7 August 2014

Africa: Powering Africa - A Successful Year But Only a Beginning

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Washington, DC — Remarks delivered to the 'Power Africa' luncheon sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa

Just over a year ago, on a bright sunny day I stood at a power plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania listening to President Obama tell the world about the Power Africa initiative, an ambitious program with bi-partisan support in Congress.

I listened very carefully to his speech as he promised to “bring electricity to 20 million new homes and businesses and to double access to electricity in Africa”

He was speaking to President Kikwete of Tanzania and an array of invited officials and guests from Africa and the United States, and said,

“Now, in order for this to work, then we all have to feel a sense of urgency. One of the things, Mr. President, that I learned around the business roundtable is if we are going to electrify Africa, we’ve got to do it with more speed. We can’t have projects that take, seven, eight, nine years to be approved and to get online. If we’re going to make this happen, we’ve got to cut through the red tape, and that can only happen with leadership like the leadership that President Kikwete has shown.”

These words have been etched in my mind ever since, because the President could not have been more on point. The old approach to power infrastructure development isn’t going to deliver the results Africans need. Only a paradigm shift in attitude, will double access to electricity in Sub Saharan Africa.

This is what will define the future of Power Africa. We must all find ways to reduce timelines so that more generation capacity is available and more transmission and distribution lines are constructed.

Demand in Africa is heavily suppressed and it won’t easily be satisfied because as power becomes available, the demand for it will grow and grow each year. That is what happens.

The time has come for African governments to roll up their sleeves and cut through the bureaucratic red tape and redefine the processes they use to procure new power infrastructure.

The time has come for Africa to embrace the private sector so that they will invest in new power plants and in new transmission and distribution systems.

And the time has come for every U.S. government agency involved in the Power Africa initiative to ask themselves if their own processes, their own systems and their own requirements match with President Obama’s call for urgency.

I am afraid that at the moment they do not.

In the run up to the Africa Heads of State Summit, I have been interviewed by many reporters about Power Africa and almost all of them have been asking me what it has delivered so far.

My answer is simple - that anyone who expects to see new power in the space of one year clearly doesn’t understand the power industry. It will take two to three years before we start to see tangible results from the effort and the cost that has already been expended.

What the Power Africa team has done in the year since we all went to the power plant in Tanzania is to mobilize the team that will double access to electricity. Setting up a large organization across the African continent and in the U.S. isn’t easy.

Building relationships with their African counterparts isn’t easy either. It is a function of finding the right people, with the right attitude. Africa needs friends, collaborators and colleagues. It does not need bosses.

In this regard Power Africa has achieved great success.

Despite these early Power Africa successes, much remains to be done and many challenges lie ahead. A pressing need is for the six Power Africa governments to take action to cut through archaic bureaucratic processes and to make the systematic changes that are necessary to accelerate the availability of power.

The U.S. has work to do as well. The Electrify Africa Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 8 with broad bipartisan support, and the Energize Africa Act was reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 24.

But a year after the U.S. promised the people of Sub-Saharan Africa that we will double access to electricity, it is debating whether or not to close down the Export-Import Bank, the one agency that will ensure that Power Africa will deliver the scale that is needed and guarantee that products and services come from the United States, thereby creating jobs at home. That debate should end with renewed support for the Ex-Im Bank.

Finally, if the United States is to deliver on the Power Africa promises it made a year ago to bring electricity to 20 million African homes and businesses, President Obama must reassert the leadership and wisdom he showed under the blue skies of Africa on July 2, 2013, when he turned to the President of Tanzania and said, “We have to feel a sense of urgency, we must do this with more speed.”

Paul Hinks is CEO of Symbion Power LLC, a U.S. company that builds, owns and operates electric power systems in Africa and elsewhere. He has worked in Africa for over 34 years. Symbion Power is one of the founding partners of the Power Africa initiative, and he is the Chairman of the Corporate Council on Africa.

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