The African Renewable Energy Initiative: Promoting People-Centred Energy Solutions

Environmental Learning Center in Kédougou, Kedougou, Senegal

According to the African Development Bank, more than 640 million Africans live without electricity. This translates to an access rate of just over 40 percent, the lowest in world. The entire continent's installed power-generation capacity of 160 gigawatts (GW) is less than what Germany generates alone. The insufficient access to electricity not only has negative impacts on the population's health and education outcomes but also increases the cost of doing business and hampers economic growth.

As a result, the energy sector has become a key priority in the discourse about the infrastructure gap on the continent. Several international policy initiatives have been launched to boost Africa's energy production. One of them, the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), aims to increase renewable power generation capacity to 300 GW by 2030. This ambitious initiative was launched at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 to make a tangible contribution to climate protection, to help shift energy production away from fossil fuels, and to support a people-centred development path led by African and community priorities.

Tasneem Essop, a civil society activist who has been engaged with AREI since before its of cial launch, took some time out to speak about the initiative, its prospects, and budding threats to its success.

HBF: What makes the AREI different from the many other initiatives in the energy sector?

Essop: There are a number of important aspects that make the African Renewable Energy Initiative different from other energy initiatives in its original intentions. Firstly, its conceptualisation was largely "homegrown". Emanating from the work of the Africa Group in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with support from other African and non-African stakeholders, and then its passage through decision-making bodies like the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, and nally its adoption by the heads of states in the African Union – this initiative is led and owned by Africans.

Secondly, unlike other initiatives, AREI's aim is to be truly transformational. As such, the initiative promotes the concept of people-centred energy – energy that is clean, appropriate and affordable. This means that every effort will be made to reach poor people who are off the national grids, giving them the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and overall welfare. Therefore, unlike other initiatives, AREI supports a very diverse range of renewable energy technology options as well as applications. This includes solar; wind; pico-, micro-, small- and medium-scale hydro; modern biomass; geothermal; and marineprovided they are socially and environmentally appropriate and gender-sensitive. AREI has adopted criteria for safeguards that will form part of its screening process when making decisions about support for any projects or programmes.

However, the developmental approach that AREI adopts does not only deal with access to energy by households and families, but also includes the need to drive productive sectors at all levels to promote job creation, enterprise development and economic development.
As a last observation, AREI developed its framework through the active engagement of other key stakeholders in Africa, including civil society, the private sector, youth and women.

Ultimately, the aim is to benefit all countries in Africa, supporting projects that are country-driven while also adopting a programmatic approach, rather than purely a project-based approach, to implementation.

What are some of its milestones and what has been achieved so far?

AREI is currently still in the establishment phase of its work plan, which will last till the end of this year. During this year, Phase 2 of the work plan will also start being implemented. Lasting up to 2020, this involves the screening and funding of projects and programmes that will contribute towards 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy-generation capacity. Phase 3, which is planned for 2020 to 2030, will see the full scaled-up implementation of transformative projects and programmes at national levels contributing to the achievement of the 300 GW target by 2030.

Since the launch of the AREI in December 2015, the following key milestones, amongst others, have already been achieved: a group of ten donor countries committed to mobilise 10 billion Euros towards the implementation of the targets set for the AREI; an independent delivery unit was established and has been operational since August 2016 with the appointment of a head of the unit as well as a number of technical experts; and the development of AREI criteria for project approval and funding has been nalised.

National initiatives have often proved to be more effective to get actual projects off the ground – South Africa's Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme is a good example. What is the added value of AREI's multilateral approach?

There is no contradiction between the AREI and national renewable energy plans and programmes. National country-driven and -owned programmes form the basis of AREI support, depending on whether these are in line with the principles, precepts and criteria adopted by AREI. Country initiatives can certainly benefit from the conceptual framework and model of AREI. South Africa's Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, while successful, is merely one approach to the delivery of renewable energy. It is private-sector-driven, with mainly foreign ownership, and at this point, grid connected. AREI presents other options for the delivery of renewable energy that South Africa can benefit from. Decentralised, off-grid and community-owned is certainly an important model for South Africa since this presents much more opportunity for local economic development, poverty reduction and livelihood creation, and real community empowerment.

What will the initiative's future success depend on?

From the inception of the AREI, one of the main concerns of African civil society representatives involved in the conceptualisation and consultations was that this initiative remains in the hands of Africans, to be led and owned by Africa. This was based on our experiences of other initiatives, which were either donor-driven or controlled by multilateral development banks. The power relations in many of these initiatives were unequal and, in most cases, the donors themselves determined projects with little or no engagement or agreement from recipient countries or communities. This is the history of aid in Africa. With the AREI, we saw a break from this model.

Unfortunately, at the time of this interview, this threat has already become a reality. At the last meeting of the AREI board in March, France and the EU Commission managed to "hijack" the initiative with the support of two African heads of state. They tabled a list of 19 projects (many of which were already on the cards) and this list was adopted by the Board without going through the necessary screening process of AREI or meeting the important principle of being countryowned and -led or African-owned and -led. Adding fuel to fire, the EU Commission also seconded two European technical experts to join the independent delivery unit and to drive the work plan and delivery of these projects. This was a de facto vote of no confidence in the African head of the unit and the African technical experts already appointed.

As we speak, there is a concerted campaign by African civil society against this pernicious move by the European donor countries. A petition has been circulated at national and regional levels, with over two hundred African civil society organisations having signed on already, and the plan is to deliver these to African heads of state and relevant ministers. In addition, a similar initiative is being implemented amongst European civil society organisations.

This latest move by the EU is scandalous – and this at a time when there has been massive pushback by governments and civil society about donor-recipient relationships and the model of development linked to this. At a recent Think Tank 20 Conference for Africa, in preparation for the G20 meeting under the German presidency, one key outcome was the call for a code of conduct between donor countries and Africa. The African voices in that conference were strong in their call for respect for Africa's ability to lead and own its development. AREI should have been such a flagship for Africa's development. With this move by the EU, this could all be lost.

I, for one, join the call of African civil society for the EU to take its hands off AREI and for African heads of state to once again assert their control over the initiative in the spirit of its principles. Providing nancial support to this initiative is not an act of charity by donor countries. It is an obligation as captured in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and further agreed to in the COP 21 Paris Agreement.

AREI, if implemented in the manner defined in the framework document, is truly inspirational. This initiative is far too important to be derailed now. African civil society, the private sector and all those committed to Africa's development need to rise up against this and any future attempts to control the agenda. Africa's time has come.


Tasneem Essop is the founding director of the Energy Democracy Initiative in South Africa. Prior to this, she headed the climate work in WWF International. She is also a commissioner in the National Planning Commission of South Africa. Before joining WWF in 2008, she held the positions of provincial minister of the environment, planning and economic development and provincial minister of transport, public works and property management in the Western Cape province of South Africa.