Africa needs power to employ millions without jobs

18Apr 2019
The Guardian
Africa needs power to employ millions without jobs

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. The numbers are scary. Africa, with 1.2-billion people and 20 per cent of global land mass, makes just 3 per cent of the world’s electricity. Half of the-

continent’s power comes from Eskom in South Africa , while America burns more in a day than countries like Ghana or Tanzania make in a year.

It was one of the issues raised last year,   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. Young people on our continent are mostly urban, or in the process of moving from the countryside. So if we want to employ millions who are currently without jobs, we need mines, factories and service industries.

 But how can we do that without electricity? In Europe or America, having the lights on is taken for granted. But what would happen to cities like New York or London if there was no power for a month, a year? That’s what millions of Africans live with.  

Dams on the continent’s biggest rivers pump out power, but a recent drought left water levels on some reservoirs so low they could no longer spin the turbines.

It is a challenge for both the aid lobby and environmentalists who would like to see Africa move straight to renewables. But extracting coal, oil and gas provides employment for thousands, hard to argue with in countries with mass unemployment.

Why countries with virtually no natural resources like Singapore that gained independence in 1965 rank among the world’s best economies.Change in sub-Saharan Africa must come from within. Little can be done until there is a workable supply of electricity.

 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. Otherwise, we have no hope of a better life.  And with the resultant poverty and unemployment, young people have few options.

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

But in Uganda, where 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 neighbouring 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.

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