Nairobi — Last October I had to wait nearly three hours for my accreditation to be printed out at the Press and Communication Ministry in Kinshasa, in a room without air conditioning.
The electrical current in the Democratic Republic of Congo is neither direct nor alternating: it is intermittent.
"We must wait for the minister to get back," said an official. "He's the only one who can give us permission to start the generators. With SNEL (the national electric power company), you never know when the electricity will come on again."
Because of the frequent power cuts, the tired old generators are often called into service.
The DRC is not an isolated case. The International Monetary Fund warned in 2008 that in most sub-Saharan African countries, infrastructure deficiencies (in energy, transport, water, and information and communication technology) caused 30-60 per cent of business productivity losses and cut economic growth by two percentage points every year.
But building new facilities and repairing old ones would mean spending $93 billion a year between 2006 and 2015, roughly 15 per cent of Africa's GDP.
Electric power represents 40-80 per cent of infrastructure deficiencies.
The media are indignant that one African child in three fails to complete primary school education, but rarely interested in the fact that three in every four children have no access to electricity.
At 68 gigawatts, the entire generation capacity of the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is no more than that of Spain; and without South Africa, the total falls to 28GW, equivalent to the installed capacity of Argentina.
Perhaps a quarter of this limited capacity is currently out of action.
Each African has access to only 124KWh of electricity a year - enough to power a single 100W light bulb for three hours a day.
African manufacturing companies report power cuts on an average of 56 days a year, costing them 5-6 per cent of their revenues.
Things are even worse in the DRC, where more than 94 per cent of the population has no electricity at all.
Even being connected to the grid doesn't guarantee light, since electricity is rationed.
Power cuts make daily life an ordeal: Urban crime is rising in the darkness, hospitals have trouble keeping vaccines fresh, drinking water supplies are interrupted because the pumps keep stopping, and the chore of fetching water and firewood consumes time and energy.
People often find irregular solutions, sometimes at the risk of their lives; many get electrocuted while trying to connect illegally to the grid.
Foreign embassies and the offices of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) enjoy a more regular supply and the surrounding areas are crawling with "traders" who will tap into the power grid and recharge a mobile phone or make photocopies in the street.
Enough for nearly half of Africa
The potential for hydroelectric power in Africa is huge, but only 3 per cent is actually being used.
The DRC could be an important player: The Congo river, especially around the Inga rapids in the province of Bas-Congo, could allow it to generate up to 110GW.
Once the Grand Inga complex is built, it may produce as much as 44GW, twice as much as China's Three Gorges dam and enough to supply 40 per cent of all Africa's needs from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope.
Hope is what the project survives on. Two dams, Inga I (built in 1972) and Inga II (1982), are already in place.
The complex is linked to the capital and to the mining region of Katanga by a 1,700km high-tension line.
Because of its strategic importance, Inga is guarded like a fortress.
"In August 1998 the RCD (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie) rebels came in by plane and tried to cut the power and bring the country to a standstill," said Inga's director, Ali Mbuyi Tshimpanga.
The meeting room has big windows from which there is a magnificent view of the rapids but the curtains are always closed.
Everything about the room indicates shortage of funds. Surrounded by slogans on unreliably backlit panels and technical drawings displayed on wobbly tripods, Tshimpanga explained that the site should, theoretically, produce 1,800MW.
But the needles of most of the dials in the machine room are stuck on zero and the actual output is barely 875MW.
Inga's technical chief Claude Lubuma explained: "Inga I has six generators, of which three are not working. Inga II has four that are working, three that will be repaired with a World Bank loan and one more thanks to a loan from the African Development Bank."
The decrepit wall of the conference room mocks the slogan of the Mobutu era: "Inga, Africa's greatest source of power, available for Africa." The site needs funds. But after 30 years under a dictator and a decade of war, the DRC is high on the Failed States Index. Even at an average economic growth rate of 5.5 per cent, it would take until 2060 to get back to the per capita income level the country had at independence in 1960.
Yet though the DRC has huge natural resources, it is a "heavily indebted poor country" (HIPC).
