Academic journal article African Economic History

Electricity Access Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1950–2000

Academic journal article African Economic History

Electricity Access Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1950–2000

Article excerpt

Introduction

As scholars attempt to explain sub-Saharan Africa's struggle to achieve long term growth since 1950, one element which ought to be taken into account in a quantitative way is that the majority of Africans have not had access to an electricity grid and instead rely on kerosene, diesel, and firewood.1 Importantly, this widespread-but not complete-lack of access is not only a marker of underdevelopment, but is also a measure of inequality, which is even greater in times of high fuel prices and increasing deforestation. This article makes both methodological and empirical contributions to the limited existing literature attempting to explain historical electricity access rates and its implications, focusing exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa. It shows why the historical electricity access rates presently available cannot be used together to form a historical series accurately measuring access over time, and that a new database is needed. Even without a complete historical database of access levels, however, this article is able to make an empirical contribution by using lending documents to analyze the evidence for the history of electricity access across four country-specific case studies, and demonstrates the role that government electricity policy and large scale industry, among other factors, played in determining access inequality.

According to the International Energy Agency, modern electrification rates, broadly defined as the percentage of the population with access to electricity, are approximately 32 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, the lowest of any continent.2 The share is heavily biased against rural and toward urban populations, which have rates of 17 percent and 59 percent respectively. Significantly, using the same source, the differences in electrification are just as striking between countries in Africa. Excluding South Africa, which is already significantly electrified3 at about 85 percent, there is a cluster of western African countries with relatively very high rates of 45-75 percent, which includes Côte D'Ivoire,4 Ghana, Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, and Senegal. In contrast, there is a cluster of East African countries which have rates of about 25 percent or less, which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. Although there is a generally positive relationship between current electrification rates and key economic and social indicators including GDP per capita and urbanization in some African countries, and it is cheaper to electrify urban residents, as with those other indicators these variations can be difficult to explain: there is no existing simple historical explanation for why, for example, Cameroon enjoys electrification of more than 50 percent and Uganda 15 percent, in spite of its clear significance for productivity and inequality in both countries.

Thanks to recent work done by scholars such as Eberhard and his coauthors, 5 current electrification rates from international agencies including the International Energy Agency and the World Bank have undergone some scrutiny and are usually the "best available" set of indicators of the current situation, acknowledging that they are incomplete, since access often does not reflect electricity consumption or service quality. Scholars can have far less confidence in historical data on electricity access, which suffers from even more acute measurement problems, and no long-term historical series of electricity access rates across Africa is yet available. This means that it has been challenging to gauge the important and very real effect that uneven electricity access has had on inequality, and from that the effect of this inequality on growth and economic development. Data on historical economic inequality is poor almost everywhere,6and in Africa worst of all. Indeed, there is little historical data about the role of infrastructure and fixed capital more broadly, which can be used to analyze patterns of income in Africa, and, except for railways, the area has often been either ignored or misunderstood by scholars. …

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