Covid-19 leaves Africa with the least new generation capacity since 2013, with sub-Saharan Africa worst hit

19 May 2021

Key findings

  • An African Energy Live Data update shows that only 7,706MW net new capacity was added in the whole of Africa in 2020, the lowest since 2013
  • Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, saw the lowest capacity growth since 2008, with only 1,584MW added
  • Natural gas was the most popular technology, with a net 3.2GW added, almost exclusively in North Africa, followed by hydropower (911MW), solar (842MW), and wind (829MW)
  • In sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), hydropower was by far the most significant technology, with 911MW added in 2020, followed by 207MW using liquid fossil fuels and around 100MW each from coal, wind, and solar
  • Some bounce-back is expected in 2021, Live Data has confirmed that 3.2GW has already come online in 2021
  • Installed capacity growth remains hugely insufficient to reach domestic and international policy objectives


A net 7,706MW was added to the African power grid in 2020, down from 9.6GW in 2019 and a high of 19GW in 2018, according to an annual update from African Energy Live Data. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) the impact was even more severe, when South Africa is excluded from the data. Only 1,584MW was added in the SSA region over the course of the year, the lowest amount of new capacity since 2008.

Several factors came together to make 2020 one of the most challenging years for the power sector on the continent. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented international staff from travelling to construction sites, as well as delaying the supply of equipment and causing unpredictable changes in prices.

For governments, resources were pulled into Covid-19 relief efforts as tax revenues fell and hard-pressed civil servants focused on tackling the fallout of the pandemic.

However, Covid-19 was not the only factor behind the slowdown. The continent is at an inflection point, where policies to ramp up private investment are having some – but not enough – effect and the energy transition is heavily influencing the direction of policy.

State-led projects remain much more important to the direction of travel than privately-owned independent power producers (IPPs). 5.5GW of the net new capacity in 2020 was state-owned, compared with 2.1GW of privately-owned capacity and 118MW rental capacity. Over the past decade, 75.8GW of state-owned capacity has been added on the continent, compared with 23.7GW of privately-owned capacity.

The re-emergence of emergency rental power solutions shows that the slow pace of reform is once again catching up with governments and utilities, which have been turning to rental power to plug gaps
in the power supply.

Watch the webinar launch

The African Energy Live Data 2020 figures were presented at a webinar on 18 May. See below to watch the full presentation and analysis of the results.

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Hesitant steps in the long road from gas in North Africa

The impact of glacial structural reform and the energy transition is markedly different across the continent. North Africa accounted for 4.3GW of the 7.7GW added on the continent in 2020, with 3.1GW of new gas capacity. After a boom in 2019 when more than 1.4GW of solar was added in the region, building on 500MW in 2018, less than 50MW solar was recorded coming online in 2020.

According to African Energy managing director and North Africa specialist John Hamilton, “the latest numbers from African Energy Live Data show that the era of gas in North Africa is far from over, but the high watermark of gas procurement has nevertheless passed. A number of legacy projects will be completed in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Morocco has not entirely abandoned the idea of import led gas-to-power, and Libya still has a large gas programme to execute, including floating LNG import terminals.”

“It is well-known that the region is balanced on the cusp of a renewables revolution. However, Live Data’s figures show that this has yet to break through.  The potential for revolutionary change is particularly difficult to discern when just 36MW of solar PV capacity were commissioned in the whole region during 2020 compared to more than 3GW of gas,” he said.

Hamilton added: “This performance cannot be blamed on Covid-19. Instead, it shows that awkward regulatory and political blockages have yet to be cleared. So, 2020 represents an inflection point or a pause for breath. The Live Data pipeline clearly shows renewables projects and IPPs will play a much larger role in new capacity additions from 2023 onwards. Whether this becomes an established trend depends on a number of strategic policy decisions which governments must take this year and next.”

Lack of progress increasing capacity risks repeating old mistakes

Sub-Saharan Africa was hit hard by the pandemic, but there are indications that the region will bounce back to an extent in 2021. Live Data has already confirmed that more than 1.8GW has come online in 2021, although 900MW of this was in South Africa. Of new capacity added in 2020, 74% was renewable if South Africa is excluded from the figures. 909MW of hydropower was added, with liquid fuels the second biggest capacity addition with 207MW, followed by around 100MW each of coal, wind, and solar power.

There are some big positives, with new solar and wind projects emerging in frontier markets currently heavily reliant on thermal or seasonal hydropower. Togo and Burkina Faso have been particularly proactive. Mali has procured more solar projects than it can likely use, while Chad had also begun to make progress with solar projects prior to the death of President Idriss Déby Itno. Mauritania has also developed a number of solar and solar hybrid projects. Senegal has established an impressive record of IPP procurement and has credible plans to pursue a gas, wind, solar and battery energy mix in the future. Interconnection could create an interesting dynamic and will certainly help reduce the cost of power across the region.

“The slowdown in new capacity online in 2019 and 2020 partially reflects a change of emphasis amongst policy makers, who recognised the need to focus on transmission, distribution and the financial health of utilities,” Live Data and African Energy power editor Dan Marks said. “However, the lack of focus on generation risks re-enacting historic policy failures, with the steady growth of rental power testament to that.”

“The United Kingdom added 1.2GW of renewables alone between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020, despite not requiring additional overall capacity and a fall in consumption. African countries which have stopped procuring, with over-supply the stated reason, risk finding themselves once again scrambling to procure expensive power as blackouts damage economic growth, if tough decisions on sector reform and the future of national utilities are not quickly taken,” he added.

Marks added: “With commercial and industrial (C&I) developers attracting increasingly sizeable investment, as private investors look for alternatives to financially weak national utilities, African governments looking to heavily regulate C&I to protect utilities must ask themselves whether the economy is there to serve utilities, with companies prevented from procuring the cheapest or most reliable power and growing their businesses, or whether utilities are there to serve the economy.”


Further information

General data and sub-Saharan Africa, Dan Marks, dan@africa-energy.com

North Africa data, John Hamilton, j.hamilton@cbi-research.com

For access to the dataset contact: Alex Wark, business development manager, alex@africa-energy.com

Request a copy of the PDF presentation (featuring charts and graphics)


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