According to business analyst Stuart Notholt, writing in the February 2009 issue of African Business, the DRC's mining potential is estimated at $24 billion -- the equivalent of the combined GDP of Europe and the US.
But the DRC has fallen prey to greed and is no longer its own master.
Fighting over resources and political instability have hampered maintenance work at the Inga facilities and stunted economic development.
The government coffers are empty. A SNEL executive, speaking anonymously, admitted: "The power network in this country is what the Belgians left behind, and it's obsolete. We're on the brink of disaster. Customers have to buy their own cables as SNEL doesn't have the money to replace faulty ones."
Clientelism and obsolete management methods have made it impossible to finance infrastructure projects; the state charges far less for electricity than it costs to generate.
A member of staff of the European Investment Bank explained: "In the vast majority of sub-Saharan African countries, electricity tariffs are subsidised and have not changed since the 1970s, as they are a powerful electoral tool.
We can't make any progress if things stay this way." But how can you raise the price of a service the vast majority of the population can't afford?
In Kinshasa, a sandstorm gave way to a tropical downpour that interrupted electricity to the entire capital.
Darkness enveloped the ministry of infrastructure, public works and reconstruction.
The poster with the slogan for President Joseph Kabila's "Cinq Chantiers" (five areas of reconstruction) policy - "With courage and determination, we can rebuild and modernise the Congo" -- is already a distant memory.
The minister, Fridolin Kasweshi Musoka, said: "To be able to invest in infrastructure, SNEL would have to raise the price to the consumer by 400 per cent. The problem in the energy sector is the public service aspect of supplying electricity."
Bernadette Tokwaulu, acting deputy managing director of SNEL, felt that interference by politicians in the management of public enterprises didn't help: "Brewers don't pay the standard tariff for their electricity. They get subsidies from the government under the heading of development aid. And the authorities require us to provide lighting on the Boulevard du 30 Juin, but that shouldn't be a priority. It's the same with the lighting at Kikwit, which only serves the interests of the prime minister, since it's his fiefdom." In Africa, this interference can mask official corruption, even if there have been a few show trials as part of President Kabila's "zero tolerance" anti-corruption campaign.
To make up its funding shortfall, the DRC has turned to international aid. The energy minister, Gilbert Tshiongo, explained: "The funding basically comes from traditional funding providers - mostly multilateral and bilateral financial institutions such as The World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the EU, KfW Entwicklungsbank and Finexpo.
But the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and The World Bank) have criticised SNEL for its unprofitability and inability to fulfil its mission.
The aid they offer is conditional on reforms that would establish the principle of electric power liberalisation and private sector participation at every stage of the supply chain.
Many protest against this. Franck Mériau, an energy consultant in Kinshasa, told me: "In Africa, the IMF and the World Bank are asking the private sector to develop electric power, while in the rest of the world it's the public sector that has undertaken this task."
The World Bank's strategy is to bring public enterprises to their knees and show that they are useless so as to justify their privatisation."
Few people at SNEL agree with the current programme of reforms.
Tokwaulu added: "If the electric power market is opened up, the private sector will take the profitable captive segments and leave SNEL the unprofitable "public service" segments, which will only make SNEL's debt worse ...
By definition, it's the government's responsibility to ensure the provision of basic utilities such as electricity, and it should face up to that responsibility."
Privatisations of this kind could lead to the formation of monopolies. Many sub-Saharan African countries have yet to put regulatory frameworks in place.
According to the energy ministry, stabilising the electricity supply and doubling coverage by 2015 would cost the DRC more than $6.5 billion.
Infrastructure projects involve massive investment and long loan repayment periods, and yields are unreliable.
Of 987 million Africans, 500 million have a mobile phone, but 700 million don't have electricity.
Telephone networks are cheaper to build than electricity networks and provide a quicker return on investment.
Alain Bokele, SNEL's director for the Kinshasa district, was overwhelmed with work: "It's really complicated. We have put out a tender for the modernisation of the network, but people aren't falling over each other to bid."
