Electrifying Afrika

Afrikan Children Studying In The DarkMany women in Afrika are forced to deliver their babies in the dark.  Schoolchildren often must either study by flashlight (or candlelight) or finish their schoolwork during the day.  Equipment for cooking and pumping water cannot be used.  Critical life-saving medicines cannot be refrigerated when needed to prevent spoilage.  This I what life is like for too many of Afrika’s people.  While the Continent is advancing and is considered by many to be among the fastest-growing markets and trade partners, the lack of reliable electricity remains a huge stumbling block to Afrika’s ability to truly bring self-determination and prosperity to its people.

To assist in filling the need to bring electricity to the Mother Continent, United States President Barack Obama has initiated the Power Africa Initiative, and the United States Congress has proposed and is supporting the Electrify Africa Act.

The Borgen Project (http://borgenproject.org)  has advocated on behalf of the Electrify Africa Act as a needed supplement to President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative. 

“The Borgen Project believes that leaders of the most powerful nation on earth should be doing more to address global poverty. We’re the innovative, national campaign that is working to make poverty a focus of U.S. foreign policy.” 
                                                                                  — Borgen Project Mission Statement

Their case for support of the Act is spelled out in an article by Borgen Project’s Katie Bandera (http://borgenproject.org/what-is-the-electrify-africa-act-of-2013/).  According to the article:

While the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has decreased from 52.2 percent in 1981 to 20.2 percent in 2010, poverty alleviation remains inconsistent across the globe.  East Asia experienced a significant reduction in the proportion of its population living on less than $1.25 a day, lowering its rate from 77.2 percent in 1981 to 12.5 percent in 2010.  South Asia also saw an impressive reduction, decreasing its rate from 61.1 percent in 1981 to 31.0 percent in 2010.  Efforts to alleviate poverty have clearly succeeded in Asia, but progress in Africa lags significantly behind.  Between 1981 and 2010, the proportion of those living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan decreased a mere 3 percent – from 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent.  Today, 68 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lacks access to electricity, and 30 African countries face frequent power shortages.  225 million people depend on health facilities that have no electricity.  While USAID and African economies have experienced recent successes, the lack of access to reliable electricity is cited as the main constraint that hampers both growth and development.  Aid organizations have made significant progress in Africa in recent years, but their efforts can only go so far when large areas of the continent lack electricity.  The Electrify Africa Act of 2013 seeks to provide affordable and reliable electricity to Africa in order to aid economic growth and decrease poverty rates.  Authored by several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Africa Subcommittee, the Electrify Africa Act aims to “create a strategic approach to support affordable, reliable electricity in sub-Saharan Africa,” which will “unlock the potential for economic growth, job creation, improved health and education, and poverty reduction.”

If passed, the Electrify Africa Act will:
• Declare that it is the policy of the United States to encourage access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa;

• Require that the Administration create a comprehensive strategy to help increase electricity in sub-Saharan Africa;
• Encourage USAID to use existing tools like loan guarantees, partnerships and grants to increase electricity in sub-Saharan Africa;
• Direct the Treasury Department to persuade the World Bank and African Development
Bank to increase electrification investments in sub-Saharan Africa;
• Instruct the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to prioritize electrical sector investments in sub-Saharan Africa; and
• Call on the Trade and Development Agency to encourage broader private sector engagement in the sub-Saharan Africa electricity sector.

7 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa currently live without access to electricity, but this legislation will ensure that the United States employs a specific strategy to increase access to electricity at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers. Call your congressman to encourage their support of the Electrify Africa Act of 2013.

Policy Breakfast on Power: Eliminating a barrier to trade, development and growth in Africa

On October 24, 2013, the United States Congress Africa Policy Breakfast Series presented Power: Eliminating a barrier to trade, development and growth in Africa, at the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Rep Karen Bass 1The event was hosted by the Office of Congressmember Karen Bass (D-California, pictured right), Ranking Member of the House Africa Subcommittee.  Ms. Bass had sponsored the Africa Braintrust event on September 20 at the Washington, DC Convention Center as part of the Constituency For Africa’s Ronald H. Brown Africa Series.  Congressmember Bass is considered one of the more progressive members of Congress, and her work has demonstrated a concern for Afrika and the Afrikan Diaspora.

The purpose of this event was to allow concerned members of the public to learn a bit more about current efforts to bring the infrastructure to Afrika that will facilitate the provision of reliable, consistent electrical power to Afrika’s people.

