Africa: time to get the lights on

The United States uses more electricity in a day than Zimbabwe, Ghana or Tanzania generate in a year. Now experts say a lack of kilowatts, and resulting unemployment, are behind illegal migration, and young men joining militia. Yet the continent is blessed with massive stocks of coal, oil and gas. Some call for aid and new-tech to bridge the gap, while a Nigerian author says aid is part of the problem and that Africans should use what they have.

Lights out. Africa’s shortage of power shows at night

Look at the earth at night, in a photo from the International Space Station, and Africa is still “the dark continent”.

Home to around 1.2 billion people, Africa generates less than three per cent of the world’s electricity. So where the US, Europe, even Brazil and India, show up white with city lights in a satellite picture, there’s little more than a sprinkle over Johannesburg and Cape Town, with spots for Harare, Nairobi, Lagos and along the Mediterranean

The rest is black.

It was a problem raised recently at a conference on illegal migration to Europe. Leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Chad, Niger and Libya resolved to crack down on people-trafficking, and provide more development aid to source countries.

The push driving people north, they agreed, was not war but poverty and unemployment. And with no electricity, it was hard to change either.

Youth unemployment is close to 90 per cent in Zimbabwe and a worrying two-thirds in South Africa, with similar numbers for cities in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania

John Owusu is a retired engineer originally from Ghana, but for 50 years he has worked across all regions of Africa.

Dr Ayeni: find local solutions for Africa

“Young people on our continent are mostly urban, or in the process of moving from the countryside,” he said. “So if you want to employ the millions who are without jobs, you need mines, factories and service industries

“But how can you do that without electricity?  In Europe or America, having the lights on is taken for granted,” Mr Owasu said. “But what would happen to your life, your job and your city if that changed, if there was no power for a month, a year? That’s what many in Africa live with.

Chad, he said, was one of the main source countries for migrants to France. “Maybe that’s because Paris burns more electricity in a month than Chad generates in a year.”

Dams in West Africa, and like Kariba and Cabora Basa on the Zambezi, pump out power, but drought can leave water levels too low to spin the turbines.

And the new science of wind and solar have set-up costs, mostly in foreign currency, that put them outside the reach of poorer states.

And, so, the continent is moving back to natural gas and, more-so, to coal.

In the ground

South Africa generates nearly half of all Africa’s electricity using some of the world’s largest coal-powered plants. Zimbabwe and Botswana do the same.

Ghana has no reserves but had been debating the import of coal for electricity, while Nigeria has more than two-billion tons in the ground.

The discovery of oil in the late 50s and the Nigerian civil war of the late 60s, in the heart of the coalfields, set back production. But in a country famous for its blackouts, a 2011 report showed that, starting from scratch, a coal-fired plant could be set up cheaper and more quickly than oil or hydro.

Meanwhile, the African Development Bank is running a study on how it might fund Kenya’s first coal power plant, and Tanzania has one under way on the border with Mozambique.

For Zimbabwe, it is an indispensable source of power from giant reserves at the Wankie colliery.

President Trump has pledged to help developing countries with clean-coal technology to reduce emissions.

Critics say Africa should skip the fossil fuel that built industrial hubs in Europe, America, India, China and Australia and move directly to wind and solar.

There are also calls for more aid to help Africa with its energy deficit.

The Power Africa initiative started by President Obama and continued by the Trump administration encourages private US companies to build generation capacity across Africa.

But in Uganda, were both Power Africa and USAID are active, only 22 per cent of the population are on the grid while the country sells what it calls its “excess power” to neighboring Kenya for cash. Two new dams with turbines are about to come online but much of the output will flow down pylons into the Democratic Republic of Congo, boosting the treasury in Kampala but still leaving a majority of Ugandans in the dark.

Aid gone wrong

Washington neurosurgeon, Dr Sylvanus Adetokunboh Ayeni, who was born in Nigeria, has written a book on the problems of aid and corruption in Africa, and says hand-outs are not the answer.

“We hear endlessly how a gift of money can put things right, but more than a trillion dollars in aid to Africa since 1960 has done little to help.

