Is Africa still a dark continent?

The dark continent : Power outages are damaging the African economy

Viewed from space, Africa is just as dark at night as deserted Siberia or the arctic north of Canada. With around 1.2 billion people, the black continent is now home to almost 17 percent of the world's population, but it generates less than five percent of global electricity. Around three quarters of its electricity is also consumed in South Africa and the Arab north of the continent. If you exclude the only industrialized country in Africa, the Cape Republic of South Africa, the 48 countries south of the Sahara together produce just as much electricity as Argentina, according to the World Bank.

For a long time, there have been efforts to massively increase electricity generation in Africa. The latest initiative came from US President Barack Obama two weeks ago. During his first major trip to Africa since taking office five years ago, Obama unveiled a plan there with the distinctive name “Power Africa”. This promises financial aid of seven billion dollars for the development of renewable energies over the next five years. The money is intended to help Africa double the number of current electricity connections by around 2020. Currently only one in four Africans has electricity. Outside the cities, where the vast majority of people still live, the number of people who have access to electricity is even lower at 15 percent. Hardly anything slows the continent's economic development more than the blatant lack of electricity.

So far, all attempts to finally generate more electricity have failed miserably, especially the expansion of the gigantic Inga hydropower plant on the lower reaches of the Congo River. Siemens has planned to complete it here in 1982 for more than 30 years. But since then, power plants that have never been properly maintained have been massively expanded and then produce up to 40,000 megawatts (MW), which would produce around half of the current electricity demand in Africa. Currently, however, only three of the original 14 turbines are still running and hardly generate 500 megawatts - a fraction of the original output of 1700 MW.

Corruption, wars and a stifling bureaucracy

No wonder that only five percent of the Congolese have electricity today and that even the country's capital, Kinshasa, which is only 200 kilometers away, is often in the dark. Nevertheless, neither the expansion of the power plant, estimated at nine billion dollars, nor the modernization of the 3,000-kilometer high-voltage line to South Africa have been tackled. Corruption, wars and a stifling bureaucracy prevented the implementation of the plans as well as permanent legal disputes. It is doubtful whether the most recent contract between the Congo and South Africa has been more successful.

Some critics have dismissed the recent initiative of the US President as a subsidy for their own energy companies in their advance into Africa, which it is in part. However, the insurance of the risks for private investors when they are involved in electricity projects in Africa, as promised by Obama, could make a difference, especially since the private sector in Africa has so far proven to be far more efficient than many aid organizations or international financial institutions. This also shows the commitment of a number of smaller US companies to the construction of wind generators. In addition, Obama wants to use his initiative to promote the development of decentralized power grids in rural areas, especially in East and West Africa.

Why it is particularly bad in Nigeria

Nigeria, the second largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa, shows the devastating consequences of the lack of investment by African governments in electricity supply. Although the West African oil producer is by far the most populous country on the continent with 165 million people, it only produces five percent of the electricity that Brazil generates for its 190 million inhabitants. The planned privatization of the completely inefficient state electricity sector is unlikely to change anything in the foreseeable future.

"Nigeria will probably need at least 50 years to catch up with South Africa in terms of power supply, which currently generates ten times more energy and is still plagued by electricity bottlenecks," says David Lapido, whose company is active in the electricity sector in Nigeria. While Nigeria's government is still dreaming of increasing electricity generation from a measly 4,500 MW to 40,000 MW in 2020, Lapido believes that by then it will only be possible to double it to 9,000 MW, especially since privatization plans have been stuck for years.

The potential is huge

If Nigeria one day succeeded in noticeably reducing its chronic power outages, the costs for the business world would fall rapidly by up to 40 percent, according to the World Bank, and the country's economy would grow by up to three percent annually. At present, around 13 billion US dollars are invested each year in Nigeria alone in the import of diesel oil, which is needed to operate generators. Chidi Amuta, a longtime observer of the country, has christened Nigeria the “generator republic” because of its constant power outages. For years to come, Nigeria will be embroiled in a seemingly endless struggle with the darkness, says Amuta.

In order to reduce the blackouts, the Africans would have to use more efficient machines, maintain power lines and power plants better and bundle electricity in regional networks. There is no lack of announcements. But if this fails and Obama's initiative fizzles out, Africa is likely to remain in the dark for a long time to come.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page