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Having emerged from its elections in May – the first since the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi, who dominated its politics in the last two decades – and with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front remaining intact amid some cautious generational change, Ethiopia’s leadership is determined to accelerate openings to investment and consolidate the country’s position as the political and economic dominant force in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has surprised some observers by reinforcing his position at home, continuing the Meles legacy but in his own style; his government will continue to promote the ‘developmental state’ policies that have delivered 10%-plus annual growth in the last decade, to drive Ethiopia towards middle income status by 2025.

Ethiopia
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As Africa enters the 2020s, issues of climate change and sustainability have gained greater urgency even if not everyone agrees on the way ahead. With desertification and water shortages affecting many regions, Africa has joined the stop-start transition away from a carbon-based economy; the percentage of on- and off-grid renewables is growing in the energy mix, with solar, and to a lesser extent wind, taking a lead, promoted by large public procurement projects and ever more private initiatives.

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Launched by President Barack Obama in Cape Town one year ago, the US Power Africa initiative has been making bold claims about its early successes in a campaign to boost sub-Saharan Africa’s installed generation capacity by some 10GW and connect some 20m more homes and businesses to the grid by 2020 (AE 258/5). Power Africa claims it will make some $7bn available in financial support and loan guarantees from 12 government agencies, led by the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank), Overseas Private Investment Corporation and US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA).

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While renewables projects in North Africa have been making progress – led by Moroccan solar development agency Masen’s 125MW first concentrated solar power phase of the 500MW Ouarzazate scheme – the most highly publicised, ambitious scheme of all, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), is struggling to convince sceptics it can revolutionise patterns of electricity generation south of the Mediterranean and of supply within the European Union area.

Morocco
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A significant market is emerging across the continent for renewables-based commercial and industrial (C&I) energy projects. In all but a handful of markets, the talk is of a potential that will soon be measured in gigawatts, rather than the usual dozens (at most) of megawatts of an established business. As Kenya-based Astonfield Solar’s chairman Ameet Shah puts it, the technology is still in its early days – as in some cases is the quality of its delivery to clients – but the C&I industry will reach lift-off even before the ‘transformational’ 24-hour storage becomes the norm.

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Africa is expected to be a driver of global growth in coming decades, but its nature will be different from that predicted when emerging markets boomed and investors saw an escape from stagnant developed economies in apparently untapped markets. A realistic view is that there are likely to be more pockets of prosperity around the continent, and economies such as China will continue to grow, albeit less quickly. But how to plan for the future in a deeply uncertain environment?

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There is consensus on the need to scale up renewables, off-grid, combined-cycle gas and other generation schemes if sub-Saharan Africa is to overcome its gaping electricity supply and access deficits (see Power). Huge investment is required to create transmission backbones and commercially sustainable distribution networks. To achieve these ambitious aims, ever more institutions and initiatives are looking to marry public funds with private investment. But there is another category of stakeholder, which has an essential role to play as offtaker and focal point of the electricity supply industry but whose performance often falls short: national utilities.

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If any reality check is needed to counter overly optimistic Africa Rising narratives, or as a reminder of how far the continent’s more troubled regions remain from meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, then crisis in the Lake Chad Basin provides it. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari spoke too soon when he promised Boko Haram would be defeated by end-2015. Under new leadership, the Nigerian military has raised its performance, tackling corruption that undermined its efforts, while battling the jihadist challenge in the north-east.

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The most abundant element on earth, hydrogen, already has industrial uses, but it could do much more to transform the global energy mix as industrialised economies and the global south decarbonise. Judged by the welter of governmental and corporate statements, hydrogen is featuring large in the thoughts of planners and project promoters. These range from Chinese hydrocarbons giant Sinopec’s plans to reallocate some of its Rmb87bn ($13bn) cash pile to projects “all along the hydrogen chain” to Australian junior miner AVZ Minerals’ green lithium mine project at Manono in Democratic Republic of Congo.

DR Congo | South Africa
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Pay-as-you-go power distributor M-Kopa Solar on 24 March announced that it had connected over 20,000 off-grid homes in Uganda; it is now expanding its solar power distribution, targeting an additional 50,000 Ugandan homes by end-2015. M-Kopa Solar was launched in October 2012 in Kenya, where it now supplies over 150,000 homes, and began pilot operations in eastern Uganda in mid-2013. Consumer-friendly sales plans, serviced with regular payments via mobile phones (in Uganda provided by MTN Mobile Money and Airtel Money, in Kenya by the fast-growing M-Pesa platform), are central to M-Kopa’s rapid growth.

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Biomass producer Buchanan Renewables (BR) has been sold to an investor group, after a project to recycle old rubber trees and rejuvenate Liberia’s once world-leading rubber industry proved more challenging than expected. Stockholm-based Vattenfall and Swedish government-owned private equity company Swedfund backed the project to convert old rubber trees from the former Firestone plantation to woodchip. The woodchips were intended to fuel a 36MW biomass power plant in Monrovia, as well as being sold for export. But the scheme ran into difficulties and the Swedish backers pulled out last year.

Liberia
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Once the right economics and policies are put in place, the pace of advance made by the most successful renewable energy types, including wind power and solar photovoltaic (PV), can be exceptionally fast. Extrapolations of continent-wide trends by the new African Energy Live data (Live data) suggest that sustainable technologies can replace polluting (and, increasingly, often costlier) thermal solutions which include the diesel, heavy fuel oil and charcoal that hundreds of millions in sub-Saharan Africa have come to depend on.

Uganda | Morocco | Senegal | South Africa
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Contracts must be concluded to show that renewable energy (RE) schemes are more than hot air, African Energy wrote last year. More solar and wind projects were being tendered in Morocco and South Africa’s new-found enthusiasm for RE would be confirmed if the much-anticipated first round of its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPP) was a success (AE 215/24).

Morocco | South Africa
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Is it worth devoting time to understanding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) given that hard-nosed business people so often dismiss the motherhood-and-apple pie aspirations of big global initiatives? The 17 SDGs unveiled by the United Nations last September to replace the partially achieved Millennium Development Goals so far lack detail; the dedicated website (www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment) provides minimal information. However, the non-binding targets should gain substance as national government plans and expert recommendations appear in coming weeks. And the SDGs are emerging as a baseline for harmonising global action, as governments and international institutions work to implement the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21)’s Paris agreement.