The Night Lights of Africa

Satellite Imagery Analysis for Development, Conflict and Climate Change

                 by Alfio Cerami                                                        June 10, 2020

How to Quote This Blog Post: Cerami, Alfio (2020), The Night Lights of Africa. Satellite Imagery Analysis for Development, Conflict and Climate Change. Blogpost available at URL: . Copy with high resolution images available at

Night lights
In recent years, NASA engineers, researchers and professors have developed new methods of geo-spatial micro-macro econometric analysis (Photoeconometrics) based on real-time big data. These include high-resolution satellite imagery from the NASA Earth Observatory where the single pixels become the smallest units of scientific enquiry. This type of analysis represents the future of scientific research. Several studies have confirmed that satellite imagery analysis is more efficient than ‘official’ economic statistics, especially in remote, difficult to access regions of the world (see, for example, Chen and Nordhaus 2011 ). Night lights analysis can provide useful insights on current GDP and GDP growth, contemporary and future income growth, presence of roads and infrastructures, wealth of cities, urban versus rural divides, the effects of diseases on growth (such as malaria or ebola), growth at the coast versus the interior. Computer-based satellite imagery analysis can also be useful for natural resource discovery, pollution, as well as for identifying building types, agricultural land use, monitoring climate and weather, etc. (see Henderson et al. 2012 ; Donaldson and Storeygard 2016 ; Leitzell 2012 ; Michalopoulos and Papaioannou 2013).  Stevens and Voiland (2017 ) have, for example, investigated how changes in nighttime lights vary across different regions of the world. They have examined changes in fishing practices, economic activity, and other development related issues.

Román and Stokes (2015 ) have also succeeded to shed new light on the cultural patterns according to which cities and “people illuminate the night” and their life (such as during the Christmas and New Year’s season and the Holy Month of Ramadan). The nighttime light photos incorporate, therefore, a huge variety of human, economic, social, cultural, political, trade and development information.

Table 4.1 Low versus High Opportunity Countries (2011) Revisited and Corrected (2020)

Source: Cerami 2013, Table 4.1, pp. 79-80 based on Ndulu et al. (2008) plus updates. NB: Kenya has recently discovered the presence of oil in the Turkana region and it could, as a consequence, suddenly become a resource rich country. Errata corridge in Cerami (2013, Table 4.1, pp.79-80): Ghana is a coastal resource rich country.

Fig. 1 NASA Earth Night Lights Changes

The Night Lights of Africa 2012-2020
Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

Figure 1 shows changes in night lights from 2012 to 2016. During this period, the continent as a whole showed low and mixed lights development. Dark purple represents areas where new lights emerged. As it can be expected, a landlocked, resource scarce country, such as Mali, unquestionably, faces more development growth difficulties than the resource rich coastal economies of, for example, Botswana, Gabon and South Africa. But this success also depends on the country’s prospects for a not failing (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012) economic development model, which includes trade, entrepreneurship, human development and climate change related issues, the democratization of public and private spheres, as well as the social protection of citizens. The latter implies the reduction of vertical and horizontal inequalities (Stewart 2008; Langer et al. 2011) and the protection from disasters/global pandemics, such as ebola, or COVID-19 (Cheeseman 2020) and others.

Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zambia are resource rich, high opportunity economies (see Ndulu et al. 2008 and Table 4.1 above). Significant new lights emerged in the coastal resource rich countries of Angola, in the south of Cameroon, in the urban areas of the Côte d’Ivoire, in Gabon (though some lights decrease in the South-West of the country), in Gambia, in Ghana, in Guinea, in Equatorial Guinea, in Liberia, in Kenya (especially in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisimu and Eldoret), in the large urban areas of Namibia (but less lights emerged in rural and small urban areas) and in Sierra Leone. The oil rich petro-state of Nigeria (Obi 2019 ) witnessed, instead, substantial loss of lights, especially in Benin City, in the areas south of Benin City and in some off-shore oil and gas refineries. This was the result of the country’s slow down in oil drilling and of a new political economy of oil industry (Obi 2019 ) that reduced production, measured by the SUOMI-NPP satellite as the associated diminution of gas flares. In the 24h ICT focused business district of Lagos, new lights emerged. Also South Africa observed a major decrease in night lights and associated electricity usage (especially in Pretoria and in Johannesburg, Fig.2). In this case, this was the result of the economic recession caused by the global financial crisis of 2008-2011. Capetown, Port Elizabeth and East London were here notable exceptions.

