The African continent faces two distinct, yet kindred problems: energy and food security. In 2021, roughly 570 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lacked access to electricity, resulting from a combination of insufficient installed capacity, grid reliability issues, high electricity costs and inadequate energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, Africa faces a mounting food insecurity crisis, in which over 20% of the population suffers from hunger. According to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, acute food insecurity on the continent has increased by 60% to 100 million Africans in the past year, made worse by COVID-19 and weakened global supply chains, climate change and shifts in agricultural yields, political crises and reduced purchasing power, and ongoing regional conflict and displacement.
Moreover, food insecurity comes at a high cost. According to the African Development Bank, the continent spends $64.5 billion importing food commodities that could be produced locally, including rice, beef, soybeans, sugar and wheat. This figure is projected to increase to $110 billion by 2025. With disruptions from climate change and the pandemic looming, decentralized, renewable energy resources – in which the continent is rich – have emerged as a critical solution to boosting food productivity and establishing more resilient food systems, while decarbonizing the energy system and generating much-needed electricity.
Renewable energy-powered technologies have been proven to mitigate some of the damaging effects of climate change (drought, extreme weather, erratic rainfall, etc.) on food production. Solar water pumps, solar-powered mills and solar-powered refrigeration systems, for example, are able to improve irrigation, agro-processing and cold storage, respectively, by providing reliable, affordable and clean energy to rural farmers. In fact, solar power is estimated to be able to support the irrigation of 6-14 million new hectares, which could augment agricultural yields by up to two- to three-fold, along with reducing irrigation energy costs.
Working examples of this have cropped up – no pun intended – across the continent. In Nigeria, Norwegian impact investor Empower New Energy and West African renewable energy services provider Resource Energy have partnered to link-up a 700 KWp solar photovoltaic plant to Nigeria’s largest egg producer, Premium Poultry Farms. The plant will produce one gigawatt-hour of clean power per year, translating to a reduction of 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime. Signed in December 2020, the project represents one of the largest power purchase agreements for solar energy signed in the C&I sector in Nigeria, as well as the largest single clean energy project in the poultry industry.
In the food retail segment, South Africa’s Tiger Brands, one of Africa’s largest food producers, has announced that it will source 20% of its energy from renewables by 2030, in addition to supporting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of halving global food waste and reducing food losses along the production and supply chain. The company is planning solar and other renewable projects across its divisions, including HPCB, Beverages, King Foods and Hennenman. Similarly, Africa’s Shoprite Group has installed more than one million square feet of solar panels on the rooftops of its stores, distribution centers and other facilities. The large-scale food retailer is also purchasing renewable energy from utility-scale power plants operated by a third-party energy supplier, and plans to source roughly 20% of the total electricity it consumes from renewables by 2027.
From primary agriculture to secondary retail and consumer sectors, renewable energy and associated clean energy technologies can and should be harnessed to enhance agricultural productivity and attain food security not only in Africa, but also across the Global South.