NoTE the Radio!

What Counts as Access to Electricity?

Obama and off-grid power in Africa

In the wake of President Obama’s visit to Tanzania last week, where he announced Power Africa, a seven-billion-dollar initiative to boost access to electricity, the Internet lit up with statements in response, all variations on the same basic fact:

*Only 30 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity;

*that figure drops to 14 percent in rural areas;

*sub-Saharan Africa is home to half of the people worldwide living without electricity —

i.e., most Africans don’t have access to electricity.

But access is a tricky thing to define. How many watts equals “access to electricity”? How many hours of it per day? How many dollars per kilowatt? How many people per electric light?

Already, the demand for electricity in African cities is such that most utility companies are obliged to practice “load shedding” — rolling blackouts in which electricity to parts of the grid is cut at planned intervals in order to keep up with demand. No one gets as much electricity as he or she wants, but everyone gets some. Even in the wealthiest, most industrialized corners of the continent, full-fledged access to electricity is not a given: embassies, hotels, and all individuals who can afford it maintain backup systems with large generators to compensate for the regular power outages.

At the other end of the spectrum, no matter how remote the village and no matter how small the shop, you would be hard-pressed to find many places on the African continent where someone isn’t selling batteries. For those who can afford them, batteries (often made in China, though marked “Made in Japan”) power transistor radios, flashlights, and DIY cell-phone chargers. Where there are cell phones, the most coveted feature is a long battery life, bringing a weeklong trickle of power to a place where there otherwise is none.

Does any of this count as access to electricity?

For compilers of statistics, it may not, but it has become a cliché of writing about rural Africa to praise the possibilities afforded by tiny solar lamps and chargers for families who have no other sources of electricity. Access is relative, and even low-level access can do a lot.

Which is why it’s too bad that the most exciting part of Obama’s Power Africa initiative is also the smallest: in a seven-billion-dollar pie, a two-million-dollar contest (funded by GE) to support “off-grid” initiatives for electricity generation in rural areas. The contest will provide seed funding for the twenty winning African-owned companies that use renewable resources to generate electricity independently from the power grid. The announcement is short on details, but this category presumably includes micro-hydropower and biomass generators that could be powered by by-products of agriculture, as well as solar lamps like the Wakawaka light, or devices along the lines of the much-hyped Soccket, a soccer ball that stores electricity from the energy generated during play.

Decentralized solutions don’t require the same level of capital or political will as building out large power grids, and they should be front and center in any campaign to increase access to electricity around sub-Saharan Africa. The International Energy Agency, for instance, estimates that more than half of new connections around the continent would need to be off-grid in order to reach universal access by 2030.

Yet, as Helen Morton wrote in The Guardian:

Establishing a $2m off-grid fund will do little to address the policy, finance and capacity challenges – such as ease of doing business, availability of startup capital, or the absence of a rural energy agency – of scaling up off-grid options.

Most of the money for Power Africa—five billion of it —is geared toward helping U.S. companies to build power plants where it already was likely that power plants would be built —near well-developed urban markets for electricity, as in Ghana and Nigeria, or in countries with huge hydroelectric potential, like Ethiopia (which will export much of its electricity to its more power-hungry neighbor, Kenya).

As Siddhartha Mitter pointed out in his excellent analysis of Power Africa, building power plants is in some ways “the easiest part” of increasing access to electricity in Africa: it provides U.S. companies a near-certain return on investment while avoiding the messy task of distribution altogether. Mitter suggested that “all infrastructure investment should be considered a good thing unless proven otherwise,” but in a program that (dubiously) promises to “double” access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, it would be nice to see a bigger push for access in places where there truly is none.