Tshimpanga had noticed the same phenomenon: "Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are rare. In Katanga, SNEL is collaborating with a few mining companies, such as TFM and KCC. The problem is that, with a PPP, you patch up only the part of the grid that interests the private financiers. It's of almost no benefit to the community."
Everyone offers a different prognosis. Some hope that the global crisis will serve as a catalyst for investment by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and by the Gulf states, Turkey and South Korea.
The UN conference on trade and development's Economic Development in Africa Report 2010, says weaker prospects for growth among the advanced economies mean that economic relations between Africa and other developing regions are likely to become more important.
The DRC's mineral resources are attracting foreign investors. Mériau told me: "Development in Africa is based on usefulness to foreign enterprises. They invest a lot in ports, airports, roads and infrastructure -- anything that helps them to carry off the continent's raw materials. In fact, all PPP projects are mining and export-related."
The world's leading mining company, BHP Billiton, needs more than 2GW of electricity to power an aluminium factory it is hoping to build in Bas-Congo.
The company is looking at collaborating with the DRC in the construction of a new hydroelectric dam: Inga III.
Studies suggest the project could produce up to 4.3GW for an investment of $7 billion.
Bienvenu-Marie Bakumanya, a reporter for the Congolese newspaper Le Potentiel, said: "BHP Billiton wanted to reduce the plant's capacity to 3.5GW or even 2.5GW, so as to limit production to its own needs and keep the bill down."
Contract of the century
To complete Inga III by 2020 and the first phase of Grand Inga by 2025 (initial capacity 6GW, rising to a potential 44GW), the Congolese government needs to raise $22.1 billion.
The energy minister is working closely with the minister for mines.
He is hoping that, in return for concessions, the mining companies will pay for the electricity to be generated and conveyed to the mines - and to surrounding communities if there happen to be a few megawatts to spare. This kind of cooperation would be at the expense of African integration.
Another project had been put forward by the Westcor consortium, which involved five countries (the DRC, Angola, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa) but, in February 2010, at the request of the DRC, the consortium was disbanded.
The agreement was unfavourable to the DRC, since it would have given the party states equal shares in the dam with the DRC. The project went no further.
SNEL's research and development director, Waku Ekwi Mapuata, said: "SNEL doesn't have the technological or financial resources to complete the work alone."
The West has taken the lion's share in Africa so far, and countries of the South are picking up the crumbs.
In 2006, less than a quarter of the aid from traditional funding providers went to the production sector.
If the Europeans had worked at developing the private sector, their grip on the mining industry would have been weakened.
The South invests not only in primary goods but also in major power generating, transport and sanitation facilities.
The "contract of the century", which the DRC signed with three Chinese companies in September 2007, involves the building of infrastructure and large bank loans in return for preferential treatment in the exploitation of natural resources.
This ambitious programme recalls the old colonial approach, linking commerce, aid and direct foreign investment. But these "win-win" agreements could be masking a con.
Hope for future
China's professed anti-colonialism and Afro-optimism has filled President Kabila with enthusiasm.
In 2007 he said: "We will make the DRC the China of Africa." Lambert Mende Omalanga, the DRC's communications minister and spokesman for the Kabila administration, felt the arrival of the Chinese had saved the DRC: "It's a new kind of cooperation and it suits us. When they impose it on you, setting very stringent conditions, you don't feel as if you are accepting charity."
Once called "Kin' la Belle" (Kin' the Beautiful), Kinshasa has long since ceased to deserve the name.
Yet "Kin' la Poubelle" (Dustbin Kin') is improving. Radio presenters still broadcast messages exhorting those who have not eaten today to resist temptation and not to lose faith, because "God, in His mercy, may give you a piece of bread before the day is over."
The Congolese still hope for a less miserable future, especially now that there are asphalted roads, new housing and ever more crowded stadiums.
The authorities are happy at the number of construction projects and the rapidity with which they are executed. Electorally, these changes benefit the ruling party.
"In 10 years, we will have 15,000km of road built, rather than the 700km we'd have had with the traditional providers," said Mr Omalanga.
He was alluding to The World Bank, as representative of western funding providers; it planned to renovate 10 turbines at Inga.