[Column] Mansoor Hamayun: Fueling prosperity: Why Africa still needs fossil fuels
As an entrepreneur who founded Bboxx as a renewable energy company in Africa, the very last thing I would have expected would be to talk about how fossil fuels are essential to the wellbeing of the continent – but here we are.
One of the biggest challenges we face in the economic development of many African communities is clean cooking, and – after considering many bad options (and some of them are really, really bad) – I have come to conclude that the best of the worst is a fossil fuel: LPG.
To put this in context, for many millions of Africans, the most economical way of cooking their food is by burning wood and charcoal. Putting aside the environmental implications for a moment, there are grave health consequences associated with these traditional cooking methods – from inhaling smoke to the risk of burns, unclean cooking practices lead to millions of premature deaths annually, particularly affecting women and children.
This goes hand in hand with time poverty – collecting firewood is a significant detractor from productive activities and education. Again, more often than not, its women and children who bear this burden, further pushing them into the poverty trap and robbing them of economic and educational opportunities.
And then there’s the impact on the climate. The reliance on biomass fuels releases significant greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to rampant deforestation across the continent, dramatically exacerbating climate change, with each family on average being responsible every year for the logging of 2 trees and the release of several tons of CO2.
Even knowing this, our first thought was not to consider using fossil fuels, but, for all of Bboxx’s expertise in off-grid solar energy solutions, it is still prohibitively expensive to cook on solar and batteries. African families will make rational economic decisions about their household needs like anyone else – based on cost. They will not willingly switch to a more expensive fuel for cooking, especially when they may already be lacking access to essential products and services.
Against this backdrop, the fossil fuel LPG – Liquid Petroleum Gas – represents a cleaner, less polluting, and more efficient cooking fuel than wood and charcoal. Crucially, it also offers a cost-effective and scalable solution for African families across the continent.
By offering LPG at a cheaper rate than even charcoal, we can make transitioning away from harmful traditional cooking methods a sensible financial decision for tens of millions of African households. This is why Bboxx has entered the pay-as-you go LPG market.
The impact is so great that Bboxx can earn more carbon credits from switching families from charcoal to pay-as-you-go LPG for cooking than from switching them from kerosene lamps to pay-as-you-go solar home systems. In Africa, LPG is more carbon positive than a renewable source of energy.
This may be a surprising conclusion for many in the West, as it contrasts with the predominant binary climate change narrative which argues that we need to eliminate fossil fuels in order to reach net zero. Now, for developed, western nations, this may well be true – our emissions would certainly be vastly reduced if we built our future energy infrastructure on sources of clean energy.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that fossil fuels still have an important and enabling role to play in the transition to net zero in the developing world, where they are necessary to drive economic growth and expand access to fundamental services.
The West’s black and white attitude towards fossil fuels is particularly ironic given that the developed world’s prosperity has been powered by a historic fossil-fuelled free-for-all. The environmental and human cost of this has been staggering – let’s not forget the deliberate, decades-long suppression of crucial information about fossil fuels’ environmental impact, or the numerous wars waged in their name.
Expecting Africa to abstain from a resource that catalysed the West’s own development trajectory is not only unfair but breathtakingly hypocritical.
Today, in the West, fossil fuels drive growth in GDP. But, in Africa, it’s much less about GDP than it is about ensuring that existing solutions are accessible – solutions which, to reiterate, are more climate-friendly than the current tools being used. LPG is not the only solution, of course – there is impressive work being done in biogas, ethanol fuels, and similar, and I am excited to see how these alternatives progress.
But, until they are scalable and affordable, LPG provides the optimal path to solving an urgent problem, and, therefore, will continue to play an important role in enabling a carbon-neutral future.
As such, LPG is, without question, the best choice for Africa today – both for the people living there, and for the climate. By increasing its production and utilisation, Africa can fast-track its developmental goals and improve health outcomes without compromising on environmental sustainability.
And for the West, instead of bickering over the timeline for the phased reduction or elimination of fossil fuels, our governments and corporations should be focusing on developing the tools we need – climate tech, next generation fuels, a functioning carbon market – to ensure that every nation can successfully transition to net zero.