A fresh look at the Water-Energy-Food nexus: A view from Africa

Sufficient data (2019) were available to calculate the WEF Nexus Index for 54 African nations. The index values for selected countries evaluated are presented in a map of the continent (Fig. 3). Annexure 1 presents the WEF Nexus Index, pillar, sub-pillar values, and ranks for each African country. The five highest-ranking African countries in terms of the WEF Nexus Index are Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Gabon, Cabo Verde, and São Tomé and Principe, with global ranks of 44th, 64th, 79th, 83rd, and 85th, respectively, out of the 181 nations assessed. The assessment of Africa’s relatively low scores in terms of the WEF Nexus Index does not represent a negative narrative. Instead, it presents an opportunity to undertake a ‘differential diagnosis,’ as Sachs67 proposed, to understand the underlying challenges and possible remedies for the achievement of long-term aspirational development goals.

Figure 3
figure 3

Map of Africa indicating the WEF Nexus Index per nation, with specific countries featured in doughnut plots. The outer bounds of the doughnut plots indicate the maximum possible score (100%) for the water (blue), energy (orange), and food (green) pillars associated with the WEF Nexus Index. The inner bounds indicate the proportion of that score achieved by the country associated with that doughnut plot.

WEF nexus scores for Africa

The indicator values associated with the calculation of the WEF Nexus Index are presented in Annexure 2. The following section provides a high-level differential diagnosis to illustrate how the index can be used to provide insight into development opportunities for the continent. The 21 indicator metrics used in the determination of the WEF Nexus Index include, inter alia, annual freshwater withdrawal, average precipitation in depth, average value of food production, cereal yield, average dietary energy supply adequacy, average protein supply, access to electricity and per capita electric power consumption23. In terms of annual freshwater withdrawal, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Mauritania withdraw 4100%, 823%, 673%, and 337% of their annual internal freshwater resources, respectively. Egypt has one of the highest freshwater withdrawal ratios of the 54 nations assessed in Africa. This indicates that either water is generated outside of the country’s borders and/or imported. These withdrawal rates and high water dependencies represent a significant risk to their long-term development and are a potential source of conflict. In contrast, many other African countries withdraw less than 10% of their internal freshwater resources, as shown by the low values for that indicator, especially in Central Africa47. This disparity in water availability across Africa is supported by the indicator, average precipitation in depth, where values vary between 51 mm per year (Egypt) and 3200 mm per year (São Tomé and Principe), with the median value for African nations being 955 mm per year. Where countries have a high degree of freshwater availability, but low access levels due to economic water scarcity, this provides clear guidance for policymakers, i.e., the water is there, and policy and implmentation should focus on mechanisms work towards getting it to the people, for example in the Central African countries. Several African nations generate hydro-power which is exported to neighbouring countries, i.e., water is used for energy, which is sold for economic development. Where the opposite is true, i.e., high levels of access in areas where water is a scarce commodity, the policymakers must focus on leak detection, correct allocations, and water demand management to a greater degree, for instance in the North African region.

The average value of food production is measured in I$ (An international dollar (I$) could purchase, in a specific nation, a comparable number of goods and services that a US$ would obtain in the United States. This term is often used together with Purchasing Power Parity data 68.) per capita per annum. Only six African nations have average food production values that exceed the global median value, namely, Tunisia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco, Mali, and Cameroon. The remaining three WEF Nexus Index “food-accessibility” indicators, i.e. average protein supply, cereal yield, and average dietary energy supply adequacy are crucial targets for policy and development interventions in Africa. Vitousek et al.69 noted that in the twentieth century, “Unlike most regions of the world, crop yields have not increased substantially in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Overall, African countries generally have low crop yields relative to their potential (the median cereal yield for the African countries assessed is just over one-third of the median for the 181 nations). They also receive relatively little income for the crops they produce. This represents a high yield gap, with the dominance of a few staple crops. This scenario highlights challenges that many African countries face in seeking to achieve their full agricultural potential, a problem that is systematically being addressed through sound implementation of initiatives such as the CAADP.

