Closing Africa’s energy access gap: renewables and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Interview to Marco Aresti of RES4Africa Foundation

Marco Aresti is the Access 2 Energy Program Manager of RES4Africa Foundation, an organization that promotes the deployment of large-scale and decentralized renewable energy solutions in African countries to meet local energy needs for growth.

RES4Africa maintains a network of international leaders from across the clean energy value chain and supports the creation of an enabling environment for renewable energy investments and strategic partnerships. Previously, Marco worked for more than 8 years for Enel Green Power, on the development of renewable energy projects in emerging markets, such as Brazil and Romania.

1. What role does energy access play in sustainable development in Africa? Tell us about the WEF nexus initiatives that RES4Africa is promoting.

If sustainable development is the engine for growth in Africa, we believe that renewable energy is the fuel for this growth. In other words, access to clean, affordable, and reliable energy is essential for sustainable development. The “Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus” is an innovative approach that integrates key components to confront Africa’s energy access gap.

We believe that linking the water, energy and food sectors has an important impact as it includes a group of necessities under a single integrated vision for the continent. Increasing access to clean energy is now combined with water and food, enabling productive uses of energy that allows long-term sustainable economic growth. In the past, this didn’t happen: traditionally, energy was seen as a single commodity, so the energy sector was only dealing with energy, the water sector was only dealing with water, and so on. A combined approach did not exist; now, the nexus approach invites the actors of these three sectors to work together under one vision. (Click here to see WEF flagship video).

The impact of an integrated WEF project is not just the sum of the impacts on the three different sectors (linear impact: 1+1+1=3): it’s a synergic multiplication effect that makes the impact exponential (1+1+1=9). (Click here to see WEF study).

2. What opportunities do you see in the deployment of renewable energy solutions in African countries?

We can look at this from two points of view. One is that through the use of renewable energy the African continent can leapfrog the electrification process that was necessary through fossil fuels. So African countries can move from scarce or non-existent access to energy directly to access to renewable energy, skipping a long and costly process. From another viewpoint, African countries can have direct access to technology with very low environmental impact, thus not contributing further to climate change. Another important point is the great opportunity for investors. Having a region with significant on-going challenges and lack of access to energy brings ground-breaking investment opportunities for local and international investors that aim to invest in renewable energy.

3. What do you believe are the main barriers that are preventing energy access and deployment of renewable energy solutions in Africa?

The main barriers are definitely related to regulation, but the lack of knowledge and understanding of renewable energy technologies is also relevant. For instance, in a recent mission to Ethiopia, energy technicians from a local institution explained to me that the first option when thinking about energy access is the acquisition of a diesel generator. Why does this happen? Because people are not familiar with the potential benefits and applications of renewable energy solutions. So when the main barrier is culture and know-how, some misconceptions arise, such as the idea that renewable energy technologies are not programmable, that they create problems for the energy grid, that they are expensive, and so on.

Also, in a recent conference, a Vice-Minister for Energy of an important African country was still mentioning old misconceptions such as intermittency and lack of programming of renewable energy. But nowadays, we have to think in a different way: Is it better to have an energy source that is easily programmable, but that has a negative impact in terms of environmental damage and climate change, or should we invest in an energy source that is a bit more complex in its management, but that doesn’t have such a detrimental environmental impact? So this cultural rationale is what is driving people’s choices, and is also what is affecting the existence, or lack of, a regulatory framework, that allows the deployment of renewable energy solutions.

4. What do you believe are the main drivers that can facilitate energy access investments in Africa? 

The main driver is the “energy gap”. There is a huge demand for energy, particularly electricity, and this energy is needed to perform essential activities for the wellbeing of a community, and also for productive uses, and therefore this is an important driver that needs the right investor willing to take the chance. The market is there but is still missing the “magic ingredient” that allows low-income populations to afford the energy to successfully run their businesses. Once the regulatory frameworks are in place, this will open the market to private initiatives which will help new innovative business models to flourish, which will, in turn, drive a massive deployment of renewable energy in the region.

5. What kind of partnerships can be useful for facilitating energy access investments in Sub-Saharan Africa? What do you believe a successful partnership looks like?

For us in the international renewable energy sector, the key partners are locals and are mainly the governments in each country, but we are also looking for diverse type of partners, such as private companies dealing with the productive use of energy, which can be complementary to the energy sector. For instance, we look for partners in the water sector, because activities such as irrigation need a significant amount of energy. We are also looking for partners in the agri-food sector where there are many productive activities that also require a considerable amount of energy and it is very common to see the use of diesel generators for cooling and processing, with high social, environmental and economic impacts.

On the other hand, we are not neglecting the bottom of the pyramid, and we are collaborating with development organizations both from the United Nations and from the NGO sector, to share our expertise in the energy field and strengthen the impact of their projects.

So our main partners are entities that use energy for productive activities.

In complex projects, where we have several entities involved, each actor invests for its specific part of the project and is then responsible for their own activities, but under the context of a single project. In smaller projects, there is only one leader/owner and in this case, we just provide the technological solutions.

6. Tell us more about RES4Africa Foundation, who are you and what do you do? 

RES4Africa Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that gathers a member network from across the renewable energy value chain. Our mission is to create enabling environments for renewable energy investments in African countries to meet local energy needs for growth. By creating knowledge about renewable energy technologies among African stakeholders, we support the private sector in their future investments. We also support our members by facilitating dialogue with local African institutions and organizations, thus creating favourable environments for investments, that are beneficial for investors but also for local stakeholders as they respond to their needs.

We do this through various activities, mainly through dissemination, advocacy and capacity building, which is done at an institutional level in the energy sector mainly targeting the middle management. Every year our Advanced Training Course (ATC) in Milan trains around 40 middle managers from African energy companies on all the technical, legal and commercial aspects of renewable energy technologies.

Also, our Micro-Grid Academy (MGA) is a vocational training project based in Kenya that also hosts sessions in other East-African countries. It provides theoretical and practical training on energy access and decentralised renewable energy solutions for young, international technicians, entrepreneurs and engineers, in the energy sector and also the water and food sector, so they can gain the base knowledge about mini-grid technologies.

The MGA was created considering that many of our worldwide partners, in regions such as Africa and Latin America, have developed mini-grids, but unfortunately, from a commercial and economic point of view, they are difficult to sustain. So before developing new mini-grid plants with more impactful development, we suggest first preparing and educating their local technicians, so they will manage current projects, but also be the protagonists of future projects and develop the future of decentralized renewable energy solutions.

Our approach is cultural, not commercial: this means we do not sell products, but we explain and communicate the advantages of renewable energy solutions in comparison with conventional and traditional energy sources. For instance, we aim to provide an understanding of how fast renewable energy projects can be deployed: a photovoltaic energy project can be executed in less than a year from the moment a client requests it, while a nuclear plant requires at least 10 years to be implemented. We also aim to explain the effective costs that a renewable energy project can have. RES4Africa has an open-source methodology, which means all the materials and research we produce are open and free to access for anyone interested in learning about renewable energy technologies. People can download our material with complete transparency. Our mission is to spread that know-how.

Shareable information:

Africa’s Future Counts – RES4Africa 2019 Flagship Report

Applying the Water-Energy-Food Nexus approach to catalyse transformational change in Africa

Water-energy-food nexus: join the partnership!