“We need solutions that work locally, not wafty notions from aid junkies and NGOs who, when they get it wrong, run back to the comfort of London or Los Angeles.

“For example, what’s the point of spending scarce foreign exchange to import solar panels or wind turbines for oil rich countries like Angola or Nigeria. Or to Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa with billions of tons of coal in the ground.”

Nigeria, with more than three times the population of South Africa produces one tenth as much power.

India has an estimated 300 million people — close to the population of USA — still off the grid. Africa has double that number.

Experts say the problem often lies in last-mile technology, lines from substations to homes and factories, even to whole towns.

In his book Rescue Thyself, subtitled “Change in sub-Saharan Africa must come from within,” Ayeni says electricity remains a key challenge for Africa.

“When you have no power, you can’t set up factories, run hotels, do homework, keep vaccines chilled at a clinic or even pump water efficiently. In short, you have no hope of a better life,” he said.

“And with the resultant poverty and unemployment, young people have few options. Why do you think millions are striking out to cross the Mediterranean while others join gangs or militia? Ask yourself what you would do if you lived in such misery.”

Before handing out aid, Dr Ayeni said donors should ask why countries with virtually no natural resources like Singapore rank among the world’s best economies, “while oil-rich Angola manufactures almost nothing and, under president Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has gone from breadbasket to a beggar state.”

Nigel Lawson was finance minister under Margaret Thatcher and today sits in the House of Lords.

In London, he also chairs a non-partisan think tank, the Global Warming Policy Forum or GWPF with a board of leading business people and academics.

Migrants and militia

GWPF director, Dr Bennie Peiser, agreed with Dr Ayeni that power generation was vital to changing Africa for the better. “If you worry about Africans in poverty and people drowning on the Mediterranean, or the rise of militia and criminal networks, do something about it. And that must begin with providing electricity.”

Dr Peiser said it was, “an outrage that, in 2017, some African states produce less power than a mid-size town in Europe or America.”

This, he said, is a threat to the environment. “People need to cook and stay warm, so they chop trees. The loss of forest is much more immediate than predictions that temperatures may rise significantly over the next century. By then Africa’s forests will already have been cut down.”

And he said Dr Ayeni was right that supply of power had to be done quickly and in a way that works for Africa.

“China has 1.4 billion people, roughly the same as Africa, but with 10 times more electricity. You only get those numbers from hydro plants on rivers and, for the most part, from coal and gas.

“For all the love-affair with wind and solar, they produce tiny amounts of power, even in the US and Europe, and storing it at night or when the weather doesn’t work remains an unsolved problem,” Dr. Peiser said.
In July, President Trump lifted an Obama-era ban on World Bank funds being used for clean-coal projects to generate power in developing countries.

But Ayeni says time is short. “Africa is urbanizing perhaps faster than anywhere on the planet, and in our cities unemployment can reach 70 per cent, especially among the youth. If we don’t find something for these people to do, we face a bloody revolution worse than anything in history.”

Migration, crime, militia and “a continent in dysfunction”, he said, were “a product of poor governance, bad aid and hundreds of millions left destitute because there is no work and no electricity to build an economy”.

Dr  Peiser said that while small solar units handed out by US and British aid groups were helpful, “let’s not kid ourselves that this is the answer. We need every city and town on a central grid where the power doesn’t go off.”

Dr Ayeni dismissed the idea that grid power can’t work in Africa because of distances involved and the cost of distribution to rural areas.

“Canada is a third the size of Africa with vast areas under snow and ice, but every part of the country has electricity and Canada generates so much it sells power to the US.”

Ayeni said the best industrial solutions are those pioneered and run by Africans, using readily available human and natural resources especially at grassroots level.

And, if aid is delivered, he said it should be done, as far as possible, outside the reach of government.

“Africa is literally the dark continent because so few people have the lights on. Better we sort that before it becomes a continent on fire.”

Rescue Thyself: Change in sub-Saharan Africa must come from within,  by Dr Sylvanus Ayeni, is published in the US by Hamilton Books. Distributed in Africa by Juta & Co (Cape Town) and in England by Quantum Publishing

Post published in: Environment
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