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Climate change: A crisis and an opportunity for Africa


Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

While climate change presents as a dire threat to Africa and its peoples, it is also a critical opportunity for transitioning African societies to more sustainable and prosocial outcomes, without undergoing the industrialisation trajectory of the Global North.

As the onset of global climate change impacts have escalated, the awareness that “something must be done” about climate change has acquired a new urgency. Moreover, climate change impacts’ great reach into and interconnectivity with myriad human and natural systems on the planet is cause for grave concern.

The scale and complexity of the challenge is threatening and bewildering at the same time. It is little wonder that it presents as a discourse of heightened vulnerability that overwhelms individuals and organisations – across sectors – engendering a sense of “stuckness” and foreboding.

Yet, hidden amid the whirlpool of media and expert-driven climate-crisis narratives lies profound cause for hope. The climate crisis presents an opportunity for meaningful developmental change, particularly in the regions that most require it on the planet. This is particularly the case in Africa. While climate change presents as a dire threat to Africa and its peoples, it is also a critical opportunity for transitioning African societies to more sustainable and prosocial outcomes without undergoing the industrialisation trajectory that the Global North has (i.e., via the Industrial Revolution).

‘Game-changing’ technologies

The mainstream discourse on mitigation against – and adaptation to – climate change in Africa revolves around medium- to large-scale responses such as independent power producers that feed into national electricity grids, supplementing existing electricity supplies and lowering the overall greenhouse gas and environmental footprints of energy supply. However, little attention is paid to the “game-changing” low-cost, small-scale renewable energies and green technology solutions that have the potential to scale much-needed basic service provisions among the vast majority of Africans who do not have access to formal bulk infrastructures. This is particularly the case in Africa’s cities, which were growing at the fastest rates in the world just over a decade ago, and are likely to continue to do so.

Yet African cities exhibit the highest percentages of residents living in slums and informal settlements in the world – in 2010 this was estimated to be just under 62% in sub-Saharan Africa (i.e., 200 million people) – ranging between 60 and 80% in general across the cities of east, central and west Africa. African cities are dominated by slums and informal settlements, lack bulk infrastructures and commensurate service provisions, exhibit piecemeal planning, uneven spatial development patterns and high levels of informality in trade, employment, service provision and production.

Implementing bulk infrastructures in these contexts is likely to face acute local resistance because it necessitates large-scale removals that “sweep away the poor”. Moreover, bulk infrastructures are extremely costly, and their costs escalate over time, which make them inappropriate go-to solutions for African countries and cities.

Most African households – whether urban or rural – suffer from lack of access to/from bulk infrastructures, which typically provide irregular services. In turn, services are supplemented by private and informal sector vendors who typically charge the poor higher prices.

Since the mid-2000s the scholarly and development discourse on Africa and its cities exhibited a shift away from centralised planning regimes and bulk infrastructure provisions, towards promoting an “in-situ” developmental approach that brings small-scale solutions to localities, implemented in households, neighbourhoods and districts.

Renewable energies and green technologies are typically decentralised and semi-decentralised, rendering them appropriate and suitable solutions for in-situ development in slums and informal settlements in particular. Their key advantages are as follows. First, they provide services immediately after installation because they function independently of bulk infrastructures, mitigating against the long (almost decade-long) waiting times to be linked to bulk infrastructures. Second, they can be scaled up at local scales. Third, they can eventually be linked to bulk energy infrastructure grids actualising a “prosumer”-driven energy system over time.

Moreover, the roll-out of many of these renewable and green technologies does not require university-level qualifications to instal, service and maintain, but can be achieved through directing shorter-term skills and certification programmes at the majority unemployed (i.e., around 60%) youth bulge on the continent. This small-scale decentralised infrastructure-led boom has the potential to significantly catalyse the growth of small to medium-sized enterprises at local scales, driving cash-flow circulation where it is needed most in African societies.

Moreover, by leveraging the offerings enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) the roll-out of decentralised renewables and green technologies can be supported by: lower-cost education and skills development programmes; inclusive financial service provisions such as micro-credit, banking and insurance; additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing); improved efficiencies through mobilising real-time data synthesis and analytics to manage material and resource flows; smart logistical systems; and yet-to-emerge innovations that are nascent but promising 4IR developments (e.g., in smart materials).

The convergence of green technologies, renewable energies and 4IR offerings hosts the potential to unlock systems solutions that are customised to specific contexts and their needs and opportunity spaces. Hence, what is being proposed here is not simply manufacturing these technologies but leveraging them to devise customisable, systems-level solutions that specifically cater to implementation contexts.

African middle-class beneficiaries

A key beneficiary segment of this small-scale infrastructure boom is the African middle class, who live on $2.20 per day and is hence differentiated from the global middle class, who live on $10–100 per day. In 2010 the African middle class amounted to around 34% of the African population. However, 60% of this 34% live on $2–4 per day. This is marginally higher than the approximately 50% of Africans living below the global poverty line (i.e., $1.25 per day), rendering the African middle class essentially a precariat that frequently plunges into and out of poverty.  

Poor and middle-class African household budgets are particularly sensitive to what has been termed the “food-water-energy nexus” (which includes transport costs), with 50 to 70% of household budgets attributed to nexus costs. Stabilising middle-class household budgets can be achieved through the absorption of the proposed small-scale infrastructure boom proposed in this piece. These green and renewable technologies speak directly to stabilising this nexus, shielding households from the double- and triple-squeeze effects resulting from exogenous changes in regional and global contexts. Complementary large-scale infrastructures, such as public transit systems, can also be considered alongside small-scale infrastructures.

This opportunity space constitutes an important avenue for development on the African continent, one that remains a neglected direction in the developmental responses that are being mounted in response to climate change on the African continent. Yet it hosts significant potential to drive broader scale transitions to sustainability from the bottom-up.

It is necessary for philanthropic and business funders, civil society, the state and government and subject-matter experts to forge lasting partnerships to take this agenda to scale across the continent.

By reimagining how we respond to climate change on the continent, focusing on the developmental needs of those who need it the most and leveraging the pragmatic offerings argued for in this piece, significant cause for hope arises in respect of how we can respond to climate change while achieving prosocial developmental outcomes.

And this is not empty hope. It is hope that is based on a careful, evidence-based analysis of a key gap in our response to climate change. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Due to a lack of concrete examples and speaking in generalities makes this article quite difficult to understand, especially for our badly and disinterested politicians and service providers.

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