Each and every day throughout sub-Saharan Africa, some 600 million people - or two-thirds of the region's population - are still living without access to electricity and other modern energy services. In rural communities, that number climbs to a startling 85 percent.
While Africans in urban areas have greater access to electricity, the service is typically intermittent and unreliable. A simple flicker of the lights may signal a power outage that may last a few hours or even several days in some urban cities. In remote, rural communities across the continent, a majority of families are still cooking their daily meals and heating their homes with wood, coal, charcoal, and animal waste. By nightfall, these communities are completely covered in darkness.
The human cost of work productivity due to the lack of access to electricity cannot be underestimated. Africa will continue to lag behind other continents in global competitiveness and economic growth if its population lacks adequate access to power, threatening any significant economic progress.
The lack of access to energy significantly impacts African young professionals. For AAI, our core mission is to advance higher education and professional development training for Africans. Today, young people in Africa make up nearly 40 percent of the working age population, yet 60 percent are unemployed. The McKinsey Global Institute Report estimates that Africa will add 122 million to its labor force between 2010 and 2020, creating a labor force of more than 500 million across the continent.
Increasing energy access has the potential to boost sustainable development and growth as well as build human capital on the African continent. Simply put, energy access allows people to live a better life. Without electricity, entrepreneurs are not able to gain access to market information and technologies to expand their businesses; worker productivity and health care markedly drop without health care clinics and hospitals equipped with modern medical technologies and services; and schools are not able to prepare students for a knowledge-based economy.
Launched in June 2013, President Barack Obama's "Power Africa" hopes to bring reliable, sustainable energy to millions in sub-Saharan Africa by addressing gaps in the continent's energy sector. The new U.S. initiative will commit $7 billion over the next five years to support the energy needs of six African countries, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
Accelerating access to energy, particularly clean, renewable resources such as wind, water, the sun, and biomass among others, is a win-win in building human capital on the continent: it reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change for a healthier population, while promoting Africa's work productivity and economic growth.
The "Power Africa" initiative has the potential to make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of Africans. Collectively, the private and public sectors must work together to strengthen Africa's technical infrastructure to expand access to energy, leading to greater opportunities and job creation on the African continent.