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A substantial challenge for many African countries is how to beneficially utilise the available freshwater resources to sustainably enhance the cultivation and production of food and other agricultural products. The WEF Nexus Index and its constituent indicators suggest an opportunity for improving water supply and developing agricultural potential. However, a more detailed analysis is needed to understand the context in which this could occur. The question of how to positively utilise the water resources in many African nations to enhance food production is especially pertinent since 95% of sub-Saharan Africa’s food production is rainfed, i.e. by green water70,71,72. Thus, there are opportunities in terms of drought-proofing rainfed farming73 and for a growth in irrigation development74. These two pathways are key pillars in the African Union’s Framework for Irrigation Development and Agricultural Water Management (AU-IDAWM) which is yet to be operationalised at sub-continental scales75.

Furthermore, Mueller et al.76 explain that global yield variability is greatly controlled by fertiliser use, irrigation, and climate while simultaneously emphasising the importance of soil characteristics and agricultural management practices. Consequently, any policy decision or action to improve water supply for agriculture must occur in tandem with efforts to enhance nutrient balances (through appropriate fertiliser addition), access to markets, and agricultural training and research. Lu and Tian77 note that “Africa is still characterised by low nutrient input along with expanding cropland areas.” Therefore, more affordable access to fertilisers is crucial to improve crop yields and productivity on this continent. Van der Zaag74 calls for “location-specific interventions that are aimed at enhancing farmers’ capacity to buffer water variations and address nutrient deficits.” The former of these can potentially be achieved by developing the third of the WEF nexus sectors, i.e., energy. Access to affordable energy will facilitate “finding ways to enhance farmers’ control over water” 74,78 for agricultural production through the increased use of both irrigation and rainwater (e.g., through rainwater harvesting, improved soil water management, and access to natural storage systems).

Beyond the water link, analysing energy patterns from the WEF Nexus Index, highlights that approximately 31% of African nations lie below the global 10th percentile value for access to electricity. Further, only one country in Africa has a per capita electric power consumption that exceeds the median value obtained in the global assessment, namely, South Africa. Energy is a vital enabler of economic activity, including the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector utilises 71% of blue water globally79, over 85% in Africa80, and between 70 and 80% in southern Africa81. Effective utilisation of blue water pumping and distribution using energy should accompany any agricultural expansion. For example, agricultural post-harvest processing is a major limitation in many African agricultural systems and requires a steady supply of energy. This is the case for both large scale and smallholder farmers. Indeed, many current studies highlight the positive benfits of enhanced energy supply to smallholder farmers27,82,83,84,85,86. However, there is a significant scope to develop the energy sector in Africa. The four primary sources of electricity in Africa are natural gas, coal, hydro-power, and oil87.

This WEF Nexus Index assessment suggests that national policy and development for providing clean and affordable energy to people, particularly in the agricultural sector, will be an enabler of economic growth in many African countries. Examples of such projects are the mega-solar projects that are planned in Botswana and Namibia that could add up to 5000 MW of new solar power over the next two decades88—well as and implementation of the Grand Inga Dam Hydropower Project. Having highlighted this gap through the WEF Nexus Index, a more detailed analysis shows that there are many opportunities for smaller distributed systems to supply and enable access to energy in Africa. These include solar pumps for smallholder farmers89,90,91 and off-grid, solar, domestic electricity systems92,93.

While many African countries have a high level of renewable electricity output as a proportion of their total electricity output (e.g., the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zambia), these are primarily hydro-electric schemes, and the actual quantum of electricity generated is generally low, sometimes below the installed capacity, for example in Zimbabwe. In contrast, other nations (e.g., Algeria, Botswana, Niger, Seychelles, South Africa, South Sudan, and Tunisia) have a level of renewable electricity output that is less than five percent of the total electricity output.

Although South Africa and Libya are notable exceptions, most African nations do not contribute significantly to anthropogenic climate change. However, the development of renewable energy and agriculture will require related enabling policies, which facilitate the development of land, extension services, markets, supply chains, and international trade. Further, it will be necessary to recognise that traditional development approaches associated with mega-projects, e.g., large scale irrigation developments, are not always applicable (successful) or appropriate when compared to small-scale projects such as farmer-led irrigation94,95,96,97.

