Sub-Saharan Africa urgently needs an energy Marshall Plan to provide electricity to some 600 million citizens and replace wood as a cooking fuel for 850 million people, according to an executive with decades of energy experience in the continent.

The Marshall Plan was a US programme that provided billions of dollars to bankrupt European nations to help reconstruction efforts after the devastation of World War 2.

Africa is now in a similar situation, with Covid-19 bankrupting most states, a major proportion of whose fast-growing populations have no access to electricity, let alone clean cooking fuels.

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Louis van Pletsen, founder of investment group InAfrica Holdings, told the Africa Energy Indaba webinar last month of his frustration with the continuing lack of political will to resolve this problem once and for all.

“We don’t see a solution in the form of a Marshall Plan to wipe it out. We don’t deal with the fact that 850 million Africans live without electricity. We don’t deal with the fact that more than 400,000 people die every year in Africa because of indoor pollution," he said.

Van Pletsen — who has been in the energy industry since 1986, with stints at South Africa’s state-owned utility Eskom, Credit Suisse bank, private equity player Denham Capital and energy investor Quantum Power — added that biomass usage “results in 2 million hectares of trees being destroyed every year".

He contrasted the lack of effort expended on addressing this issue with how governments all around the world pulled out the financial stops to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“When Covid-19 came, the world had a combined onslaught to attack this issue," van Pletsen said.

"No stone was left unturned. Debt increases of 15% to 20% happened overnight and it was attacked from all angles possible.

“If we wanted to attack (Africa’s power and clean fuel problem) in the same way we attacked Covid-19, the issue would have been gone.”

Africa’s estimated death toll of 60,000 from Covid-19 represents just 12% of fatalities from indoor pollution.

The longer that governments fail to address the electricity and clean-fuel problem, and the faster Africa’s population grows, many more people risk premature death from pollution.

Over the past three years alone, Africa’s population increased by 100 million to hit 1.37 billion, with government efforts to provide electricity and clean fuels unable to keep pace with this growth.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 853 million people in Africa relied on charcoal and wood to cook in 2018 — all but 5 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This heavy reliance on biomass causes almost 490,000 premature deaths each year due to household air pollution and accelerates deforestation, says the IEA, which is now worried that Covid-19 threatens to reverse even the meagre inroads made so far into providing clean fuel and electricity in Africa.

Daniel Schroth, director of renewable energy at the African Development Bank (ADB), is also concerned, telling the virtual Africa Energy Indaba that after a five-year fall in the number of people without electricity, 2020 saw an increase.

“It’s a trend we don’t want to see. We need to address that challenge,” Schroth said.

But he noted grimly that “even without Covid, we were nowhere near getting to the target of universal access to electricity and clean cooking solutions by 2030".

The ADB executive highlighted how increased unemployment during the pandemic has meant fewer people can pay for power, badly impacting the already shaky finances of state-owned utilities.

However, on a positive note, he said the pandemic has released a wave of renewable energy investments and is accelerating decarbonisation initiatives.

“Decentralised energy provision has a key role to play,” believes Schroth, with smart grids and digitalisation offering “a huge opportunity for Africa to be at the forefront of the energy transition”.

Andre de Ruyter, chief executive of Eskom, South Africa’s struggling state-owned utility, said: “Prosperity in Africa will not happen without access to green and clean energy. We cannot provide cheap energy at the expense of environmental impact.”

Nevertheless, countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana will not quickly stop using coal as a power source, because a “just” energy transition is needed, said the Eskom boss.

“We cannot simply pull the plug on coal and pretend it never existed. We must offer a pathway to the coal mining industry so it sees that it has a future.”

For Eskom, this could involve adapting its 30 coal-fired power stations to run on gas, while also investing in solar and wind.

“We need to take up the cudgels to drive a new energy future for South Africa, and we need to establish green energy technology manufacturing capacity, rather than importing kit,” said De Ruyter.

He also argued that South Africa needs “co-ordinated smart policies to capitalise on a great opportunity”, highlighting the importance of allowing private power providers access to the grid, a process that has just begun.