By Ryan Witton
According to the International Energy Agency’s 2019 Africa Energy Outlook, some 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity (that’s 75% of the global total), and around 900 million lack access to clean cooking. Despite this, the population without electricity access is in fact falling thanks mostly to the speedy energy transitions of a small number of leading countries, particularly Kenya, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana and Ethiopia. Electrification in these countries has been implemented through grid connections and a rapid rise in off-grid systems such as the solutions provided by Bboxx.
At the turn of the century, Africa’s installed renewable energy capacity was around 22 gigawatts (GW) – a sharp contrast to the 189GW capacity in Europe the same year (a continent with 85 million fewer people). In the two decades since, Africa’s installed generation has more than doubled to over 53GW and is continuing with strong momentum. Just take a look at recent officially launched projects like Kipeto‘s 100MW wind farm in Kenya or AMEA Power’s 50MW solar PV power plant in Togo.
We all know that access to electricity brings a host of economic and social benefits to high-growth nations, but the full worth of providing these clean sources of energy in rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be realised. While the physical health challenges of traditional fuels for generators and cooking is widely examined, the strain on mental health is granted much less consideration.
Let us look at the case of Teresia Olotai, a Maasai mother of six and senior ‘Mama’ of Lobulu, a tiny rural enclosure (or “boma”) in Tanzania. Like the other women in Lobulu, life without electricity for Teresia was challenging. In the darkest hours of the night, she risked falling on stones or unwittingly stepping on venomous snakes. She has had to deliver babies in the dark, and when her children woke at night, she fed and changed them by touch. Candles and kerosene lamps posed a potential fire hazard in her wooden hut. This was until Teresia and her boma became part of a USAID Power Africa Project to install rural solar micro-grids.
For rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, the introduction of access to clean electricity has undoubtedly led to positive impacts in physical wellbeing. Electrified health centres are able to offer extended service hours, laboratory testing and vaccine refrigeration. In the home, there is less illness from indoor smoke inhalation and fewer burns from traditional cookstoves. The physical strain attached to carrying heavy loads of wood or kerosene, along with a danger of physical assault during collection (especially for young girls) is also diminished. Increased access to health and hygiene information via TV, radio, and the internet can be greatly beneficial. But let us also consider the psychological traumas arising from these same situations.
The concept of wellbeing runs far deeper than what can be ostensibly observed at a purely physical level. Studies in renewable energy interventions, predominantly solar and hydro pico-, micro-, and mini-grids, have revealed positive mental impacts for rural people that emanate from a lower perceived risk of injury or illness. Examples of these risk reductions are increased security inside and outside the home from thieves or wild animals with improved lighting, or a lower chance of illness, injury and property damage from burning kerosene indoors.
Women have reported better sleep at night knowing that they had safe lighting for emergency situations, especially involving their children. Connectivity through improved access to mobile phones is a huge boon to mental health, and communities are able to celebrate their new-found ability to stay connected to loved ones, friends, and family when they are able to charge phones at home, rather than walk and bus to town and pay a vendor.
Lighting facilitates communal and family gatherings, extended study hours and has been revealed to reduce the risk of domestic violence because households are generally happier with increased light. Regions where public services have been improved and street lighting has been provided offer the greatest community wellbeing benefits, with increased safety outdoors and more opportunities for communal gatherings and entertainment after hours. And of course all of this has an impact on economic growth.
The worry or stress felt from the risk of injury, sickness, or lack of sleep can in many ways be more ubiquitous than the physical harm itself. It is therefore crucial that these implicit, as-yet-unquantifiable impacts to mental wellbeing be given just as much focus as physical impacts when planning renewable energy projects and micro-grids in rural sub-Saharan communities.