Let power flow across borders and Africa won't be a ‘dark continent’

Electricity pylons in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township stand against the skyline of the city’s Sandton business district. Eskom, the country’s power utility, has problems satisfying domestic demand in spite of its huge presence across the continent. Photos/REUTERS

Looking out of the window when flying over large parts of Africa at night, one sees large swathes of darkness. In contrast, flying over Asia, you see large areas of darkness are interspersed with interesting patches of light below, which are more noticeable in Europe and North America.

One in every six people in the world lives in Africa, but the continent generates only four per cent of the world’s energy, much of it in North and South Africa. Most of the Africa’s populations have to do with darkness or poorly-lit environments as electricity is still a preserve of the rich.

Satellite images show most of Africa as being dark with minute dots of light appearing over large cities. Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, and Dakar on the Atlantic coast, for example. In Eastern Africa, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam might just be noticed, depending on the power of the satellite cameras and weather conditions. Beyond the darkness that represents the Sahara Desert, North Africa shows more and slightly larger dots of light than those seen over Sub-Saharan Africa. Cairo’s dot is obviously the largest.

Corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement are the major causes of darkness in Africa as funds meant for energy end in private pockets.

Civil wars and poor planning have not helped either. And while poverty is often given as an excuse for the darkness on the continent, it is not lost on observers that African dictators have for years used electricity supply to buy political support, sometimes ignoring more deserving cases.

Africa has abundant sources of power, significant levels of government funding in most countries, and notable efforts at reform. Yet electricity access rates are very low compared with other developing regions; prices are high, and the power supply insufficient and unreliable.

Countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, which rely heavily on hydro-electric power, are always facing severe power shortages whenever there is drought, which is more often than not. In other countries, South Africa, for example, plant outages for maintenance, coupled with low reserve margins have had serious consequences. Countries whose power infrastructure has been damaged by conflict in the past — such as Angola — have also suffered severe shortages. Others like Senegal have depended on thermal generation using imported oil, which wrecks their economies when international oil prices increase.

Figures on power generation and distribution in Africa are difficult to collect. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which have commissioned extensive studies on Africa’s power crisis, have complained of lack of updates and accurate data on Africa’s power infrastructure. Power utilities in Africa are invariably monopolies whose officials sometimes hide information to keep the private sector at bay or to cover up corruption and incompetence.

In a paper titled Regional Economic Outlook; Sub Sahara Africa dated April 2008, the IMF says comparatively little is known about Africa’s infrastructure sectors, with sparse coverage of information in most standard international databases. Still, the paper’s chapter on energy in Africa puts the entire generation capacity of the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, at 63 gigawatts (GW) by 2007, is comparable to that of Spain.

Dampening growth

In recent years more than 30 of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have suffered acute energy crises. Moreover, adds the IMF, the region’s generating capacity has been stagnant for many years with growth rates barely half those in other developing regions.

Worse, as much as one-fourth of sub-Saharan Africa’s plant is currently not in operating condition. Only about a quarter of the sub-Saharan African population has access to electricity versus 40 per cent in other low-income countries, and electrification is proceeding more slowly than in other low-income countries, notes the IMF.

Electricity consumption in the region is a fraction of that in other regions and, excluding South Africa, it is only about 124 kilowatt hours (kwh) a year, less than one-tenth of China’s. Unreliable supply adds to the cost and African manufacturing enterprises report power outages on an average of 56 days a year, costing firms five to six per cent of revenues, notes the IMF paper.

Deficient power infrastructure dampens economic growth and weakens competitiveness, for example, through the detrimental effect on productivity. Before the short rains in peri-urban Nairobi, for instance, many homes using mains power to pump water from boreholes went without water, while cybercafés could close three or four days a week.

But how much longer will Africa remain dark? With an installed capacity of more than 42,000 Megawatts (Mw), South Africa produces and consumes slightly over half of the total electricity produced and consumed in Africa. Compare this with Kenya’s 1,250Mw (depending on whether emergency power generators have been scrambled or unscrambled) and Tanzania’s 897Mw, and you will appreciate the gap between South Africa and Eastern African nations. It follows therefore that any analysis of electricity production in Africa has to start from down south. South Africa has been eyeing and acquiring electricity contracts all over Sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from installation to transmission and distribution.

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned power utility, and its subsidiaries have over the last decade stringed national grids from as far north as Libya to Malawi in the South, and managed electricity companies from West Africa to Uganda.

Eskom is such a powerful player in electrical energy in Africa that some of the small countries fear inviting the monopoly to look into their domestic power problems. However, Eskom has its own domestic problems to sort out.

Rising demand for electricity in South Africa itself has been such that the country has in the past been forced to buy cheaper hydro-electric power from Mozambique and DR Congo, and from other members of the regional economic body, the South Africa Development Community.

Electricity consumption in South Africa has been growing rapidly since 1980 and the country is part of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), with extensive interconnections. A 400 MW power line serves Namibia. Total generating capacity in the region stood at 54,684Mw, according to 2007 statistics from Sapp. Of the 54,684Mw, nearly 42,000Mw was in South Africa, mostly coal-fired, and largely under the control of Eskom. 

