The World Bank’s 2017 State of Electricity Access Report offers a number of important data updates on global progress toward universal electricity access. Among the findings, though, one is clearly the big story of the quest for universal energy access: in Sub-Saharan Africa, the off-grid population is growing.

That’s correct — the number of people without electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing. Although the electrification rate of the region has grown from 26.5 to 37.5 percent between 2000-2014, this growth has not been enough to cancel out the effects of rapid population growth.  While the Bank’s estimate of the total number of people without electricity was below 500 million in 2000, it was 609 million in 2014.

No other region of the world faces a similar challenge. In 2000, South Asia had more people without electricity than Sub-Saharan Africa, but the WB estimates that this number has decreased from over 600 million to 343 million in 2014. East Asia and Latin American, on the other hand, are close to universal electrification already.

Africa’s difficulties with rural electrification do not have a single cause. Low income levels constrain investments and low population densities make grid extension very expensive. The governance of the power sector remains a major problem in many countries, and in the past civil conflict prevented improvements in electricity generation, transmission, and distribution.

There are, however, many reasons for optimism now. Of all the regions in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa has the most to gain from off-grid alternatives to grid extension. Because of low population densities across many countries, the opportunity for off-grid electrification is a real boon for the region, and many companies are now rapidly scaling up their off-grid operations.

South Asia still has a huge non-electrified or under-electrified population, but the direction is right. For anyone interested in sustainable energy access, Sub-Saharan Africa is thus the frontier of the future. The world’s ability to achieve sustainable energy for all is, first and foremost, determined in Sub-Saharan Africa.

feature_africa_energy_2016_main-760x378Credit: SolarAid Photos (Flickr / Creative Commons)