The Nation (Nairobi)

11 April 2008

Africa: White Power, Black Power And Power Shortages

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Nairobi — Africa Insight

Mismanagement and the inability to act proactively to a rising power crisis in Africa threaten to literally render the continent the heart of darkness although something is being done about it too late, writes PETER KAGWANJA in Pretoria

Africa is rapidly sliding into an energy crunch now the subject of dark humour.

"First was white power, then came black power and now no power," jokes an executive of a South African think-tank.

Even the most fervent of the continent's Afro-optimists concede that the failure to immediately overcome the energy crunch will deprive Africa of the chance to realise its socio-economic renewal and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

"In spite of all the investment made, the development of energy in the continent still lags behind population growth and socio-economic needs," says the former Chief Executive of the Secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), Prof Firmino Mucavele, in a May 2007 report to the Pan-African Parliament.

The continent is not getting enough energy for its growing needs, and resources currently being used in generating energy are running out.

Lights are frequently out in Nigeria, despite former President Olusegun Obasanjo's government pumping $16 billion (about Sh100 billion) into the country's energy sector. Upon ascending to power in 2007, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua, declared a "state of emergency" on Nigeria's frail power sector. However, he has failed to convince cynics, who have disparaged the transformation of the National Electric Power Authority into the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) as "Problem Has Changed Name."

With only 19 of its 79 power plants operational and power outage averaging 14.5 hours a day, Yar'Adua's promise to overhaul the energy sector to deliver 30,000 megawatts in four years comes through like a pipe dream. So is his vision of turning Nigeria into a world-class economic powerhouse by 2020. But why does Africa find itself resource-rich and energy-poor?

Mucavele singles the "very high dependency on traditional fuels" south of the Sahara as one of the causes of the energy problem because it makes up half of the energy bill in countries that don't produce oil.

Also, African governments have failed to plan for the eventual shortage of power or have not invested enough to forestall the crisis. For instance, the African National Congress Government in South Africa was alerted that the country was headed for an eventual power crisis by 2007 but failed to take pre-emptive action.

But even as Africa smarts from the energy crunch, most of its energy-producing raw material is consumed elsewhere. The continent has 13 per cent of the world's population but consumes only three per cent of the world's commercial energy, despite its share of production standing at seven per cent.

Africa has also been steadily using up its firewood, with biomass or traditional fuels accounting for two-thirds of energy consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa. As the Nepad report rightly noted, "It is not so much their use that is wrong, but the [always unsustainable] manner in which they are being managed and used".

As a result of the energy crisis, South Africa has channelled $7.6 billion (Sh500bn) to Eskom to fix the problem by 2013.

But as the problem is being fixed, South Africa's crippling blackouts and ESKOM's regular announcements of load-shedding schedules are a boon to tsotsis (criminals) in the wealthy suburbs as the mining and other sectors feel the pinch.

As for Nigeria, economists estimate that the national power shortage, rightly perceived as a "national shame" for Africa's greatest oil producer, has cost the country's domestic, corporate and industrial sectors dearly.

Continental shame number two would be the dark cloud cast over the looming FIFA Soccer World Cup in South Africa in 2010, where power outages would mean dark stadia or interruption of live television transmissions - not very good for soccer

But there is hope. African leaders and other players have realised it cannot be "business as usual" when it comes to energy production.

In South Africa, Eskom's strategy is to build new generation capacity within the country while exploring opportunities for power generation regionally. Eskom is also utilising the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) and farther afield, the Union of Power Producers, Transmitters and Distributors in Africa (UPDEA) to enter the continental power market.

The South African energy giant's role includes establishing small hydro-electric power plants in Uganda, where it has established Eskom Uganda; in Mali through Manantali; and in Zambia, where it has partnered in the 40MW Lunsemfwa Hydro power station.

But even as Eskom's expansion is welcome, it is being roasted for exporting five per cent of generated power to neighbouring countries, despite the explanation that this is done only when there is excess output.

Nepad has also chipped in and made making power available for Africa's development one of its key concerns.

The Inga Dam Project on the Congo River, one of Africa's few perennial rivers, is indexed as one of Nepad's projects and promises to be the world's greatest source of hydro-electric power.

The Inga Dam Project is at the heart of the pan-Africa energy venture known as the Western Power Corridor (Westcor) that brings together Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

One of the emerging components of the Inga project is the Inga III, a 3,500MW hydro-power project on the Congo River, where South Africa is a major player with four country-based utilities as the core of the project.

They are Empresa Nacional de Electricidade (ENE) of Angola, Botswana Power Corporation (BPC), the Société Nationale d'Electricité (SNEL) of the DRC and NamPower of Namibia.

Westcor's success will provide the impetus for the long-term realisation of the Grand Inga project, widely publicised as the key to unlocking Africa's energy gridlock. This project, located 225 kilometres from Kinshasa and 150 kilometres from the Atlantic Coast, has the potential to produce 40,000MW.

The promises of the Grand Inga project notwithstanding, Africa has to go beyond the single-project solution to solve the crippling energy crisis.

Many countries are already looking forward to having new power generation projects based on coal, uranium (nuclear power), wind and sun to alleviate the current shortages. But there is the little problem of finances.

The Westcor project must raise $4bn (Sh300bn) on the international market with African funding, ensuring local ownership. Consequently, the African Development Bank is studying the feasibility of both the Westcor and the Grand Inga, which might provide the needed continental ownership.

Electrical energy is not only crucial to commerce and industry, but also holds the key to poverty alleviation. On average, less than 20 per cent of Africa's population has access to electricity. Energy being critical to the provision of clean water, sanitation, health services, irrigation, telecommunication, industrial development and development of infrastructure, its absence means poverty and therefore, it should be central to transforming the rhetoric of "African Renaissance" into a socio-economic reality.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group's Africa Media Network Project.

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