The event was co-hosted by Rep. Ed Royce, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Chris Coons and Sen. Jeff Flake.

A number of members from the Afrikan Diplomatic Corps were present.  This included ambassadors from several countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda.  Other officials present included Former US Ambassador Lisa Wilson, representatives from the African Development Bank, Export-Import Bank and US-Africa Development Foundation.

Ed Royce (R-California) “became the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 2013.  He is currently serving his 11th term in the United States Congress, representing Southern California’s 39th district.  From 1997 to 2004, Rep. Royce chaired the Africa Subcommittee” (from the program introduction).

Rep. Royce pointed out that “trade with Afrika has tripled” since 2000, and thus Afrika is becoming an important trading partner.  Afrika currently faces a crisis because of interruptions in power to the populace.  70% of Afrika’s people do not have access to reliable energy.

Rep. Royce is the current co-chair of the Conservation Caucus, which promotes a program that includes a focus on renewable sources of energy.  Unfortunately, it can’t all be done with renewables, according to Rep. Royce as well as most experts and advocates for bringing power to Afrika’s people; hence, Rep. Royce believes that a “balanced approach” that includes biofuels, oil, gas and so-called “clean coal” must be pursued to “Electrify Afrika”.  Part of his reasoning for this approach is the conviction that “governments sitting on gas reserves” will not support the use of renewable energy.

Kamran Khan is the Vice President of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).   He “is responsible for overseeing MCC’s $9 billion compact grant program portfolio and manages the agency’s engagement with partner country governments and civil societies to reduce poverty and generate sustainable economic growth” (from the program introduction).  MCC’s activities are built around supporting free trade and economic growth.  Their desire is to better establish Afrika as a trade partner.  Toward this end, they are assisting with the implementation of the Power Africa Initiative of the Obama Administration, which is currently in its primary phase, focusing on six Afrikan countries.  MCC employs 300 people in the US.  MCC is selective in choosing what countries they will work with.  A major part of their work includes identifying “constraints to economic growth” (regulations, investment climate, stability of the country and other governance issues).  Implementation is done by the countries and they must be ready, with a concrete plan and having satisfied MCC’s requirements before an investment is made.  The process includes the institution of whatever governmental or institutional reforms are needed in the recipient country, followed by “transactions” (investments) and “capacity-building” (actual construction of the needed infrastructure).  Currently, MCC plans to invest $1 Billion US in Power Africa countries.

Several US organizations are also involved in the Power Africa Initiative, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Overseas Power Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the United States Treasury Department.

Paul Hinks is the Chief Executive Officer of Symbion Power.  “With 30 years of experience in the power industry, Mr. Hinks has been responsible for the construction of power plants, transmission lines and substations in the USA, Africa, the Middle East and Asia” (from the program introduction).  Symbion started in Afrika in 2005, working with developing countries.  Symbion began in engineering contracting, then began building power plants in Tanzania after a successful bid on an MCC contract.  Symbion now has bases in Western, Eastern and Southern Afrika.

Olufunke Iyabo Osibodu is the Director, Vigeo Power Ltd., Benin Electricity Distribution.  “Ms. Osibodu has over three decades of banking experience with formative years at Chase Merchant Bank and Citibank.  She was the Managing Director and Chief Executive of two Nigerian banks.  She is the incoming CEO of the Benin Electricity Distribution Company” (from the program introduction).

South Africa currently generates 40 megawatts of power.  By comparison, the objective is to have Nigeria generating 20 megawatts by 2020.  To facilitate this goal, funding is needed in a “timely and fast fashion” but that level of funding has not yet been reached.  There is a need for agencies to work together better and be better coordinated.  |A special need is support for more distribution to customers.

The moderator of the panel was Oren Whyche-Shaw.  She is the Principal Adviser to the Africa Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  “Ms. Whyche-Shaw serves as the Africa Bureau’s trade coordinator and as the coordinator for Partnership for Growth, an initiative that aims to accelerate and sustain broad-based economic growth bty putting into practice President Obama’s September 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development” (from the program introduction).  Her remarks were limited to the moderation of the panel and ensuring that the program, from the panelists’ presentations to the Question-and-Answer session, proceeded smoothly.

The Members’ Room of the Jefferson Building was packed to capacity with concerned citizens from the Afrikan-American, European-American and Continental Afrikan communities, all of whom had concerns about efforts to bring energy to the Afrikan Continent.  Questions from the audience ran the gamut from financing to governance to environmental concerns.

