Op-Ed: Turning Africa’s lights on should be a homegrown priority

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

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

    It was one of the issues raised on 28 August
    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.

    John Owusu is a retired engineer originally
    from Ghana, but for 50 years he has worked across all regions
    of Africa.

    Young people on our continent are mostly
    urban, or in the process of moving from the countryside,” he
    said. “So if you want to employ millions who are currently
    without jobs, you need mines, factories and service
    industries.

    But how can you do that without electricity?
    In Europe or America, having the lights on is taken for
    granted,” Owusu said. “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.

    The cost of solar panels has fallen
    dramatically, but foreign currency needed to import enough to
    make a difference can put them beyond the reach of poorer
    states.

    And theft of panels is a problem for India,
    Africa and parts of Latin America. A Johannesburg firm has
    patented a system of lock-bolts making access more difficult,
    but police reports from Limpopo province, where the crime is
    especially bad on farms, show gangs now arrive with a
    blowtorch.

    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.

    Whatever the source of power, the author of a
    new book says Africa’s answers should be
    homegrown.

    Dr Sylvanus Adetokunboh Ayeni was born in
    Nigeria but lives in the US where he recently retired as a
    neurosurgeon. In lectures, on radio and in public forums, Dr
    Ayeni slams into corruption and incompetence on his native
    continent, asking why countries with virtually no natural
    resources like Singapore that gained independence in 1965 rank
    among the world’s best economies, “while oil-rich Angola
    manufacturers almost nothing and, under president Robert
    Mugabe, Zimbabwe has gone from breadbasket to a beggar
    state”.

    But, in Rescue
    Thyself
    – subtitled “Change in
    sub-Saharan Africa must come from within” – the author says
    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. In short, you have no
    hope of a better life,” Ayeni
    said
    .

    And with the resultant poverty and
    unemployment, young people have few options,” he said. “Why do
    you think millions are striking out to cross the Mediterranean
    while others join gangs or militia? Ask yourself what you would
    do if you lived in such misery.”

    India has an estimated 300-million people –
    close to the population of the US – who are still off the grid.
    Africa has double that number.

    The Power
    Africa
    initiative started by President
    Barack Obama and continued by the 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% 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
    but still leaving a majority of Ugandans in the
    dark.

    In July, President Donald Trump lifted an
    Obama-era ban on World Bank funds being used for clean-coal
    projects to generate power in the developing
    world.

    But Dr Ayeni believes aid is not the
    answer.

    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
    wafty notions from aid junkies and NGOs who, when they get it
    wrong, run back to the comfort of London or Los Angeles,” he
    said.

    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.

    Nigel Lawson was chancellor under Margaret
    Thatcher and today sits in the House of Lords. In London, he
    also chairs a non-partisan think tank, the Global Warming
    Policy Forum, or GWPF, with a board of leading business people
    and academics.

    GWPF director, Dr Benny Peiser, agrees with
    Ayeni that power generation is vital to changing Africa for the
    better. “If you worry about Africans in poverty and people
    drowning in the Mediterranean, or the rise of militia and
    criminal networks, do something about it. And that must begin
    with electricity.”

    Peiser said it was “an outrage that, in 2017,
    some African states produce less power than a mid-size town in
    Europe or America”.

    This, he said, is a threat to the
    environment. “People need to cook and stay warm, so they cut
    down trees.” A recent report published in Nairobi shows that
    over the past half century Kenya has lost three-quarters of its
    old-growth forest.

    And he said Ayeni was right that supply of
    power had to be done quickly and in a way that works for
    Africa.

    China has 1.4-billion people, roughly the
    same as Africa, but it generates 12 times more electricity. You
    only get those numbers from hydro plants on rivers and, for the
    most part, from coal and gas.”

    But Ayeni says time is short. “Africa is
    urbanising perhaps faster than anywhere on the planet, and in
    our cities unemployment can reach 70%, especially among the
    youth. If we don’t find something for these people to do, we
    face a bloody revolution worse than anything in
    history.”

    Migration, crime, militia and “a continent in
    dysfunction”, he said, were “a product of poor governance, bad
    aid and hundreds of millions left destitute because there is no
    work and no electricity to build an
    economy”.

    Peiser said while small solar units handed
    out by US and British aid groups were helpful, “let’s not kid
    ourselves that this is the answer. We need every city and town
    on a central grid where the power doesn’t go
    off”.

    Ayeni dismissed the idea that grid power
    can’t work in Africa because of distances involved and the cost
    of distribution to rural areas.

    Canada is a third the size of Africa with
    vast areas under snow and ice, but every part of the country
    has electricity and Canada generates so much it sells power to
    the US.”

    Ayeni said the best industrial solutions are
    those pioneered and run by Africans, using readily available
    human and natural resources, especially at grassroots
    level.

    And, if aid is delivered, he said it should
    be done, as far as possible, outside the reach of
    government.

    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.”

    DM

    Photo: Dr
    Sylvanus Ayeni at a school on his recent lecture tour of
    Nigeria. Photo: Supplied

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