There is excitement in international development circles about the future of Africa and its economic potential. Yet, transforming the continent’s potential into reality poses a number of challenges.

Currently, many African nations struggle to provide their populations with the basic food, shelter, energy, and employment they need to thrive, and this challenge will only escalate as Africa’s population continues to grow. One North African nation in particular is trying to promote a new wave of development and economic prosperity by “going green.” Mauritania, a largely desert country located in northwestern Africa, is making great strides to becoming a leader in renewable energy.

Africa’s population has almost tripled since 1980, from an estimated 478 million to the current estimate of close to 1.2 billion, according to the 2016 Demographic Profile of African Countries report published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.  Africa’s total population is projected to increase to 1.5 billion by 2025.”

The rapid growth of the continent’s population will put significant pressure on individual African nations’ economies and natural resources, if the proper measures are not taken to mitigate the issues that will inevitably arise.

Mauritania, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Morocco to the north and northwest, Algeria to the northeast, Mali to the east and south east, and Senegal to the southwest. While the country’s economy is dominated by extractive industries (oils and mines) and is rich in various mineral resources such as iron ore, gold, copper, gypsum and phosphate rock, Mauritania has recently started to explore the untapped energy potential of its desert and coastal regions.

Mauritania’s extractive commodities currently make up roughly three-quarters of its total exports. Fisheries, livestock and agriculture also constitute an important part of its economy. In fact, estimates show that half of Mauritania’s population of 4.1 million people still depend on farming and raising livestock as a source of livelihood. Although Mauritania’s economy has grown in recent years thanks to foreign investment in the mining and oil sectors, despite numerous environmental problems that have resulted from foreign activity in the country, its economy is still highly sensitive to changes in the prices of international food and commodities. However, these are not the only problems facing Mauritania’s economy.

The Rise of Renewable Energy in Mauritania3

Recurring droughts, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, malnutrition, dependence on foreign aid and investment, and unrest in neighboring Mali are just a few of the other problems that are jeopardizing the future of Mauritania’s growth. In order to build a more robust economy, Mauritania will have to transition from its current “extract and import” model to a more diversified and sustainable economic model.

According to the poverty reduction strategy published by the Mauritanian government over the past couple of years, generating and harnessing energy is seen as a development priority. However, the availability and access to energy in Mauritania is still limited due to geographic factors.

These factors include a widely dispersed population, living in large urban centers such Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, and Nouadhibou, the second largest city in Mauritania. It also includes the substantial percentage of Mauritania’s population which lives in rural areas. Yet, despite these challenges, an annual report published by Mauritania’s Ministry of Petroleum, Energy and Mines in 2014, stated that the share of households connected to the grid increased from 18% in 2000 to 34% in 2013.

Mauritania’s electricity demand is currently growing at a rate of about 10% per year, but this growth is mainly driven by industry needs, not by residential demand. Several new wind and solar projects are being implemented that would “increase the contribution of renewables to 36% of capacity by 2020 and 41% by 2030,” according to the Renewables Readiness Assessment: Mauritania, a 2015 report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). However, Mauritania will need to significantly increase its energy generating activities, as the overall growth in demand for electricity could reach 600% by 2030.

Luckily, Mauritania has considerable renewable energy resources. If Mauritania could harness the high radiation averages throughout the country and high wind speeds in the coastal areas, it could potentially make renewable energy sources competitive in most regions with electricity generated by heavy fuel oil. Mauritania has also started to harness the significant hydropower resources that have been made available to it through the Senegal River Basin Development Authority, an organization established by Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal in 1972 to manage jointly the Senegal River and its drainage basin.

Biomass (wood and charcoal) also has the potential to satisfy Mauritania’s growing energy demand, if the necessary precautions are taken to mitigate the potential harm that its use could cause the country’s environment.

In order to harness the full potential of its extensive renewable energy resources, Mauritania will have to overcome three main challenges: the lack of a deployment strategy, the lack of a regulatory framework, and the lack of the human resources capital to support the technology.

Implement a Deployment Strategy

While there are various programs and agencies working in Mauritania to promote renewable energy, the absence of a clear deployment strategy has resulted in a lack of coordination between the main stakeholders in the country’s renewable energy field. Keeping that in mind, Mauritania needs to establish an institutional framework that will organize these key stakeholders and optimize their efforts to deploy renewable technologies over the long-term.

Establish Necessary Regulatory Frameworks

The general lack of legislative and regulatory stability in Mauritania makes it difficult for the country’s nascent renewable energy sector to function effectively. Consequently, Mauritania will need to establish a comprehensive and robust renewable energy strategy that clearly outlines the objectives and trajectory of its green economy, including the necessary regulatory structures to ensure its reliability. Once this framework is created, it will enable Mauritania to organically create future legislation and regulation to support the renewable energy sector, thus allowing Mauritania to develop and scale its renewable potential more rapidly on a national and international level.

Implement Local Capacity-Building

Although there is a wide-range of renewable energy technologies that are currently being deployed in Mauritania, the country currently lacks the know-how and human capital needed to support the continued growth of this new economic sector. Therefore, Mauritania needs to invest in renewables-specific education programs to create the local capacity needed to install and maintain the technologies being deployed. The development of renewables-specific research and development programs at universities and innovation centers in Mauritania could also provide a unique opportunity to further develop technology and national competencies in the sector.

While Mauritania’s renewable energy sector faces some formidable challenges, the sector is a worthwhile investment for the country in the long-term. First, developing this sector could provide more people, especially rural populations, throughout Mauritania access to a stable and sustainable source of energy. Second, the export of excess energy to neighboring countries could provide an additional source of income for the country, thus introducing more diversity to Mauritania’s economy and reducing the risk of commodity-related price shocks. Last but not least, the renewable energy sector could generate more employment and create more diverse career opportunities for the population.

If Mauritania can nurture the right business environment and effectively deploy renewable technologies, it will create a unique opportunity to transform its economy while also promoting more sustainable and inclusive development.