Eskom supplies about 95 per cent of South Africa’s electricity. In 2006, gross electricity generation was 254 billion kWh, with 4 billion kWh net exports and 199 billion kWh final consumption. Some 94 per cent comes from coal-fired plants and in 2007, nearly six per cent (12.6 billion kWh) was from nuclear power plants.

Early in 2008, regional electricity demand exceeded supply capacity, so that South African power exports to other countries were curtailed while domestic demand was managed by major cutbacks in industrial use, resulting in a significant decline in economic growth last year.

Eskom is spending some $39 billion (Sh3 trillion) on building new coal and gas turbine plants by 2012 — belatedly — to address the current crisis, and by 2025 it plans to double its generating capacity to 80 GW (80,000Mw). About half of the increment to 2025 was intended to be nuclear, but this is now in doubt.

Eskom’s plan is to connect the whole of Africa to one huge continental power grid, and to sell cheap hydro-electricity not just across Africa, but also to the Middle East (Israel looks like the first target) and Southern Europe (especially Spain and Portugal). The future power is expected to come from River Congo in the DRC, which is estimated to have the potential to produce over 100,000Mw— enough to double Africa’s current power production and export the excess.

Unexploited potential

Indeed, engineers say River Congo has tens of natural water cascades and gorges that offer cheap opportunities for damming the river and constructing huge hydro-electric power projects. The huge volumes of water and consistent annual flows from the Congo Forest allow the re-using of the water down stream. Add this potential to various minerals, oil and natural forest resources and you begin to see why the DR Congo is such a political flashpoint.

Even before peace is realised in the DRC, one problem is that no power lines exist across most parts of Africa, particularly across the savannah and the Sahara Desert and in Eastern Africa. Until recently, each country had its own domestic transmission lines, most of which served national capitals. Is it possible then to connect Africa into one powerful transcontinental power grid?

This is the problem Eskom has been trying to solve for two decades. South Africa itself is already enjoying cheap power from River Congo’s Inga Dam. Most of the countries in South Africa have already interconnected their power lines under the Sapp. In West Africa, power lines are being interconnected under the auspices of the West African Power Pool (WAPP). Kenya and Uganda have been interconnected since the Owen Falls Dam was built in 1952. So if Uganda can be connected to the DRC, Sudan and Kenya could be connected to Sapp via the DRC. On its part, Kenya could feed Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea.

Southern Africa Development Community created Sapp to provide reliable and economical electricity to each of the Sapp members. Its head-office is in Harare, Zimbabwe. Members are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, D R Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. Sapp has undertaken to create a common market for electricity in the SADC region and for its customers to benefit from the advantages associated with this market. Most of the power systems in SAPP are interconnected. By 2007, out of a regional installed capacity of 54, 684Mw, some 52,327 Mw had been interconnected, according to data provided by SAPP.

However, in 2008, SAPP commissioned only 1,747 Mw of power, against a set target of 2 014 Mw. More than $4.7-billion (Sh353 billion) is needed to fund the development of identified transmission projects in the region, which would include linkages between Zambia and Tanzania, the DRC and Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Tanzania, Malawi and Angola are not yet connected to SAPP, so initiatives are being launched to connect those countries. The East African Power Pool (EAPP) would also be connected to SAPP, and would in turn facilitate trading between the two major regions.

Admittedly, there is some confusion on the status and membership of the EAPP. Originally, it consisted of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and was expected to be operational by 2011 once the required infrastructure was in place. The aim of the power sharing pool is to ease shortages by building grid interconnections to enable power flow from places of abundance to power deficit areas.
“Plans are also under way to incorporate Rwanda, Burundi and the DR Congo,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda had said while opening a power project in his country in August 2007.

However, power officials say Eapp now includes more countries. The pool will see seven African countries within and around the Eastern sub-region namely; Burundi, DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan, which signed an inter-governmental memorandum of understanding in 2005 to establish the EAPP, interconnect their power generation sources in an effort to transfer power from countries with surpluses to deficit countries within the sub-region.

Within the sub-region, Ethiopia, DR Congo and Southern Sudan have access to power, and once the project is completed they will be in a position to export cheap power to under-supplied countries.

In yet another related, and probably the latest development, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP) in collaboration with the African Development Bank (AfDb) and representatives of Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, officially launched the implementation of the Interconnection of Electricity Grids Project of the Nile Equatorial Lakes Countries.

The four-year project, whose work on ground is expected to start late 2010 or early 2011, will create a power exchange market among those five countries with consequence of low cost of power supply, system stability, security of supply and optimisation in the use of energy resources. The new project was officially launched on September 8 and each country will implement the portion located on its territory. A coordination unit will be established to coordinate the implementation of the project at regional level.

The Ethiopian connection

NBI says other interconnections are also being prepared in order to create a regional power network. Tanzania will be connected to its neighbours through the planned interconnection Kenya – Tanzania which is also being prepared by NELSAP, and through the extension Tanzania grid to Northern West part to Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project shared among Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.  On the other side, Uganda and DR Congo are planning to extend the Uganda electricity network to Beni and Bunia in DR Congo through the Nkenda – Beni – Bunia transmission line. The Ethiopia-Kenya interconnection will allow the region to import power from Ethiopia up to 2000Mw.

There is hope across the continent that these power pools will alleviate Africa’s power crisis. However, a lot remains to be done, especially in fast-tracking and up-scaling of power generation projects across the continent.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.