The Promise and Potential of Africa

Africa is the place where I spent much of my career, a place that is not only very dear to my heart, but is a place also which is central to Eni business identity and history.

roAs I’ve said before, average energy use here lacks very far behind the rest of the world. Africa has around 16% of the world’s population but consumes only about 5% of the energy. And more shockingly, two-thirds of the population of the Sub-Saharan Africa have no access to constant and dependable energy supply. That’s something in the region of 650 million people, more or less twice the population of United States, and globally 3 billion people rely on burning solid fuels, biomass like wood, charcoal, crop, animal waste for cooking, heating, and lighting.

Burning biomass in confined spaces is a huge health risk. WHO figures tell us that more than 4 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels. Beyond this shameful and avoidable waste of life, there is the environmental question. Biomass still makes up about 50% of the energy mix and is a major contributory factor to CO2 emissions. Just imagine if we were able to address this awful problem and replace biomass as a domestic fuel, this could save a huge number of lives and increment the life quality of countless millions, maybe billions, as well as greatly benefiting the environment.

Access to energy means access to development and opportunity. If you can access to energy, you can have clean water, sanitation, and health care, reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport and telecommunication services. Basically access to energy means access to the 21st century.

It was energy that powered the industrialization of Europe and US that shaped the world in the past century, and hopefully this will be the case for Africa in the 21st century. However, as has happened in Africa up to now, a high proportion of the natural resources, especially oil, gas, and other minerals has been produced in the continent but shipped elsewhere to support and develop other economies. This is where the imbalance is strongest. This is where Africa is at a distinct disadvantage. The paradigm, the approach, and the model is unsustainable, not to say unfair.

Africa resource wealth is not limited to minerals. In my personal experience, the potential of African people matches the potential of the natural resources. But I think there is another African resource. When we often hear about the Amazon rainforest as being a sort of planetary lung, but the African equivalent that stretches across the tropics perform exactly the same function, and is under serious threat.

The rapidly expanding populations require even more burnable resources, and the tropical rainforest is currently estimated to provide 75% of the fuel burned every day. The depletion rate is already far greater than the replacement, and this signals even greater alarm. This is even more relevant when we consider that 80% of the oil production is sold outside the continent, doing little to bolster domestic infrastructure and impeding industrial diversification. This leads to ever greater reliance to produce and export mineral resources, truly a vicious circle. More than ever, locally produced resources need to stay local. It’s like the adage that if a person has a fish, they are fed for a day, but if they have a fishing rod, they are fed for life.

Today we accept energy from Africa, but we are reticent to accept the humanity that may come in the same direction because people have been forced to migrate due not having a metaphorical fishing rod. It is a widespread fear of the tide of humanity that mobilizes thanks to unsustainable economic conditions and excessive population growth. Every night, at least in Europe, we see reports from the beaches of the Mediterranean of another boatload of tired, poor, huddled masses, these are the words so in the Statue of Liberty, and sometimes they are the lucky ones. Although we can see in their eyes the hope and joy of starting a new life in a new place. And building barriers is not the answer. There needs to be a sustainable addressing of this shared global issue.