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A shift is under way in the global economy that will test claims that sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has emerged from years of structural adjustment with more robust domestic markets and greater resilience to commodity price volatility and capital outflows. The World Bank has suggested the region could be approaching the conditions for economic lift-off comparable to China three decades ago. In many countries, the bank argues, sound fundamentals mean growth is more sustainable than in previous periods, when ‘hot money’ came into frontier economies only to leave again with damaging consequences.

Mozambique | Tanzania | South Africa
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It is a measure of its rise to prominence that China is the prism through which other nations now define their relations with Africa. This is the product of decades of energetic diplomacy and China’s willingness to provide unprecedented levels of finance, infrastructure development, contracting and small business engagement. This dominant position was richly underlined by the 3-4 September Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, which drew African leaders to Beijing in numbers the continent’s other commercial partners can only dream of.

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The AAA-rated African Development Bank (AfDB) is the continent’s biggest financial institution, with a well-defined role that is growing as it leverages its capital and know-how to support essential public and private sector projects and support economies mired in the coronavirus pandemic. The re-election of AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina is an important development that should end a period of corrosive doubt about the bank’s governance, while promoting the bank’s multiple positive roles.

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There has been progress in the campaign against Boko Haram and President Muhammadu Buhari’s flagship fight against corruption. Higher oil prices will pump more cash into the economy, helping to ease extreme foreign exchange shortages that have hurt business. A $1bn Eurobond was nearly eight times oversubscribed, the Ministry of Finance said on 9 February. But pending a major fillip for the economy (including an eventual official devaluation of the naira), the outlook for Nigeria remains patchy, with investors holding back until they see clearer signs of the direction of business and politics.

Nigeria
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The annual Africa Energy Forum (AEF) had something for all of its 2,000 delegates. It encouraged female entrepreneurs towards greater participation at all levels of the industry, heard the perennial calls for cost-reflective tariffs to help insolvent utilities balance their books and developers bring projects to fruition, and stimulated larger investors’ appetite for off-grid distributed solutions. The event, held in Copenhagen on 7-9 June, suggested chronic lack of access to sustainable energy could be overcome with the mobilisation of huge funding (much of which is available if conditions are right), innovative investment and technologies (both of which are emerging) and the enthusiastic participation of existing and new players.

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Mainstream print and broadcast media are increasingly of the view – thereby making it the prevailing orthodoxy – that growth across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is creating a significant emerging market for the next decade.

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With further progress in its electricity privatisation, increased food production due to investment in agriculture, and capital markets responding favourably to banks and bonds, it is easy to be drawn into the bubble of optimism that has built up around the Nigerian economy and its prospects. Away from the conflict zones of the north and Niger Delta, real progress has been made, but for every bit of positive newsflow there is a reality check, such as a new report from the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) which examines illegal oil exports – a still little understood cog in the machine of money and power-broking that defines public life in Nigeria.

Nigeria
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With all the talk about leapfrogging the grid, it is surprising how little the possible implications have filtered through to the debate about tariffs. The Africa Investment Exchange: Power and Renewables conference in London on 15-16 November saw a lively discussion about potential grid ‘disruptors’, in particular low-cost, small-scale renewable power sold directly to consumers. The technology has huge potential to provide clean power to households and industry at a fraction of the cost of the grid.

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The global campaign to provide vulnerable and marginalised communities with sustainable and affordable energy has gained considerable momentum in the past decade. The Africa-EU Energy Partnership’s target of giving electricity access to 100m more Africans by 2020, set in 2010, was exceeded by mid-decade. The United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative should achieve its target of pulling 1bn people worldwide out of energy poverty by 2030; some 500m of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa.

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With tougher anti-bribery legislation in place in the US and UK, local partners have been identified as a key vulnerability. Foreign companies need them to help them navigate the local business environment, especially if it is government policy to develop local content.

Gambia | Benin | Nigeria | Equatorial Guinea | Burkina Faso
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The much-anticipated partial float of the naira, introduced from 20 June, reflected a concession by President Muhammadu Buhari, who had resisted devaluation as he did during his first stint as president in the 1980s. Buhari was forced by deteriorating economic conditions and declining confidence to listen to markets. African Energy hears that concerns over the naira and other issues have led to the World Bank Group, a key guarantor of the liberalised generation and distribution system, making quiet threats to stop guarantees.

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Whoever emerges from the 7 December election that pits President John Dramani Mahama against New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate Nana Akufo-Addo will have to confront the build up of uncomfortable levels of external debt, poorly performing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and other weaknesses that undermine Ghana’s performance.In meetings with bankers and investors, officials routinely recommit to the reform agenda endorsed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which on 28 September approved its third review of Ghana’s Extended Credit Facility, enabling a much-needed disbursement of about $116.2m.

Ghana
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Investor interest in Madagascar picked up when companies were attracted by the island state’s potential for power sector developments, as former president Hery Rajaonarimampianina hosted an influential donor and investor conference in 2016.The going has since proven tough for many investors, as early movers have run into payment issues with malfunctioning state utility Jiro sy Rany Malagasy (Jirama) and the administration has proved unpredictable in renegotiating power purchase agreements (PPAs).

Madagascar
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Some African governments specialise in grandiose statements about mega-projects that will drive the continent’s electrification or achieve some other transformational goal. In many cases little happens, but the mega-project provides a useful symbol of rapprochement between two states. The Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP) planned by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika is one example still prominent on the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa project list.

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The issues that African Energy covers have risen much higher up the global agenda than seemed likely when the first issue was published in April 1998, when global concern about sub-Saharan Africa’s struggle to provide electricity to hard-pressed populations and industrial users, and the continent’s potential to provide energy to a fast-changing global economy driven by growth in emerging markets, seemed considerably less than now.