Despite being rich in natural resources — including a vast amount of renewable solar energy — Africa remains solidly at the bottom among the...

Despite being rich in natural resources — including a vast amount of renewable solar energy — Africa remains solidly at the bottom among the world’s continents in terms of human well being and development. It’s a situation that often causes people to invoke the “resource curse.”

The idea behind the resource curse concept is that regions with lots of natural resources, especially non-renewable ones like oil, tend to have economies dominated by just a few sectors, causing the rest to remain weak and underdeveloped. This over-reliance on a few key resources also makes a place vulnerable to corruption, government mismanagement and wild swings in global commodity prices, the theory goes.

Africa certainly has all those things in abundance. But it’s also undergoing dramatic change, with some countries seeing rapid economic growth and accelerating urbanization. While underdeveloped infrastructure — both in cities and in rural areas — remains an ongoing problem, off-grid development shows promise of helping tremendously.

Pico- and micro-hydropower, for example, could help bring electricity to remote areas that aren’t likely to be connected to the grid anytime soon, one study found. In Rwanda, the Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEP) found, at least seven private-sector developers have helped build some 30 pico-hydro (ultra-small hydropower) plants in recent years.

“These are highly motivated entrepreneurs who do a remarkable job in a difficult environment,” the GVEP report states.

One way to help bring “energy to all,” which the International Energy Agency (IEA) says is possible, is to develop “mini-grids” … local and centralized electricity networks that can generate up to 500 kilowatts of energy through renewable sources like home-based solar and wind, biomass and small-scale hydropower. That’s especially critical in Africa, where population growth will continue to overwhelm energy development efforts.

As the IEA notes, “At a regional level, the number of people without access to electricity in sub‐Saharan Africa increases by 10 percent, from 585 million in 2009 to 645 million in 2030, as the rate of population growth outpaces the rate of connections.”

Off-grid power is already helping to provide mobile phone service in Africa, where cellphones have become a vital part of life even for people who don’t yet have electricity in their homes. Nigeria, for instance, is using hybrid power systems in which large batteries are making it possible to operate off-grid mobile base transceiver stations.

And then there are innovative programs such as MPower, which has brought off-grid solar power to families in northern Uganda. Such technology, says Mercy Corps — the group behind the program — also helps prevent deforestation and health-damaging particulate pollution generated by wood-burning stoves.