How the mobile sector can help expand clean energy access and drive Sub-Saharan Africa’s development goals

Energy and mobile connectivity are fundamental to modern societies. Across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), essential services like water, transport, health care, and banking require reliable digital and energy services to function. Reliable mobile connectivity is especially critical given less than 1% of households in the region have fixed broadband.

Across SSA, many households and businesses, including mobile operators, lack access to electricity and face frequent power outages and soaring energy costs. Unless addressed, these challenges jeopardise the delivery of key digital and sustainable development goals in the region. Access to clean and reliable energy is also needed to deliver on net zero commitments made by governments and mobile network operators in the region.

Over the past few months, we surveyed and spoke with mobile operators and ICT policymakers and regulators from across the region to better understand the extent and impacts of energy challenges on mobile connectivity.

Key findings from the research are presented in a new GSMA report, Energy Challenges for Mobile Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa, available in English and French.

The report was launched at a Policy Leaders Forum session at MWC Kigali, where we hosted a panel discussion among senior representatives from the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority of the Gambia, the World Bank, and Vodacom.

Energy Challenges for Mobile Operators in Sub-Saharan Africa

Unreliable grids limit connectivity and hinder digital and economic development

The GSMA survey of operators and governments in SSA found that mobile networks face frequent power outages, high energy costs, and a lack of access to grids and renewables. Nearly all operators surveyed had faced multiple power outages per week over the past year.

These challenges are indicative of the broader energy challenges in the region. Despite some progress over the past decade, half the population – around 600 million people – still lack access to electricity.

With limited and unreliable grids, the region relies heavily on diesel generators. In fact, diesel backup capacity nearly matches grid capacity in the region, and in almost half of SSA countries, diesel backup exceeds grid capacity.

During the panel discussion, Yusupha Jobe, Director General of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority of the Gambia, noted that poor energy reliability has meant that most mobile sites in the Gambia rely on diesel generators, with high and rising fuel costs negatively impacting operators and customers.

Although some countries enjoy vast hydro and renewable resources, fossil fuels still generate two-thirds of the region’s overall grid electricity, making some countries especially vulnerable to high and volatile fossil fuel prices. Electricity prices in several African countries, adjusted for purchasing power, are among the highest in the world.

Isabel Neto, Head of Digital Development for Eastern and Southern Africa at the World Bank underscored the importance of affordable energy for societies and development: “Nothing is possible without energy – basically everything in our modern societies needs energy.”

Rising costs are delaying network expansion and upgrades

Almost all mobile operators we surveyed had increased diesel generator use, installed batteries, or implemented energy efficiency measures to maintain connectivity for customers.

Nola Richards, Vodacom’s Group Executive Head of ESG & Sustainable Business, highlighted how the nature of mobile networks exacerbated energy challenges: “Because of the distributed nature of mobile networks – covering thousands of sites – the lack of energy access is a particularly difficult challenge.”

Some of these measures have come at significant cost – for example, electricity from diesel generators can cost three to four times more than grid electricity in many African countries. Theft and vandalism of batteries and generators have also increased, impacting service availability and costs. These additional costs have delayed investment in network expansion and newer technologies.

Innovative solutions highlight the potential for collaboration and private sector investment

Addressing key energy challenges for mobile networks requires collaboration and action from many stakeholders.

Mobile network operators need to continue to implement near-term solutions with on-site solar and batteries, while equipment providers should focus on designing more energy efficient and resilient solutions for the future. Operators can also discuss shared challenges and collaborate on solutions. For instance, in South Africa, exemptions to competition law now allow operators to work together to jointly procure and share backup power and security.

Mobile operators are also developing innovative solutions to address energy challenges at a broader scale. In South Africa, Vodacom worked with Eskom and the government to develop an innovative solution that allows companies to access renewable energy from independent power producers through a digital platform, helping to boost renewable energy generation and reduce outages.

Ms. Neto mentioned the difficult financial situation of many utilities in the region, hindering investment. With their financial stability and stable, long-term demand for energy, mobile operators are well placed to be reliable partners in new mini-grid and large power projects.

Enabling policies and market designs are keys to success

The panellists highlighted the critical enabling role that governments can play by implementing policies and designing electricity markets to support investments in clean energy.

Mr. Jobe said that renewables are a key solution to energy challenges in the Gambia and referenced recent changes in laws and regulations to allow independent power producers to enter the market. As a regulator of both energy and telecommunications, he also stressed the importance of seeking synergies in regulation and policies between the two sectors.

Ms. Neto highlighted some success cases in the region. Kenya and Uganda have progressed quickly on energy access and renewables, with more than 90% of electricity in Kenya now generated from renewables. In Uganda, generation from hydro has nearly tripled since 2010.

Another bright spot is Namibia, which has emerged as a leader on solar thanks to policies that have attracted investment. The country opened to independent power producers in 2015 and has since introduced competitive auctions and implemented further policy reforms. Solar now accounts for a quarter of the country’s grid mix, up from just 2% in 2014.

Unlocking the clean energy potential of Africa

There is significant potential to further scale up renewables across the region, and mobile network operators stand ready as willing buyers. Despite being home to more than half of the world’s best solar resources, Africa holds just 1% of the world’s installed solar PV capacity and attracts less than 2% of global spending on clean energy.

Governments can look to recent successful examples in Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa for how policies have catalysed private sector investment, and tailor solutions to their country contexts. Deeper public-private engagement is needed to accelerate clean energy progress across Sub-Saharan Africa. This, in turn, will unleash the power of digital to achieve the region’s development goals.

The future of Sub-Saharan Africa’s development hinges on these collaborative efforts, where governments, development institutions, and the private sector – including mobile operators –play pivotal roles in driving change to realise the immense potential of the region.