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Human development and the WEF Nexus Index

Figure 4 presents a plot of the HDI against the WEF Nexus Index for the 54 African nations under assessment. The trendline of the data, which passes between Chad and Gabon, provides an indication of which countries have higher (above the trendline) or lower (below the trendline) human development relative to their water-, energy-, and food-resource base and service delivery. Nations such as Mauritius, Botswana, and Namibia have relatively high levels of human development relative to the WEF Nexus Index. Policy lessons from nations that plot above the trendline, particularly the most extreme outliers, could be applied to other nations that currently lie below the trendline. What follows is an assessment of selected countries based on four clusters of the WEF Nexus Index versus HDI configurations, i.e., high-high, low-low, low–high, and medium–low.

Figure 4
figure 4

Plot of the Human Development Index versus the WEF Nexus Index for 54 African countries.

Gabon (relatively high WEF Nexus Index, relatively high HDI)

Gabon has the third-highest WEF Nexus Index of the 54 African countries assessed and has a relatively high HDI (0.7). In terms of water, the 2019 values indicate that 87.5% of the Gabonese population has access to at least basic drinking water standards. The annual freshwater withdrawals in this nation constitute 0.085% of the internal resources, indicating that the country has significant water resources that are not currently exploited. The renewable internal freshwater resources are 87,433 cubic metres per capita, which is the highest volume for any of the African nations. This value exceeds the 90th percentile for the 181 countries assessed in the global WEF Nexus Index determination (36,886 cubic metres per capita). Thus, it is suggested that Gabon seeking to effectively utilise its available water resources to achieve universal access to basic drinking water standards with its available resources is feasible.

A total of 91.4% of Gabon’s citizens have access to electricity and 82% of the nation’s final energy consumption is from renewable sources. However, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Gabon amount to 2.8 metric tons per capita, which exceeds the median value (2.4 metric tons per capita) for the global WEF Nexus Index assessment. This level of CO2 emissions is amongst the highest for African nations.

The prevalence of undernourishment and children under five years of age affected by wasting in Gabon are 9.4% and 3.4%, respectively. The level of undernourishment is equal to the 60th percentile value for the global assessment. The average protein supply within the Gabonese population is 58 g/capita/day, which is less than the 30th percentile for the 181 nations. The average value of food production in this nation is I$ 136 per capita, which is also less than the 30th percentile value for the global assessment.

Chad, South Sudan, and Eritrea (low WEF Nexus Index, low HDI)

In contrast, Chad, South Sudan, and Eritrea have WEF Nexus Index values of 35.3, 30.9, and 29, respectively. These three African countries rank as the three lowest nations in terms of the global HDI assessment. The populations in these countries have low levels of access to basic drinking water services, safely managed sanitation services, and electricity. In Chad, the indicators prevalence of undernourishment and the percentage of stunted children under five years of age are 39.7% and 39.9%, respectively. In these countries, the WEF Nexus Index and HDI are aligned, but the WEF Nexus Index provides more insight as to the effect that poor access and availability to these critical livelihood resources of water, energy and food has on the populations.

Botswana and Namibia (low WEF Nexus Index, relatively high HDI)

Botswana and Namibia are examples of two nations that have relatively high HDI values when compared to their WEF Nexus Index values, i.e., they are the two countries that plot furthest above the regression line in Fig. 4. Botswana and Namibia rank 171st and 169th in the global WEF Nexus Index determination, respectively. Both nations have low annual freshwater withdrawals, which is probably due to the highly seasonal and localised nature of their water resources. However, their relatively high education and literacy values raise the HDI. Policies in this regard could be instructive to other African nations.

Niger (medium WEF Nexus Index, low HDI)

Niger is a nation that lies well below the regression line in Fig. 4 and ranks 176th out of 181 nations in terms of the WEF Nexus Index, with a value of 40.1. This implies that Niger could potentially enhance its use of natural resources for the benefit of its population’s living standards raising both HDI and WEF Nexus Index scores. However, a key challenge is that this landlocked nation has an average precipitation of only 151 mm per annum. This can be contrasted with other countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, which all receive over 1500 mm per year, on average. Notwithstanding this low rainfall in Niger, the country attains a relatively high average value of food production compared to other African countries. Both electric power consumption and access to electricity are, however, low, at 51 kWh per capita and 16.2%, respectively.

