Despite ample natural resources, some 558 million or 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity. In some countries, the situation is even more dire -- more than 90 percent of Ugandans do not have electricity and rely primarily on firewood for cooking and heating.
"It's not really so much that we don't have, we have the power," said Paul Nampala, the executive officer of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences. The country produces hydropower from a dam on the Nile River. "But one, we export it, and two, most people cannot afford it."
Science academies and policymakers from sub-Saharan Africa have been meeting this week in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss how to improve energy access, and in turn, human health, education, livelihoods and the environment.
"If African countries are going to have any chance of meeting the Millennium Development Goals, they really have to look at energy access as a key or significant factor," said Roseanne Diab, the executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, referencing a United Nations push to eradicate poverty by 2015.
A coalition of science academies launched a consensus report Tuesday recommending governments reform state-owned utilities, attract private investment to the power industry and promote renewable energy development. To reduce consumption of fuelwood, they recommended distributing more efficient cook stoves. This would also prevent tens of thousands of deaths every year stemming from health problems caused by open cooking fires inside homes.
The report is the latest from the group of science academies participating in the African Science Academy Development Initiative, which includes South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal.
ASADI is a program organized by the U.S. National Academies to strengthen the academies' ability to provide authoritative, evidence-based advice to their governments, much like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) does in the United States or the Royal Society in the United Kingdom.
"Many of the challenges that developing countries face in overcoming poverty are scientific challenges," said Patrick Kelley, the director of the ASADI program for NAS. "Often it is an underuse of scientific information that could be helpful."
There are top-notch universities and highly regarded researchers throughout Africa, but science-based government policies have been hit or miss. For example, the first human heart transplant was performed by South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard in 1967 in Cape Town. But in the same country, former President Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki questioned whether HIV causes AIDS and banned antiretroviral drugs in state hospitals.
"We've got a reasonably strong tradition of using science for policymaking," Diab said. "That's not to say we don't have a long ways to go. We do have long ways to go."
Fourteen African nations have science academies, many of which are primarily honorific organizations. In 2005, NAS received a 10-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pay and train academy staff to organize national and international meetings, and produce consensus reports about the scientific understanding of topics being weighed in the public sphere -- topics such as child and maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS and climate change.
"The funding has been hugely important in getting us off the ground, enabling us to establish our profile within the country and building our confidence," Diab said.
One way the academies work to gain recognition and advance their mission is to invite policymakers to the annual ASADI meetings, like the one wrapping up in Cape Town yesterday.
"When they come back, they have learned and seen the convening power of the academies, so then they attach a lot of importance to [Uganda National Academies of Science] as an academy in country," Nampala said. "That is a big, big benefit."
The academies are starting to make inroads in the public policy. For example, after South Africa's science academy produced a report on scholarly publishing, the ministry of education funded the organization to implement several recommendations, such as developing an open-access website for the nation's scholarly journals.
In Nigeria, the ministry of health was so moved by a report on maternal and infant mortality that she led the charge to make health care free for pregnant women and children under 5.
And, reports and workshops about topics like climate change and biotechnology in Uganda prompted the government to establish an official climate change department, and a biotechnology center to work on agriculture challenges.
"For quite some time in the last 10 years, our government was a little slow on issues of biotechnology issues, because there was a lot of misunderstanding on the potential and importance or role of biotechnology in the evolvement of the nation," Nampala said.
After five years, the Science Academy of South Africa (ASSAf) will begin to support its own operations in February. The organization is now working to apply what it has learned to develop science academies in other southern African nations.
While the academies have progressed at varying rates, they are poised to make a difference in their respective countries, Kelley said. Scientists are often well-connected with policymakers because they taught most of the politicians and government officials in college.
"When I go with African academy members to visit government officials in their offices, it's not unusual for the academy members to be welcomed as old friends, old professors, people who the government officials have a long-standing relationship with and trust," Kelley said.
However, it is not easy breaking through the "crowded advisory space" where consultants provide information to policymakers that is not always objective, both Diab and Nampala said.
"We have to try to prove to government it's far more important they get advice from something like an academy rather than rely heavily on advice from consultants," Diab said.
Having a robust source of independent advice is crucial not just for specific policies but the strengthening of democracy, which is still relatively young in Africa.
"In democracy, people hold their government accountable," Kelley said. "Science can help clarify what that means, can help indicate where governments should make their investments to have maximum effectiveness, it can help measure what effectiveness governments are having."
Click here to read the report "Turning science on: Improving access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa."