupling in some areas,” the IEA said.

As Africa’s population increases, so do the number of hungry people. Worldvision reported that In Africa, one in five people faced hunger in 2020.

“Conflict, drought, and economic woes triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic are reversing years of progress. As of 2020, more than one-third of the continent’s population was undernourished. In the whole of Africa, 282 million people were experiencing hunger, more than double the proportion of any other region in the world,” it said.

To add to Africa’s woes, this year, we are faced with the return of El Niño, the weather influencer which affects global weather patterns and rainfall. In Africa, El Niño can bring drought or floods in various parts of the continent. The last strong El Niño, in 2015 and 2016, was devastating.

Either weather extremes will reduce food production and increase hunger.

Which brings us back to electricity.

To address poverty and malnutrition, Africa must have stable food production. That, in turn, requires a stable and reliable supply of electricity.

Electricity supply does not just happen. It depends many factors, including a stable government and a thriving private sector, which is where the jobs are created that will help to relieve poverty and hunger. As the 2022 Fragile States index shows, too many countries in Africa are either fragile, or heading there. The overlap of fragility with countries where energy access is low and food insecurity high, is remarkable.

Therefore, if countries are to fix their electricity problems, they must also address their governance issues.

The best conditions to develop and maintain a reliable energy supply to industry will be in the countries where there are market solutions and private ownership, and where rule-of-law institutions are empowered against corruption.

Electricity is an important factor in achieving national and regional food and energy security, but it is not the only one. Local energy resources, like coal, oil and gas, and hydropower will help to keep energy affordable for consumers, businesses and farmers, which will also help to contain food insecurity.

Parliamentarians have the ability to ensure that agricultural and industrial innovation, like using local oil and gas for manufacturing modern fertilisers, action against predatory trade practices like dumping and cheap energy access for farmers and food producers become a reality by standing up to those who refuse to finance the development of local energy resources in Africa.

In addressing food security, it is critical to sustain rural livelihoods because Africa’s rural areas are often impoverished, with high unemployment and high poverty levels. As many people, particularly in rural area, are dependent on the money brought in by each wage earner, African policies must support African jobs, not workers in other countries.

Africa has abundant energy resources and should be helped to use them to better effect.