Infographic: Why do some African countries import electricity?

In November 2023, news of a company operating “power” ships that send electricity to African and other countries hit the headlines – as the firm had cut lines to Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau due to missed payments. Although we expect the issue was resolved in the short-term, the very phenomenon of African countries needing to source electricity from externally-managed ships intrigued us – especially in the context of other work we have been doing that illustrates Africa’s huge potential for wind and solar power.  How and why has such external sourcing been necessary?

First, it is important to realise that Africa’s electricity production – on land(!) – has more than doubled over the last two decades – from 470 TWh in 2000 to over 1000 TWh in 2021. While fossil fuels still dominate the way this electricity is sourced, renewable energy is gaining momentum as a source, especially hydropower, followed by wind and solar. In some countries – this shift is significant. In 2021, 20 African countries produced over 50% of their electricity from renewables.

At the same time, electricity demand has increased, in the same period almost doubling.

And, production and demand have been highly concentrated – for instance, just 5 countries produce 75% of Africa’s electricity. Moreover, African demand is very small compared to the rest of the world – today the continent accounts for under 3% of global electricity demand.

This concentration – a result of underinvestment in energy and electricity production and storage in many countries – plus a lack of transmission lines across borders is the origin of the phenomenon of the electricity ships.

Overall, despite massive production potential, and some cross-border trade in electricity – for instance, countries such as South Africa, Egypt and Mozambique each earned over US$ 1 billion from electricity exports to other African countries in 2021 – Africa still imports 7% of its electricity – from ships and other sources, while at the same time – and despite growing demand – the continent exports electricity to 15 countries outside the continent, including to far-flung countries such as China, the United States, and New Zealand.

These figures hide massive disparities. Many African countries – not just the power ship importers – are highly reliant on imports of power from outside the region. For instance, some countries have relied on electricity imports for years with Nigeria and Morocco topping the reliance list for 15 and 20 years respectively.

Meanwhile, dependency on exports outside of the region can affect Africa’s foreign policy. For instance, the UK is planning to spend £20-22bn ($25-28 bn) on a project to import 11.5GW of power from a new combined solar and wind plant in Morocco, through undersea cables, by 2030. The power will reportedly power 7 million British households. However, importing clean energy also allows the country to continue emitting greenhouse gases domestically, while still meeting its climate goals. Such domestic spending also comes at a time that the UK has cut its aid budget, yet funds and power like this could arguably provide a lifeline to millions more people across Africa. Thus, the new export plan may not be a result in Africa’s long-term interests.

So what’s the answer? No doubt, power ships might be helpful in the short-term, but are a highly unsustainable source beyond that – both financially as well as environmentally.

The real answer is two-fold.

First, a massive upswing in electricity production from renewables is crucial. Not only because it’s clean, but also because unlike fossil-fuels, renewable energy means power for free, aside from the capital injection for the power plant and operating/maintenance costs.

Second, a massive upswing in cross-border transmission lines and electricity storage capacity across the continent is also crucial – to allow large electricity producers on the continent to send power to countries with lower potential yet high demand.

Concessional finance will be necessary to unlock both of these answers, especially in the short-term. But it will certainly be worth it, if only to avoid dependency phenomena such as electricity to entire countries being switched off by foreign companies!


To find out how Development Reimagined can support you, your organisation, or Government, please email the team at

Special thanks go to Ivory Kairo and Rugare Mukangaga for their work on the graphics and for collecting/analysing the underlying data and this accompanying article.

The data was collated primarily from a range of sources, including the Africa Energy Portal, Cable, Our World in Data and World Integrated Trade Solutions.

If you spot any gaps or have any enquiries, please send your feedback to us at, and we will aim to respond ASAP.

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