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Based on this assessment, it is evident that the correlation between the HDI and the WEF Nexus Index is moderate at 0.38. Interestingly, the correlation between the HDI and the various sub-pillars (water access and availability, energy access and availability, and food access and availability) indicate that there is a medium to strong correlation between the HDI and both the water-access and energy-access sub-pillars. These correlations support the argument that access to water and energy greatly enhance human development.


A primary goal of the WEF nexus community is to support development that is equitable, just, and sustainable. To do so, it must identify policy proposals and innovative development projects that meet these criteria. These should be informed by both qualitative and quantitative assessments and include representative stakeholder engagement. WEF nexus-based studies, policies, and projects must be focussed on the direct and indirect achievement of SDGs 1, 2, 6, 7, and 13, both in terms of access and availability, to ensure distributional justice, especially in the African context. Such actions, combined with broad public participation, can have a ripple effect on other SDGs such as SDGs 5, 10, and 17, thereby reducing inequalities and building partnerships to attain these aspirational goals.

The WEF Nexus Index can serve as an entry point and catalyst into a developmental ‘differential diagnosis,’ as has been demonstrated for Africa in this paper. The constituent values of the water, energy, and food pillars that make up this multi-centric index provide a second level of assessment for a WEF nexus study. An analysis of the energy sub-pillars for the African nations in this study has indicated that a limitation to enhancing agriculture in most of these countries is the lack of access to energy. This is supported by the moderate correlation between the HDI and the energy-access sub-pillar. This is important as it contrasts with widely held perceptions that water is the principal limiting factor in enhancing agricultural production. Policies that balance the drought-proofing of rainfed agriculture and irrigation development are needed. This conclusion should inform the CAADP goals regarding the expansion of areas under irrigation in many African nations, as well as the strengthening of the supply chains associated with the entire agricultural sector. This assessment must be balanced with other policy decisions, such as facilitating more affordable and easily accessible agro-inputs for use on this continent. Access to markets and research that are linked to extension work (i.e., farmer training) are also essential.

Increased access to energy can also enhance improved domestic water and sanitation services. This analysis provides an additional policy thrust for the continent’s energy plan (which has tended to link energy to the industrialisation agenda) and highlights the opportunity for policies that focus on the development of energy from renewable sources. The need to develop clean, affordable, renewable energy as an enabler for agricultural development should also be incorporated into regional plans such as SADC’s RISDP, RSAP IV, and the Regional WEF Nexus Framework.

This analysis of the WEF nexus in Africa illustrates both strengths and weaknesses of the WEF Nexus Index. The composite indicator highlights where the need for development to support human well-being lies. However, it also illustrates that care must be taken in the interpretation of the index values. At a macro level, it could be concluded that African countries should invest heavily in large-scale water storage and energy supply infrastructure. However, detailed analysis provides a more nuanced message, which indicates that smallholder agriculture systems, which dominate sub-Saharan African food production, may require more balanced solutions, such as local storage and small-scale energy production. The identification of adjacent realities, which can be missed when only global indicators are considered, is required. Examples in this regard are decentralised energy, soil fertility, the use of high-yielding crop varieties, and applying the best practices in agronomic management.

The assessment of Africa’s relatively low scores in terms of the WEF Nexus Index does not represent a negative narrative. Instead, it provides provides high-level insights and an entry point to understanding the underlying challenges, through which more detailed analyses can lead to identified solutions and policies. Many African countries are trapped in an environment that could be termed a ‘poverty-unemployment-inequality nexus’ (due to the interlinkages that exist between these ‘wicked’ problems)1,2,98,99,100,101. Africa’s abundant resources, such as minerals, metals, land, water resources, relatively warm temperatures, high solar radiation, and resilient people provide opportunities to address this nexus and achieve an equitable and ethical benefit, such that we ‘leave no one behind.’


The main limitations of the index-based approach applied in this study were highlighted in Table 1. A major challenge lies in potential generalization of the situation which may mask some underlying dynamics of the WEF system. The quantitative nature of physical indicators in the WEF Nexus Index ignores the political and social aspects of the WEF nexus and we recommend that these are included in further studies or improvements of the tool. However, the WEF Nexus Index is a key entry point in nexus analysis and planning, and we recommend its simultaneous use with the indicators for informing practice and policy.