Lack of electricity impedes progress in sub-Saharan Africa

7 May 2014

STLtoday (US) by Stephanie Peace

If you were to make a list of the most important issues facing the poor in Africa today, you would probably include access to healthy food, clean water and improved health care, but may not think to add electricity. Nor would I, until I lived and worked in Sierra Leone with the St. Louis-based nonprofit organization Project Peanut Butter.

From the first time I arrived in Sierra Leone and crossed the bay that separates the airport from the capital city of Freetown, I was most struck by the darkness. I could see nothing of the city that has a population of almost 500,000.

Life in Freetown as an American used to electricity was one of choices: to take a cold shower or wait for water to heat on our gas stove; to go outside to fire up the generator to read at night or go to bed at sundown? And yet, these inconveniences are mild compared to the difficulties we faced as a small nonprofit doing business in Freetown.

A country that lacks electricity in many areas and has only intermittent, unreliable electricity in its capital, Sierra Leone is a formidable environment to try to run a business. Our factory in Freetown uses an industrial-sized mixing machine to produce a specialized peanut butter paste used to treat severe acute malnutrition in children.

Another machine packages our product into individual sachets for distribution. Frequent power outages and rolling blackouts forced us to switch between running on a generator and the national grid multiple times each business day, which is expensive and wastes valuable production time. These outages can also damage the machinery, resulting in costly repairs and production downtime that delay the distribution of this life-saving malnutrition treatment.

The lack of electricity severely impacts business development in sub-Saharan Africa and impedes many Africans from gaining self-sufficiency. Ali, the production foreman for the PPB site in Sierra Leone, has dreams of helping his younger brothers support themselves, since their education was disrupted by the recent civil war.

Through his job at PPB, Ali saved money to buy a computer so his brothers could open a small Internet caf&ea cute;. Because Ali´s brothers live in a town that does not have electricity, Ali will have to save for a generator too, adding an extra barrier to opening a small business that could provide for his family.

These are just a few examples, but the problem of access to electricity is widespread. Seven out of 10 Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity. Women give birth at night in complete darkness. Vaccines that must be refrigerated are spoiled due to power outages. Many Africans must rely on open fires and kerosene lamps, two heavily polluting and toxic energy sources, for lighting and cooking.

The Electrify Africa Act of 2013 (H.R. 2548) will provide 50 million Africans with access to electricity for the first time by providing a minimum of 20,000 megawatts of electrical power.

No additional taxpayer funds will be used as this bill will rely o n a public/private sector partnership. H.R. 2548 directs the United States government to form a comprehensive strategy to "support affordable, reliable electricity to improve economic growth, health, and education in Africa, while helping job creation in the United States through greater exports."

The bill also directs developing nations to create better business environments for private-sector investments and urges international loan agencies to increase energy investment to the region.

This cooperation between government and the private sector has already begun to produce results. General Electric has committed to bringing 5,000 megawatts of new, affordable energy through provision of its technologies, expertise and capital, and Heirs Holdings has committed $2.5 billion of investment and financing in energy as well.

The Electrify Africa Act can usher in a tran sformation in Africa providing a means to self-sufficiency for those living in extreme poverty and providing benefits to our economy at the same time.

I want to thank Rep. Ann Wagner for her support of the Electrify Africa Act (H.R. 2548) by agreeing to co-sponsor this bill. I urge our members of Congress to vote for this legislation when it comes before the full House of Representatives in the coming weeks and when a companion bill is introduced in the Senate.

Categories: General, Water, Energy

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