Powering Africa: Is the US set to deliver on energy?

August 13, 2013
BARACK Obama visited Tanzania last week, to announce his government’s Powering Africa plan.
Of course, as an NGO doing exactly that, we were interested to see what the American plan would involve.
On the face of it, Powering Africa (not to be confused with our own recent Powering Africa Out Of Poverty campaign) is a programme with a good heart.
The plan will commit the US government to invest $7bn in electricity provision across Africa, with private investment – from US firms including General Electric – totalling an extra $9bn.
It’s a big step towards tackling energy poverty – and in turn financial poverty.
Obama said: ‘It’s a win for Africans – families get to electrify their homes; businesses can run their plants; investors can say if we locate in an African country, that they’re going to be able to power up in a reliable way.  All this will make economies grow.  It’s a win for the United States because the investments made here, including in cleaner energy, means more exports for the U.S. and more jobs in the U.S.  And, obviously, a growing market in Africa will mean more opportunities for all countries.’
Obama is the US President: his priority must be to support and promote American interests, and if he has discovered a way to assist Africa while helping businesses in his own country, he should be congratulated.
However there are some concerns with this initiative.
We work in Kenya and Tanzania (as well as Nepal, Bangladesh and Nicaragua), where the current percentages of people without access to energy are 84 per cent and 86 per cent respectively.
We are providing power to some of these countries’ most remote communities, using renewable resources.
And there are clear reasons why we are doing this in the way we are.
Across many sub-Saharan African states, lack of power means food insecurity, water contamination, exposure to disease and lack of access to medicine, obstacles to educational achievement, lack of ability to train and low – in many cases falling – incomes.
Our work treats the problem at source. We work with communities in their own area, discover what they need and deliver the power and assistance to enable them to achieve it.
The projects, such as RESOLVE in Kenya and at Songambele in Tanzania are small-scale, but each part of them carries many advantages – not least that by training community members to maintain the solar panels and wind turbines which provide light, water filtration, medicine and food refrigeration, and computer and internet access, we are passing on transferable skills which can help people find or change jobs.
They also guide new energy users in productive use – setting energy to work for people – and empower entrepreneurs to develop their own business ideas.
Our experience on the ground leads to the question whether the US exporting skills and products at cost to African states is the best – or even the simplest – way to help people less fortunate than ourselves. Will the ‘encouragement of investment’ in African states – vital as it is – be enough to improve people’s quality of life, if not matched by equal commitments to health, education, food security and delivering decent incomes and opportunities?
Finally, in the $16bn scheme, only $2m will be available for ‘off-grid’ projects.
But ‘off-grid’ schemes are vital to African communities. They are the only way to deliver energy in remote spots now, rather than ‘at some point in the next 10-15 years’.
They are also the only way to ensure communities coming ‘online’ in both an energy and a digital sense are not contributing to climate change.
Renewable World’s East Africa Programme Manager Paolo Mele said: ‘Whilst is it a laudable plan and will benefit millions of people, with current connection rates in East Africa at less than 20 per cent, there is still a long way to go to completely electrify the region.
‘Off grid community projects will still be the only solution for most of the population.’