Many headlines from last month’s African Energy Week event in Cape Town were generated by an almost visceral reaction from government representatives to Western suggestions that they should stop developing their oil and gas resources.

However, the potential upside of the energy transition was also widely discussed — particularly due to the continent’s huge endowment of renewable resources, mainly hydro and solar.

Massive green hydrogen projects are afoot in Egypt, Mauritania, Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a rapidly decarbonising Europe the prime export market.

Inga 3 potential

Gunter Nooke, who has been the personal representative in Africa for Germany's outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2010, has been investing a lot of effort into persuading the DR Congo government to move ahead with the massive Inga 3 hydro project on the Congo River.

The idea is for electricity from this long-mooted scheme to be used to generate green hydrogen for export to fast-decarbonising Germany and the European Union.

Inga 3 — also known as Grand Inga — could generate 11.5 gigawatts of low-cost, continuous power from a river basin that holds 13% of the world’s total hydroelectric potential.

Enormous capacity

Nooke said this capacity is far more than current DR Congo and regional demand, opening the way for enough green hydrogen production to power Germany’s steel industry.

“Inga 3 could be the flagship project between Africa and the EU and the starting point for the industrialisation of Central Africa.”

Shenzen of Africa

He said the Congo River delta region where the project would be located has the potential to become “the Shenzen of Africa”, referring to the Chinese city that rapidly developed after it became a special economic zone in the 1990s.

“Africa and Europe should think about these things and not only about oil and gas,” Nooke said. “Africa should deliver green energy for the world. It has huge potential. It’s time to think big.”

However, he cautioned that in the absence of “a legal framework, security, predictability and accountability for investments... the private sector will hesitate to come”.

EU needs green hydrogen

Nooke said the EU “will only be in a position to achieve its ‘green deal’ goals if it builds strong international partnerships that promote sustainable trade relations and green transitions globally”, adding that this means Europe’s net-zero future depends on imported green hydrogen.

He stressed that a comprehensive partnership between Europe and Africa would be decisive to achieving this, but lamented that “so far, it consists of paper only — real joint projects are still missing”.

Inga 3 has over the years been heralded as the foundation of a power network linking Central Africa with the Southern Africa Power Pool.

It is unclear how using the project’s power to underpin the export of green hydrogen — apart from revenue generation — would directly benefit the continent, whose demand for electricity is rising amid a population boom.

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