Energy and Neo-Colonialism on the Continent of Africa

Tesay Yusuf
March 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Kwame Nkrumah. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Economic development and the development of energy are inherently linked, it will not be possible to accelerate development in Sub-Saharan African without the expansion of the energy industry and access to electricity. [1] When discussing investing in alternative energy sources to expand access to electricity, the large initial costs often deter people from prioritizing energy in the conversation on development. This is especially the case for nuclear energy where the high costs are a significant deterrent, which has lead to it's small estimated share of 6% of the global CO2 reduction target by 2050. [2] However, in the long term it has been shown that not only do the costs decrease per capita, but the impacts on the economy and rural development are greater and help to decrease poverty. [1]

Economic Growth and Energy

Is there a direct link between economic growth and how energy is used, or is it simply a generalized correlation? Data shows that when the energy industry is invested in, the economy of that particular country grows. In fact, there is a long-run relationship between emissions, nuclear energy, renewable energy, and economic growth. [2] This can be looked at as a win-win, providing a better alternative for energy and the environment and also helping to grow the economy.

This is particularly interesting and complex when looking at nations on the African continent, where colonialism and neo-colonialism have completely hijacked the trajectory and shaped both economic growth and energy. The expansion of renewable energy not only can reduce the dependence of foreign energy sources for import-dependent economies, but it can minimize the risk associated with volatile oil and natural gas supplies and prices. [2] For this reason, it would seem to be a great option to invest large amounts of resources into renewable energy.


The term neo-colonialism was coined by Kwame Nkrumah - pictured in Fig. 1 - who was the first president of Ghana after it's decolonization. He described neo-colonialism as exploitation through foreign capital, including investments and development projects. [3] Investments in the development of various industries in nations on the African continent have grown substantially over the past few decades. China has been a notable figure in this trend. With the knowledge that development of energy benefits the economy at large, it is no surprise that Chinese companies are focusing a significant portion of their investments towards the energy industry. An example of these investments include credit agreements for infrastructure development in various African countries. [4] This raises questions about development dependency by African nations to other countries, like China, and what impacts this type of dependency may have for African nations, most of whom are only a few decades out of the chokehold of colonial powers.

Is energy providing global powers such as China and the U.S. a direct in to establish neo-colonialist relationships with African countries? China is second only to the U.S. in its consumption of crude oil, and with its population growth, China has become an import economy and a major player on the resource scene in regard to energy. [5] This then leads one to questions where the link between China's need for resources and the increasing investments by China in the energy sectors of African nations, with some critics of the relationships citing an increasing concern over Chinese use of aid in exchange for preferential energy deals. [5] The energy industry is providing a troubling opportunity for nations to establish neo-colonialist relationships with African nations, taking advantage of the need for the development of the energy sectors both to keep up with economic growth, and drive it further.

© Tesay Yusuf. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] U. Deichmann et al., "The Economics of Renewable Energy Expansion in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa." Energy Policy 39, 215 (2011).

[2] N. Apergis et al., "On the Causal Dynamics Between Emissions, Nuclear Energy, Renewable Energy, and Economic Growth," Ecol. Econ. 69, 2255 (2010).

[3] N. Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (International Publishers, 1966).

[4] M. Tan-Mullins, G. Mohan, and M. Power, "Redefining 'Aid' in the China-Africa Context," Dev. Change 41, 857 (2010).

[5] D. A. McDonald, Electric Capitalism: Recolonising Africa on the Power Grid (Routledge, 2008).