If Africa Is To Rise, It First Needs More Energy

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Written by Andrew Friedman

What would you do without electricity? To start, you would be unable to read this article. How about more basic? It would be impossible to keep food cold in a refrigerator. Same with medicines that have to stay cold to maintain potency, even in those hospitals and clinics that rely on them to save lives.

All reading would be difficult if not impossible after the sun has gone down, even the old fashioned ink and paper kind. Lacking electricity, your place of business would be subject to uncertainty, potentially unable to meet deadlines and orders with some frequency.

While this may not be a problem experienced by many in the developed world, it is too often a part of the every day lives of people in the developing world, especially across the African continent.

According to the Washington Post, estimates have 590 million people across the continent with no access to power. The lack of access to electricity is a also a significant impediment to developing businesses and foreign investment.

According to the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings, 10 of the 15 worst countries in the world for access to electricity are located south of the Sahara.

Luckily, this tremendous problem has begun to attract attention.

During a trip across the continent last year American President Barack Obama promised $7 billion to enhance access to electricity across Africa. Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative is meant to bring electricity to 20 million new households in six countries, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania, by 2020.

The lion’s share of the program is in the form of government backed loans through existing development banks such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the US Export-Import Bank, with only a small portion going to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or the US African Development Foundation in the form of grants and development assistance.

Additionally, just last week Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced a bipartisan bill in the Senate entitled the “Energize Africa Act.” This bill, according to Ben Leo of development think tank the Center for Global Development, would serve three vital purposes.

First, it would force the Obama administration to come up with a comprehensive, multi-year plan of action for implementing the Power Africa initiative rather than the ad hoc or “transaction-by-transaction” manner it is currently dealt with.

Second, it would “unleash” OPIC, giving the vital quasi-governmental Corporation new tools to ensure the private sector works towards energizing the African continent.

Finally, it will conduct research on the effectiveness of OPIC in comparison to similar quasi-governmental corporations across the globe allowing for the most effective use of finite development dollars.

The increased attention paid by the United States government to this vital goal has led the private-sector to take notice.

In addition to the initial $7 billion USD promised in the Power Africa program, a number of large American companies have lined up to guarantee investments totaling $9 billion USD. This includes energy giants such as General Electric, Heirs Holdings and Symbion Power.

In one example, a recently launched program, Beyond the Grid, aims to provide electricity to populations outside the traditionally dense urban populations in the continent’s vast hinterland.

While 27 investors with commitments totaling over $1 billion USD were lined up, the current piecemeal approach to funding has forced investors to be lined up on a transaction-by-transaction basis, which, while successful, will hopefully be streamlined if the Menendez-Corker bill can make it through the legislative process.

In addition to a lack of business development and access to unspoiled foods and medicines, the lack of reliable access to electricity causes nearly 3.5 million deaths annually through indoor air pollution from wood stoves.

While these deaths have largely been ignored in the past, Obama’s 2013 visit to the continent led many to take notice on the sheer breadth of the problem.

David Nakamura, a Washington Post reporter traveling with the Press Corps reported both that his room, in the same hotel as the President, cut off lights and that during the trip the power went out, trapping reporters in the elevator.

While statistics may be easy to ignore, it is impossible to ignore when the Kilimanjaro, a Five Star Hyatt Hotel in Dar es Salaam, cannot keep the lights on, even when housing the President of the United States.

The United Nations Foundation reports that two-third of the goal has been reached by leveraging public-private relationships and working to encourage private investment.

There is perhaps no greater way to ensure that Africa continues “rising” than ensure adequate and reliable access to electricity across the continent so students can learn, businesses can function and healthcare providers can heal. The Power Africa initiative and Energize Africa Bill, along with the vast private-sector commitments, are a good start.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.