By Femi Tunde Okunlola
It’s the magical moment- when grown up adults and children become akin; it comes with the access that comes with electricity. Perhaps, the emotions flow for different reasons; for the child, it’s the thought or prospect of being able to indulge in more activity; which could be the access to technology, while for the adult, it’s the thought of the monies saved from less fuel consumption by the generators which power several businesses. Sometimes, the reasons are not essentially complex: It’s simply the joys that staying in a lit up environment brings. This is the story in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Access to electricity is opportunity. It is an opportunity that could benefit not just individuals, but economies as well.
Africa: A Dark Continent?
Africa has made several advancements, in recent times, but how massive are these “advancements” in view of the strides and timing of other developed continents; especially Europe? France which has a population of about 58 million people generates 4 times the power generated by the whole of all 54 sub-Saharan countries which has a population of about 1.2 billion people in its totality. This also means that a French person consumes 50 times more electricity than one African today. The United States which has a population of about 300 million people generates 10 times that number. This is one scenario amongst others.
As dark and depressing as the statistics are, does it depict a literally dark continent? Well, perhaps not. Not totally. The 2016 World Energy Forum reports that only 5 countries in Africa have 100% power access; power access being the connection to a grid. They are Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya; which stands at 99% due to the current unrest in the region which damaged some facilities. Nigeria; the most populous African nation, which has its number pegged at 182 million people has its population’s access pegged at 52 percent.
The challenge of low power generation by Africa has been alluded to several factors such as geographical constraints; based on the dependency on hydroelectric power stations, and availability of power dependent on weather conditions, hence, in periods of low rainfall or heavy flooding, power outages are frequent. Fossil- fuel based generation which remains the largest source of electricity also remains expensive. The inter-regional interconnections which provides lower costs and which is supported by some bodies like the African Development Bank in East Africa in most parts is an option that has been explored by many African nations as a solution to beating the high cost of getting electricity. Nigeria, for example, supplies Cameroon, Niger from the same dam based on agreement.
Nigeria: The Link between Power and Development
The power problem has been said to be one of the reasons why the level of development in Africa’s largest nation remains epileptic, as it plays a crucial role in development. According to Engineer Tunde Y. Salihu; an energy expert and chair of the African Institute of Electrical Engineers, there is a huge relationship between power access and economic growth, and any nation that refuses to pay attention to its power sector shuts down its economy; when the cost of energy is way higher than the cost of production, entrepreneurs are at a loss.
Kola a business manager in Nigeria who runs a customer care Telecommunications line speaks about the high cost of running his 60 KV generator and spending 1.5 Million in Naira for 18 hours on a weekly basis; this is asides the high cost of equipment maintenance and other monies spent on keeping the business running. For him, using the Electricity system isn’t an option as he recounts a nasty experience of the unclean supply which damaged his equipment; his bid to save money had cost him more in repairs and an equipment overhaul. His is one of several sad tales.
Nigeria’s power challenge appears a peculiar one, as it has supplied Cameroon, Niger for over 10 years; by agreement, the country dams the River Niger and then distributes to the Cameroon and Niger, and as for Ghana, Nigeria supplies Ghana and receives payments for services provided. So how has its own power problem remained unsolved?
In 2013, Nigeria commenced a wide reform of the Power sector, in a privatization move with proceeds from divested assets estimated at US$3bn. It was said to be one of the boldest power reform initiatives globally and was supposed to trail the success previously recorded in the Telecommunication sector.
The reform was targeted at addressing the chronic efficiency gaps in the old public utilities and attracting private capital needed to propel the sector to meet Nigeria’s fast growing electricity demand. However years later, with little changes still, the blame gain continues as the new owners have alleged that they got rotten assets; it was supposed to be a clean money bag like the Telecommunications deal where you buy up and start reaping benefits immediately afterwards. The government on its part has alleged that the Privatized firms were simply not living up to their end of the bargain.
With the back and forth still on, the clamour in some sectors has been to revisit the privatization agreement, and possibly pull back from the deal. Babatunde Fashola; Nigeria’s Minister of Power, Works and Housing in January 2017, while stating the ministry’s commitment to working through the challenge stated his reservations at pulling out of signed agreements, for fear of sending the wrong signal that the country reneges on agreements to prospective international partners. The fact remains that electrical services in Nigeria cost a lot; this has been blamed on an inconsistent billing system as well. With the many complexities in the power sector, the question remains the way out of the myriads of challenges.
A Way Out:
Nigeria already is on the renewable energy path; as the country already explores hydro generation. In actual fact, there are existing plants in Taraba, Sokoto, Kwara state amongst other areas where plans are ongoing. There is also a new policy from NEC ie the Nigerian Electricity Council which allows citizens to generate and sell less than 1 kilowatt, but preferably with renewable energy.
One key solution however according to Engineer Tunde Y. Salihu is dealing with corruption. He strongly believes that corruption must be decisively dealt with in the system to achieve more. There should also be regulations to further deregulate the distribution network. The metering systems also remain a complex system and a cesspool of corruption. He also believes in the need to look inwards in terms of getting experts to fix the system. He cites the Power transmission deal with Manitoba which proved fruitless and where the country had to look internally; a deal which saved the country huge sums.
The maintenance of a national grid is also something to be worked on. For example, Europe is thinking of integrating its grid system, so that power can be taken from one part of the continent, and distributed to other parts.
It’s been over a century after the light bulb was invented, but most parts of the African continent remain in darkness after nightfall, and fixing a power sector in dire need of an emergency response remains an essential way out to seeing the light at the end of the development tunnel.
Femi Tunde Okunlola is a Development Broadcast Journalist and Writer from Nigeria, covering Africa, with a focus on Governance, Security and Environment. He holds a Master’s in Peace and Development studies, is an Obama YALI RLC Fellow, and RNTC Netherlands Alumnus. He tweets @iam_fto.