A Child by Candlelight: Energy Access in the Developing World

In Episode 7 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed the host of The Energy Talk podcast, Olubunmi Olajide, in their Talking Points section. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester spoke more with Olu about his childhood growing up in Africa and his thoughts on the energy transition and energy access in the developing world.

Imagine, if you would, that you’re a young, soon-to-be mother living in Nigeria in the late 1990s. You live a good life; certainly not without its challenges, but overall, you’re happy. You made the decision to start a family, and you’ve successfully carried to term the miracle of life—a baby boy. One fateful evening, you go into labor and are rushed to the hospital, as one would expect. As the minutes turn into hours, however, you cannot naturally deliver the baby. Frantic, the doctors decide to do an emergency caesarean section to save you and the child’s life. The problem? The hospital doesn’t have power, so the doctors will need to do the operation by candlelight.

Does this sound like something out of a horror film, or perhaps, something from a century ago, before the advent of industrialized power via low-cost, abundant energy resources? Unfortunately, this is the reality for millions of people in what are commonly called “developing countries”—those with a less developed industrial base and a lower Human Development Index—and Nigeria is one such country. The story above has a happy ending, as the mother was able to give birth naturally to a healthy baby boy, Olubunmi Olajide, or Olu, as friends call him. For many others, the ending was far grislier.

The circumstances of his birth, as well as the natural conditions in his home country, informed Olu’s worldview from a young age. Olu recognized that there was something fundamentally broken about the way the system worked, with power outages—or a lack of power altogether—common. Comforts and technologies that are so engrained in Western life, like air conditioning and heat, laptops and cell phones, certainly existed, but they were by no means in every home. This segues nicely into the concept of Western privilege, the fact that most of us enjoy an incredible standard of living without fully comprehending how fortunate we really are. Think about your life: can you walk into your home and turn on the air conditioning and the television without so much as a second thought? Does a robot vacuum keep your floors clean with the press of a button on your cell phone? Do you get in a vehicle and drive wherever you want to go on streets and highways?

The answer is almost surely “yes,” though it wouldn’t be in many places in the world. Seeing the discrepancy and wanting to act, Olu endeavored to be part of the energy conversation. With oil and gas being a critical industry in Nigeria and an enormous driver of the country’s growth, Olu decided he would follow a path of study that would allow him to be more than a spectator. Attending Near East University in 2014 to get his Bachelor of Science degree in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, he found ways to get involved that would not only allow him to advance his career but to gain knowledge critical to understanding energy politics, economics, and the environment. With ESG concerns on the rise, Olu knew that to stay relevant, simply learning about technical topics wouldn’t be enough, complementing field internships with WorleyParsons (now Worley) and Boaz Integrated Energy with continuing study around climate change and environmental stewardship, including time with the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The result? A phenomenally well-rounded individual who can articulate the need for different types of energy while acknowledging the fundamental and long-term role that hydrocarbon exploration and production has in powering the world—especially in developing countries where implementing renewable energy at scale is virtually impossible.

A topic Olu speaks on frequently is energy access, the lack of which is all too real for the roughly 789 million people without access to electricity and 2.8 billion people without access to clean cooking[1]. The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that “Modern energy services are crucial to human well-being and to a country’s economic development. Access to modern energy is essential for the provision of clean water, sanitation, and healthcare and for the provision of reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport, and telecommunications services.”[2] For many people reading this article, energy access isn’t a topic they’ve ever had to deeply consider, but take a country like Nigeria, for example—would anyone argue that having a child in a hospital room lit only by a candle is having proper access to energy? Of course not. Defining and reinforcing what we would broadly call “modern energy access,” the IEA provides several core criteria for consideration:

  • Household access to a minimum level of electricity.
  • Household access to safer and more sustainable (i.e. minimum harmful effects on health and the environment as possible) cooking and heating fuels and stoves.
  • Access to modern energy that enables productive economic activity, e.g. mechanical power for agriculture, textile, and other industries.
  • Access to modern energy for public services, e.g. electricity for health facilities, schools, and street lighting.[3]

The purpose of this article isn’t to call out Nigeria, or any other developing country, for lacking the infrastructure to broadly support modern energy access; rather, it is to focus on the discrepancy between perceived energy access via renewables, particularly as portrayed in the popular media, and what’s really taking place across the world. One thing that Olu notes is that while he is in favor of approaching the energy transition and climate change respectfully and intelligently, there is simply no way that renewables as an energy source can supplant the energy provided by the oil and gas industry in a country like Nigeria. “Renewable energy,” when implemented without scale, might mean a tiny solar panel that could power several household appliances, or a couple of light bulbs. It might mean a solar-powered water pump that helps get water out of a single well in a rural village. The chance for this to change dramatically in the near term is low, as only 12% of an estimated $21.4 billion in international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy reach the least-developed countries[4]. Wanting to do good and drive positive change in the world is noble; denying reality, however, is meaningless.

It is perplexing that the topic of energy access is underdiscussed on both sides of the aisle. Olu seeks, via his work on a podcast that he founded in 2019 called The Energy Talk, to rectify the issue, providing clearer perspective on how the oil and gas and renewable energy industries can work together to effectively meet climate goals while improving the quality of life for people around the world. He tells the stories of the men and women at work across industries, sharing candid interviews about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. He starts dialogues to bring together people in collaboration and knowledge sharing, not confrontation and hostility. Olu often appears as a guest host on another podcast, The Titans of Nuclear, to explore the role of nuclear energy as another viable power source. And, at the end of the day, Olu knows the undeniable criticality of hydrocarbons to life as we know it—and is thankful for the quality-of-life improvements throughout the past century, made possible by the oil and gas industry, that would have been unfathomable to our ancestors.  

One might hope that via his podcast Olu will, to borrow a line from Zbigniew Herbert, “cast into the garish light of obviousness[5]” the ongoing need for hydrocarbons, even in a world that regularly takes great pains to demonize them. In the developing world, there is simply no alternative that is even remotely comparable from a cost or scaling perspective, at least with where the world is now—and that’s the thing: it’s where we are now. The possibilities for the future are limitless, and Olu would be the first to tell you that he wholeheartedly believes that renewable energy is an important part of the solution. We are stronger together, and people like Olu are doing their best to make sure that all sides are represented, and viewpoints respected, as we navigate the increasingly complex topics that are ESG and the energy transition.

  • [1] https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/May/Tracking-SDG7-The-Energy-Progress-Report-2020
  • [2] https://www.iea.org/articles/defining-energy-access-2020-methodology
  • [3] https://www.iea.org/articles/defining-energy-access-2020-methodology
  • [4] https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/May/Tracking-SDG7-The-Energy-Progress-Report-2020
  • [5] https://poems.com/poem/five-men/

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Stephen Forrester

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