Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Africa’s advantage: Green power

A new book by a leading economist challenges current negative perceptions about the continent

Carlos Lopes is one of Africa’s most influential economists. Originally from Guinea-Bissau, Lopes spent most of his career at the United Nations, eventually serving as head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) from 2012 to 2016. Now a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Lopes has written a new book, Africa in Transformation, which looks at what the continent must do to thrive, and debunks the misconceptions that prevent it from doing so.

What are you hoping to achieve with this book?

This particular one is an attempt to try to digest for the larger public the challenges that I think are the most important for Africa right now. The book is organised around a couple of challenges that I think are the most significant, from how you change politics to the relationship with China. A lot of the material was collected while I was in charge of Uneca.

The second objective of the book is to be a bit counterintuitive about the perceptions that people have about the continent. For each topic, I revisited the topic from a completely different angle, the African angle, which of course is completely subjective — it’s my angle.

What is your most surprising conclusion?

When the “Africa Rising” narrative was gaining ground, there was a lot of discussion about the quality of the data. I used that discussion to come to a very different conclusion from many analysts, which is to say that the absence of data is not undermining the growth story of Africa, but rather the opposite.

The absence of quality data is undermining some good news that we are not aware of because data is not available. I think gross domestic product and all the usual indicators are underestimated in Africa, and because they are underestimated they provoke the wrong diagnosis and the wrong policy recommendations. If you go through the data, you discover that Africa has lots more fiscal opportunity than people imagine.

The discussion about fiscal policy is more important than the discussion about debt. For example, if you increase by 1% the total revenue of Africa coming from taxes, it is more than the total overseas development aid. We are talking about 1%. It’s a marginal effort.

Why do these mainstream views persist in the face of data that may suggest otherwise?

There is a comfort level that we are familiar with … When you come with an analysis that is a bit disruptive, even if it is evidence-based, people are a bit scared, including people who are quite well informed about the continent.

You can say that financial flows in Africa are not what you think, because the largest investor in India is an African country. Someone in the know will say: “Yes, but it’s Mauritius, so it doesn’t really count.” If it were Jersey [a British tax haven], which operates exactly like Mauritius, no one will discount that.

Every time you come with something that is evidence-based, which does not correspond with the mainstream view, it is discounted.

In a sluggish global economy, where do you think Africa’s economic growth will come from?

Africa’s one advantage beats all the others, which is right now that the cost of renewable energy is quite low, which gives us an incredible competitive advantage for green industrialisation, because we have choices that others don’t have.

What does green industrialisation look like?

There are three elements for industrialisation to really be respectful of sustainability.

First, your construction has to adhere to norms that are the most advanced in terms of sustainability. But it’s very expensive to convert a factory that already exists. It’s a different story to start from scratch, you can adhere to the norms immediately. The second element is how you generate power. You can generate power through renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Hydro, solar, wind, geothermal in some countries like Kenya. You have a huge array of opportunities to generate power that is respectful of the environment. Third is how you make sure that your production is based on a logistical supply chain that is respectful of sustainability standards. Here you can build that from scratch, in a way that is much more sustainable than the subsidy schemes already in place in developed countries, where the subsidies are tied to the outdated model.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

Bird flu outbreak on Dyer Island causing mass deaths

The island hosts the vulnerable African penguins, endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern

Countries bear cross-border responsibility for harmful effects of climate change,...

The UN committee has been accused of ‘turning its back’ on the children who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint with it against five countries

Magashule files notice to have corruption charges dropped

Counsel for the suspended ANC secretary general tells court the former Free State premier falls outside category of who can be charged for corrupt activities

R1.5-billion in funding approved for riot-hit businesses

Agencies emphasise that speed is crucial to rescuing firms affected by July’s unrest

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…