3 ways to power Eswatini's path to energy security and sustainability

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A solar installation in Eswatini
Photo: UNDP Eswatini

Energy security is essential for any nation's socio-economic development. Reliable, affordable and sustainable energy supplies power and helps maintain essential services like healthcare, education and public transportation, which in turn foster economic growth, help attract investments and reduce poverty.

Eswatini, a landlocked developing country in southeast Africa, exemplifies the importance of energy security. The country has managed to increase electricity access for its population from 20 percent in 2001 to over 80 percent in 2021, representing one of the biggest advances in energy access in the world. With this success, the country now faces a significant challenge: despite possessing a rich tapestry of conventional and renewable resources, its domestic electricity generation capacity is only 76.5 megawatts, falling far short of its growing demand of 233 megawatts.

As a result, Eswatini heavily relies on energy imports, primarily from South Africa and Mozambique. This dependence exposes the nation to price fluctuations, leading to escalating costs that can become unaffordable for low-income households. It also creates supply uncertainties and increases vulnerability to power shortages in neighboring countries. With the import agreement with South Africa set to expire in 2025, there is an urgent need for Eswatini to transition swiftly towards domestic energy independence.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Eswatini is actively working to increase domestic power generation and diversify its energy sources, with the overarching goal of ensuring energy self-sufficiency by 2030. With UNDP’s support, here are three things the country is doing to achieve that goal:

1. Accelerating the transition to renewable energy.

Eswatini is investing in renewable energy infrastructure and financing for new installations. Governmental initiatives, alongside private sector investments, are focusing on harnessing Eswatini's abundant renewable energy potential, including hydroelectricity, solar power and biomass. The government is also actively promoting energy efficiency measures to reduce energy demand and consumption across residential, public service, industrial and agricultural sectors.

These efforts not only aim to secure Eswatini’s energy landscape but also provide significant climate action benefits. They align with the country’s climate pledge under the Paris Agreement, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), which lays out Eswatini’s strategy to help limit the global average temperature rise to below 1.5°C.

With its NDC, Eswatini has set its first economy-wide emissions reduction target of 5 percent by 2030 compared to business as usual. To reach this goal, the country plans to increase the share of renewable energy in the electricity mix by 50 percent before 2030 compared to 2010 levels. This will be done by increasing investments in solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy.

2. Pursuing international collaboration and partnerships.

This emissions reduction target could be even more ambitious and potentially increase to 14 percent with external financing. Therefore, international collaborations are crucial to help the country increase its climate ambition.

The new solar installation at the Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital of Manzini, supported by UNDP with funding from Italy, exemplifies how international support can align with national priorities and sustainability goals. The hospital’s new 1-megawatt solar power plant is set to supply 72 percent of its energy needs, significantly reducing energy demand and costs while improving primary healthcare services and the well-being of the hospital community. Equipped with a battery pack, the system can cover critical loads for about 4.5 hours during the day and up to 10 hours at night, while ensuring higher reliability during power outages. The new installation, combined with the replacement of energy-inefficient lighting and heating and cooling systems, is saving 536 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Excess electricity produced by the plant will be fed into the grid once feed-in tariffs are finalized. Upgrading appliances will further reduce energy demand and increase excess electricity available for other critical services.

The success of this initiative highlights the benefits of the energy transition and encourages its adoption in other public and private institutions nationwide. It also shows how strategic alignment and international collaboration can simultaneously respond to energy challenges while advancing broader development goals.

Other initiatives are also making a compelling case for leveraging bilateral and other financing, such as the Africa Minigrids Program (AMP), which is improving access to clean and affordable energy in rural communities.

3. Investing in the next generation.

To ensure the long-term scale-up of sustainable energy across Eswatini, it is essential to nurture a generation capable of leading the country’s sustainable future. The renewable energy sector can offer a significant number of jobs for young people. This is a unique opportunity in a country where over 70 percent of the population is below the age of 35 and about 59 percent of young people aged 20 to 24 are unemployed.

Helping youth gain green skills can help address the compounded challenges of slow economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts of climate change, which disproportionately affect young people. Most young people in the country reside in rural areas and are in a unique position to support the local transition to a green and sustainable economy.

To facilitate young people to get involved in the green transition and gain green jobs, UNDP has supported the establishment of a Youth Leadership and Sustainable Energy Academy at the University of Eswatini. The Academy aims to strengthen technical knowledge and skills in leadership and sustainable energy, including off-grid solar energy, solar food and medicine dehydration, biogas digester design and construction, and energy efficiency. The Academy’s activities are designed to also address gender inequalities, ensuring equal access to resources and considering gender-related risks at all phases of the initiative.

So far, over 100 young women and men have been trained in renewable energy technology and entrepreneurship skills. The programme also supports new enterprises by providing “starter packs” to help establish small green businesses. For instance, Nodumo Gwebu, a 29-year-old with a degree in animal science who has struggled to find employment since graduating in 2018, applied for the training and now sees an opportunity to expand her food business using solar dehydration techniques she learned through the programme.

All these efforts testify that by prioritizing renewable energy development and working with partners both at an international level and within the country, Eswatini can pave the way towards a sustainable and secure energy future.