Fig. 2 Night Lights Changes 2012-2016 Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa

Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

In the landlocked, resource scarce economies of Chad, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Swaziland and Uganda, lights stayed the same or diminished. These are also countries subjected to constant civil tensions due to the acquisition of the poor resources available (see Collier and Venables 2011) associated with the presence of persistent vertical and horizontal inequalities. In the resource scarce but fast growing economy of Ethiopia, lights significantly increased, and especially in Addis Ababa. Exports of agricultural products (e.g. coffee – the black gold) and various petroleum oil products were the main engine of development. During the period 2012-2016, in Burkina Faso (esp. in Ouagadougou and other more internal areas, Fig. 3) and in Mali (esp. in Bamako), lights slightly increased, though these countries witnessed a resurgence of conflicts in the following years. In Rwanda, lights also significantly increased (more notably in Kigali).

Fig. 3 Night Lights Changes 2012-2016. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

In the landlocked, resource rich economies of Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Sudan, South Sudan and Zambia, lights stayed the same or slightly increased (such as in Brazzaville). They diminished in the Central African Republic: a major industrial diamonds producer and exporter. In Sudan, lights increased, in particular in Khartoum (Fig. 4) and in Port Sudan. In Malawi, lights increased only in the capital city of Lilongwe, but decreased significantly almost in all other urban and rural areas. Lights slightly decreased also in the South-African linked economy of Lesotho (especially in the east side of Maseru).

Fig. 4 Night Lights Changes 2012-2016. Khartoum, Sudan

Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

The coastal, resource scarce economies of Benin, Djibouti, Gambia, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Senegal, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Togo witnessed little changes in lights. When some positive development occurred, this was caused by an increase in trade, in ICT-based trade, in tourism and in maritime trade. Dar es Salaam in Tanzania witnessed an increase in lights probably because of tourism, industry and new construction investments. Mogadishu in Somalia showed, instead, an increase in lights probably due to a slight improvement in the political situation. Antananarivo and Toamasina in Madagascar showed an increase in lights probably because of an increase in trade in the mining industry. Maputo in Mozambique and in Djibouti (Fig. 5) also show increase in lights because of maritime trade and ICT-based trade, among others.

Fig. 5 Night Lights Changes 2012-2016. Djibouti, Djibouti

Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

Ethnic conflicts, civil wars and the war against ISIS result in a significant reduction in urban night lights in Africa, and people displacement to rural areas. As in the case of North African rural areas of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt (Fig. 6), as it happened during the Arab Spring of 2011, conflicts and tensions continue to cause internal displacement and low development, though at least temporarily (Przeworski 1991). New lights emerged in 2016, especially in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and, to some extent, in Egypt, showing a slow recovery from the global financial crisis and the Arab Spring riots. The absence of conflict in Morocco due to constitutional reforms, as compared to the civil war that emerged in Libya, has resulted in more stability and light development. This has helped peaceful settlement of conflicts, has fostered national dialogue, good governance, and the consolidation of peace (see also Ndulo 2019 ).

Does security represent the only reason for development? Or should the introduction and reinforcement of democratic principles and social protection also be taken into account?

Political Barriers to Development, such as the incumbency advantage – or the candidates’ illicit electioneering tactics in obtaining votes and resources through violence, bribery and frauds – (Collier and Vicente 2012 ) associated with the fight against organized crime (including environmental crime) (Shaw and Reitano 2019 ) remain for future African political leaders, who face “the dilemma of how to satisfy voters” without effective public organizations (Collier 2019 ), key for peace, stability and development. For a complete list of African political challenges, please see also Cheeseman (2015); Dodsworth and Cheeseman (2018); and Cheeseman (2020).

Fig. 6 Night Lights Changes 2012-20 North Africa (and some parts of Europe)

Source: © Copyright NASA 2017. A Changing Earth at Night. Author’s manipulation. All rights reserved.

Figure 7 shows night lights as of May 21, 2020, though the figure is not comparable with the previous one, as it has different standardization values than the satellite imagery officially provided by NASA engineers, it shows a still low level of electricity usage in Africa: an immense continent with unexplored possibilities.

Fig. 7. Night Lights in Africa as of May 21, 2020

Source: © Copyright NASA 2020. Data manipulation by Alfio Cerami. All rights reserved.

Climate change
In his blog post Conditional Optimism Nobel Prize Winner Paul Romer (2018) argues that “Fossil fuels present us with a classic “second best” problem. In a first-best world, it is good when innovators come up with ways to produce things that people want at lower cost. But in our second best world, with a market price for fossil fuel that is too low (because the market imposes no charge for emitting greenhouse gases), it is bad when innovators come up with ways to extract fossil fuel at lower cost”. He defines Complacent optimism as “the feeling of a child waiting for presents”, whilst Conditional optimism as “the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse”. In his theory of [sustainable] endogenous technological change (Romer 1990 ; FRENCH Version ; SPANISH Version and updates), conditional optimism aims at policy choices that are about “building a sustainable treehouse” and not simply to “wait for presents”, but also that support sustainable business innovators and innovation.