The questioning began with the issue of off-grid power for populations in rural Afrika.  This is supposed to be a key aim of both Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act.  But how is local access to rural communities to be ensured?  The consensus seemed to be that Power Africa must include local people and businesses, not just the major extractive industries, especially since access to power for the populace is one of the constraints to economic growth identified by MCC.  However, as an example of the continuing problems posed by this issue, Liberian activist Emira Woods cited the example of a power plant in South Africa “surrounded by local communities living in the dark.”  MCC insists that there are provisions to ensure that local populations get power from power plants.  As Mr. Khan of MCC said, “We take this issue of social responsibility very, very seriously.”  He noted that MCC was rated #1 by Transparency International.

There were a number of questions regarding the degree of commitment to the development and use of “off-grid green renewables” such as geothermal, solar, wind, hydro and micro-hydro.  The discussion, even in this panel, had concentrated on large mega-projects, despite protestations about a balanced approach to providing energy to Afrikan communities.  Mr. Hinks stated that utility-grade batteries (1 MW for 2 days of power storage) will be needed for greater commitment to solar, and these utility-grade batteries are either not available or not feasible in the amount needed.  He cited this as one example of the limits of using renewables.  Symbion is pushing for more use of biomass to replace diesel.  One possible example that can be grown in Afrika is bamboo.  He noted the planned use of 5,000 acres of land near Lake Tanganyika to grow bamboo.  The energy yield from this is thought to be a bit less efficient than preferred, but the compensating factor is the creation of jobs at the same time.  Liberian activist Emira Woods voiced a concern about OPIC’s cap on renewable sources of energy in favor of “a focus on oil, gas and extraction.”  She noted that the land-intensiveness of even a purportedly environmentally-friendly source such as biofuels has already led to land grabs, particularly in Ethiopia and Kenya.

A question regarding the “appetite” for risk capital opened up more questions about the investment climate and a few options that may be available for smaller investors.  Mr. Hinks brought up the example of the Milken Institute, which had noted that the biggest US investors were in its Africa Section over the last 2 years.  “Africa panels are the busiest now.”  In response to a question about an expense of “billions of dollars” to build a power plant, Mr. Hinks noted the example of Transcorp Energy (Nigeria), which boasts a 300 MW power plant, estimated at about $300 million.  He also commented about what he regards as “excessive nervousness” in US investment circles: “Most Afrikan countries are on the way to doing well.”  Nigeria is much less corrupt and dangerous than many people think, he stated.  One member of the audience took the opportunity to introduce the idea of “crowdfunding”, which Wikipedia describes as “the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.  Crowdfunding is used in support of a wide variety of activities, including disaster relief, citizen journalism, support of artists by fans, political campaigns, startup company funding, motion picture promotion, free software development, inventions development, scientific research, and civic projects.”  He made mention of a crowdfunding site that is oriented toward Afrikan and Afrikan-American users, www.blackcrowdfunding.net.

One member of the audience, an Ethiopian human rights activist, stated that a priority must be placed on good governance.  He questioned how Ethiopia became one of the 6 initial MCC-sponsored countries, a comment that drew the ire of the Ethiopian ambassador, who later questioned an Ethiopian who would speak out against his own country.

Power Africa has included provisions for weekly reporting from involved countries to ensure transparency and responsiveness to the concerns of advocates of Afrika’s development.  As the panel stated, Power Africa is there to “create a space” for the players.  But that is not enough by itself.  As was demonstrated by the questions from the audience, there remain concerns as to whether initiatives like Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act will succeed in delivering a reliable source of power while at the same time protecting the Continent from the environmental ravages of industrialization, the dispossession of land from the people to grow biomass materials, the disproportionate support of the extractive industries over more renewable energy sources, access to power in the rural areas, the endangerment of democracy and the propping-up of repressive regimes in the interest of capital profits for big business.  Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act are progressive measures by US standards, and they boast the potential to do much good for Afrika and her people.  The backers of these efforts are saying all the right things about transparency and responsibility (with the exception of the subtle, or maybe not-so-subtle reference to “clean coal” by Rep. Royce, as though he thinks it feasible to turn parts of the Mother Continent into West Virginia by blowing up mountains to access Afrika’s coal reserves).  But we’ve heard these assurances before.  While these appear to be worthy of support on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that the implementation of Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do not bring repression and suffering on the other side of the ocean.  We will keep our eyes open for the promised reports as they come in, so that the progress of this initiative can be monitored with the best interests of Afrika in mind.