Moving Mountains: Lighting up Africa’s last mile

Around the world, nearly 800 million people, or about ten percent of the world’s population, still live without electricity. Three quarters of them are where we work, in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite everyone’s efforts, the challenges of connecting the “hardest-to-reach” to basic energy can feel like a matter of moving mountains – sometimes quite literally.

Take the case of Lesotho, the tiny country of 2.2 million people inside South Africa. Here, villages are separated by 10,000-foot mountains, and travel is often along bone-crunching gravel roads, where there are roads at all. In a country where only a third of the country’s population has access to electricity, mini-grid operators are left having to build their own bridges just to get construction supplies to their projects. As part of our work with Acumen to provide energy access to the hardest-to-reach, our team spent time in Lesotho, among other countries, trying to see how fresh capital could improve the desperate situation and support innovators like these in serving their customers.

What we saw there mirrored the situation in the least-served countries in which we’ve worked these past 13 years, including Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Niger. In all of them, there are great business ideas and smart people. But they face huge challenges – from a lack of financing for their business to their customers struggling to afford their products and logistical constraints like importing containers or finding local experience to repair systems.

Globally, the movement for electricity access has made enormous strides over the past decade. In that time, the number of people without electricity has halved globally, and close to 500 million people have connected to solar for the first time. But as the world continues to light up, the places where the risks and challenges of investment are highest, like Lesotho, risk being left behind entirely. With just seven years left before the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – including universal electricity access – it is imperative that we act quickly to bring these countries along.