All eyes are on Cameroon as the country races to industrialise and improve its economy by 2035. However, strengthening its energy grid will be key to achieving this goal.
On a blistering afternoon at the Yaounde central market, Vincent Tsimi, a middle-aged hawker, peddles assorted solar lamps and chargers. For the past three hours, he has been to every market corner hawking his wares.
Tsimi says his efforts have been significantly productive, as he has managed to sell six pieces of the solar-powered equipment. “I think it is a good day,” he says, before offering up a short-lived smile. Sales have seen a steady rise over the last seven months, with most of his buyers coming from rural areas close to the capital city of Yaounde.
At first glance, one would think many are purchasing the solar lamps for decorative purposes. But that is simply not the case. These appliances are almost the only suitable alternative available to whole communities who do not have access to an electrical grid.
Data from the World Bank shows that Cameroon, which has a population of 24 million, only about 61% had access to electricity in 2017. The number was even lower at 21% among the rural population.
The country’s electricity power supply has over the years been erratic. Stakeholders have been fighting running battles with power outages caused by a shortage in water supply during the dry season, aged-old equipment and dilapidated transmission lines which often break down. Load-shedding in many urban and semi-urban areas is commonplace.
In a recent public address, Cameroonian President Paul Biya acknowledged that energy is at the core of any development process and has indicated he would accelerate efforts to provide access for all. “Without it, there can neither be industry nor processing of raw materials and hence, there can be no modern economy.”
However, the fact remains that Cameroon is on the World Bank’s list of heavily indebted poor countries. Many of its rural and semi-urban residents experience poverty daily and often perceive the cost of electricity as being exorbitant. For household consumption that does not exceed 110KWh, the lowest tariff for electricity is Franc CFA 50 (or EUR 0.076) for 1Kw. Due to this ‘high’ cost, low-income households are forced to prioritise spending on essentials, like food while electricity is seen as a luxury.
“Cameroon is a growing country. It has a very entrepreneurial people who are setting up businesses and driving the economy. More young people are entering the digital world and the potential for industrialisation is rising,” explains Christian Pisoh, Manager – Sales Support at Wärtsilä Energy Business. “But for all this potential to be realised, the country needs to improve access to energy, strengthen its existing transmission network, and invest in new sources of energy.”
Experts say that strengthening the energy grid must be a top priority for the government, especially if it is to achieve its ambitious goal of making Cameroon an emerging economy by 2035. Here, they point to the development of renewable energy as a potential solution that could have a ripple effect on the economy.
“Cameroon is ready for renewables to take off. Many Cameroonians do not have access to any kind of power and renewables are good for the environment and also good for growth. It is good for the economy,” says NJ Ayuk, CEO of the Centurion Law Group, a pan-African corporate law conglomerate focused on theenergy and financial sector.
“It (renewables) will also help Cameroon contribute its part towards the fight to stop global climate change. In a country where unemployment is a problem, this will create a lot of good jobs and also decrease air and water pollution. A lot of African countries have done this and succeeded,” he adds.
The good news is that the government has set the development of renewable energy as a strategic priority in order to offset power outages which slow down production. It has committed to increasing the contribution of renewable energy to electricity supply from the current less than 1% to 25% by 2035. The distribution will be as follows: 1% for wind, 6% for solar photovoltaic, 7% for biomass and 11% for HEP energy.
Cameroon has the third-largest hydropower generation potential on the Africa continent at 20 GW and it accounts for the largest source of energy in the country. However, concerns over its reliability in the dry season has previously forced the government to rely on expensive fossil-fuel plants. That is changing as the government works to expand its renewable energy options.
That said, renewable energy in Cameroon is still less developed despite the enormous potentials, according to Adolphe Njouke Tome, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Water Resources and Energy. He says easing access to viable, affordable and reliable energy remains a major stake for the country.
One way in which the country could get a head start would be to develop its renewable potential in a phased approach. This would ensure that problems of intermittent supply associated with the use of renewables.
“Renewable energy has to deal with situations such as unseasonal weather, cloudy skies, a lack of wind etc. which can cause problems in supply, especially if you try to transition completely to renewable energy all at once” explains Laetitia Toukam, Business Development Manager at Wärtsilä Energy Business in Cameroon. “Our smart power plants, for example, help provide the flexibility to cover these gaps and facilitate the integration of renewables in a more efficient way.”
At the moment, Cameroon seems to mean business with its pledge. Plans are afoot to concretise the target with a renewable energy law which covers renewable electricity purchase tariffs and clarify the rules around the purchase of renewable electricity. It will also place a mandatory auction or tendering process.
However, the current political situation in the country has also caused many potential investors to hold back and see exactly how things go before they commit any capital.
“There are many projects in the pipeline and many stakeholders who are interested in investing here. But because there are so many uncertainties, they are being cautious,” adds Toukam.
Basically, once all these tensions are relieved, and we get back to a state of normalcy, more investors are going to fly in and see the potential of the area and invest a lot,” explains Pisoh. “IPPs and industries have been contacting us to carry out feasibility studies to set up new power plants and asking for advice on the best possible solution. There is definitely a lot of interest.”