When President Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to Kenya over the weekend, he visited not just his ancestral home, but one of the target countries in his $7 billion signature foreign aid initiative, Power Africa.
Launched in 2013, Power Africa aims to boost electricity access in Sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative has prioritized expanding the continent’s capacity to generate electricity, with an additional focus on small-scale renewable energy investments. This is a useful first step. But investing in generation alone will be useless without addressing the economic and institutional obstacles to distributing electricity to homes and businesses.
Power Africa is tackling a critical global challenge. All of Sub-Saharan Africa, with 961 million residents, currently only consumes about as much power as New York City. Expanding energy access will be vital for driving Africa’s economic transformation over the coming decades.
Yet our research in Kenya shows that most households and businesses still face major barriers to accessing electricity. In recent years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to expand the grid across most of the countryside, leaving the majority of Kenyans “under grid,” or within a half-mile of power grid infrastructure. The same holds in several other African countries.
Yet the electrification rate in Kenya is still only 30 percent, and in our data just 5 percent of rural households and 20 percent of private businesses within a half-mile of the infrastructure have electricity. The low connection rate holds even years after the grid is in place. Clearly, building more infrastructure isn’t enough.
Why not? In a study conducted with the University of California, Berkeley and the non-profit Innovations for Poverty Action, we document a host of challenges in trying to connect hundreds of rural Kenyan households to the grid. The price of connections remains very high for most, few financing options are available for rural families, and there are not enough skilled workers to oversee the design, construction and electrical wiring.