In one of my favourite papers, Climate Clubs: Overcoming Free-riding in International Climate Policy, Nobel Prize Winner William Nordhaus (2015) argues in favor of incentives, sanctions and coalitions to overcome the possibility that “a party receives the benefits of a public good without contributing to the costs” (Ibid., p.1333) of environmental damage and its unacceptable profitability. He defines Climate Change as The Ultimate Challenge for Economics (Nordhaus 2019). His reflections on the social cost of carbon apply also perfectly to political science, sociology, international political economy, conflict studies and international development.

Figure 8 and Figure 9 show the rise in global temperatures from 1884 to 2019. As it is immediately visible, Sub-Saharan Africa, as the rest of the world, face dramatic global warming challenges. These also include water scarcity, emergence of widespread wild fires, droughts, floods, bio-diversity destruction, famine, greed and grievances, water- and food-related social and civil conflicts, city-vulnerabilities, environmental degradation, environmental insecurity, territorial disputes, intra-country and inter-country wars (Cheeseman 2011 , 2020a, 2020b). In the case of Africa, these challenges are more pressing. The internal dynamics of power-sharing (Cheeseman 2011 ) now sum up with permanent emergency political and environmental crises.

Fig. 8 Global Temperature 1884

Source: © Copyright NASA 2020. All rights reserved.

Fig. 9 Global Temperature 2019

Source: © Copyright NASA 2020. All rights reserved.

Figure 10 shows carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for air pollution. Its main sources of production are cars, industries, and wild fires. Carbon monoxide results in new health risks and vulnerabilities for citizens. People may die of several diseases, among which different lung disorders. Asthma attacks in elderly and children may also suddenly arise. Carbon monoxide is particularly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing North-South environmental divides and inequalities.

Fig. 10 Global Daily Carbon Monoxide (AQUA Satellite)

Source: © Copyright NASA Eyes 2020. All rights reserved.
Water availability can mostly be located south of the Sahara (Fig.11). Climate change may have a devastating impact on the soil moisture levels of Africa, negatively altering the possibilities to grow crops. Water conflicts can also emerge not simply as a result of territorial disputes necessary to obtain access to valuable water sources (Lecoutere et al. 2010), but also as a result of altered soil moisture levels. Countries more vulnerable to droughts, floods and famines are the ones more vulnerable to climate conflicts (please see also Satellites for locust early warning FAO Locusts Watch ). In a recent study, McGuirk and Burke (2020) examined, for example, the causal effect of food price variation and wages on conflict, highlighting The Economic Origins of Conflict. They argued that higher crop prices raise the opportunity cost to serve as a soldier in the house (food producers choose to farm because of possible high earnings) (NOTE: “opportunity cost” or “the cost of something in terms of an opportunity forgone” definition by Oxford 2020). At the same time, higher crop prices push citizens to acquire, to a larger extent, valuable crop surplus as their real wages drop because of the high food prices. The authors also show that in regions without crop farming, higher crop prices escalate both the fights for the control over the territory, since the production of crops could result in higher incomes. High crop prices also result in the appropriation of crop surplus that could be eaten or re-sold (ibid., p.1). Using night lights, McGuirk and Burke (2020) also demonstrated that the effect of consumer and producer food price shocks is weaker in more economically developed, light intensive, and climate change more resilient zones.
Economic development is here seen as a crucial variable to understand the pressures for conflicts and the control of access to resources. In the case of the Côte d’Ivoire, the authors noted that the issue of citizenship (excluding or not excluding certain individuals) was crucial to understand the pressures for conflicts, the control of access to cocoa and coffee lands, as well as electoral behaviour (see also McGuirk and Burke 2017, p. 16 ). But what about the incumbency advantage and associated politics of illicit exclusion? (see Collier and Vicente 2012 mentioned above) Moreover, as Charles Tilly (2003, p.34) has emphasized: “In opportunity hoarding, the clique excludes people on the opposite side of the boundary from use of the value-producing resource, captures the returns, and devotes some of the returns to reproducing the boundary. For instance, people in the diamond trade organize ethnically recruited circuits for acquisition, cutting, polishing, distribution, and sale of different types of gems, excluding others from their sections of the trade. Some of the monopoly’s return goes into reinforcing ethnic ties, thus making new recruits to the trade available. Two additional mechanisms play […] ”.

Fig. 11 Soil Moisture Saturation (SMAP satellite)

Source: © Copyright NASA Eyes 2020. All rights reserved.

To conclude, new climate-related vertical and horizontal inequalities are arising (Heyward and Roser 2016) in Africa. As in the northern hemisphere, democrats and dictators may both use inclusive policies (including environmental policies) to create more inclusive or exclusive societies in order to achieve their political, electoral or personal goals. National politics and international extorsion/blackmailing often help to create new horizontal and vertical inequalities, which then translate into light development and/or reduction. What previously discussed also stresses the importance of exclusive/inclusive politics, candidates’ illicit electioneering tactics, associated social policy (access to the labour market, wage settings, etc.) and development.


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