Africa: Our energy-rich dark continent

Nov 04, 2007 01:00 AM

by Muniini K. Mulera

Few experiences have brought home Africa's infrastructural challenges than a night flight I took from Johannesburg to London on June 10, 2005.
The plane takes off from the Oliver Tambo International Airport in a northerly direction, leaving behind an endless sea of lights that showcase the wealthy expanse of gold-rich Gauteng. The modern jet passenger enjoys the benefit of tracking his whereabouts as the plane makes its progress. A live map on a personal television screen reveals which city and country is 35,000 feet below you.

From the air, Johannesburg's millions of glittering bulbs seem to merge with the millions of equally brilliant stars over Tshwane, known to some as Pretoria. No surprises so far. Fully 80 % of South African households have electricity in their homes. But soon all is darkness, interrupted by small clusters of light in the distance. Francistown, Botswana's second-largest urban centre comes into view. It's much smaller than Johannesburg, of course, but it is brightly lit nevertheless.
Botswana, one of Africa's most well managed states, is now counted among the upper-middle income countries. Yet even Botswana, like most of Africa, remains in the dark. Only about 24 % of its citizens, the majority of whom live in the major towns, have access to electricity. Electrification has reached only 12 % of Botswana's rural areas.

The lights of Francistown soon disappear into the distance. Then ahead and all around us, pure, pitch-black darkness that seems endless. We are over Zambia. Darkness.
No surprise. Only 23 % of Zambians, mostly urban dwellers, have access to electricity. Look! There in the distance! Lusaka. The pitch-black countryside makes its amber-coloured lights appear brighter than they probably are.
Darkness returns. But wait! Aren't we over the Ndola-Kitwe-Mufulira-Chingola belt? Why do I see only a few scattered lights in this copper-rich area? Perhaps it is load-shedding night tonight.

Total darkness again, at once beautiful and frightful. We are over the Congo Free State, immortalised by Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness, a tale set on the mighty Congo River, second longest in Africa. The skies are clear. No clouds. I should see Lubumbashi somewhere down there, my map says. I see nothing but darkness in this super-rich part of Africa.
Ahead is the River Congo, which drains a vast area of more than 1.6 mm sq miles, and has enormous but untapped hydro power. The Congo Free State, one of the richest territories on earth, has the potential to produce up to 55 GW of electricity. It currently produces only 5 % of that. Only 6 % of all Congolese have access to electricity.

The Inga dam which straddles the Congo River has the potential to light up the entire Great Lakes Region, Southern and Central Africa and parts of the West and North, without help from other dams of Africa. Now, I am not a fan of hydropower.
The vagaries of Africa's climate make reliance on a steady flow of water a hazardous undertaking. Better to invest in alternative sources, such as solar, wind, thermal and nuclear energy. But for the moment, Africa has abundant hydro-potential, right there in the endless darkness below.

I am lost in these thoughts, as I peek through the window, into an infinite darkness that hides King Leopold's ghost and those of his African heirs who have looted and left Congo and the rest of Africa in darkness. The Dark Continent is a reality tonight, not some eighteenth century European's derogatory comment.
I see it all around me, for thousands of kilometres, over hours of fast jet flight, above the richest part of the world. The plane roars on, over Cameroon, 80 % of whose population has no access to electricity. Then over Nigeria, oil-rich Nigeria, less dark than Congo, but dark still.

A country which has raked in over $ 400 bn from oil exports over the last 30 years, Nigeria should be better lit than I see. Whereas 40 % of Nigerians have access to electricity, most of these are urban dwellers. Only 10 % of the country's rural households have access to electricity.
In fact these figures could be worse. The overall figure for Africa is 24 %. In Kenya, 15 % of the citizens have access to electricity. The figure for Tanzania is 7 %, but only 2 % of the rural population. Lesotho and Malawi, 6 % each. Rwanda and Uganda, 5 % each. Chad, 2 %. You get the point, Tingasiga.

The plane roars on. I pick up a few flickering lights over northern Nigeria, reminding me of my childhood fantasies of Bacwezi herdsmen grazing their cattle by candlelight on mountaintops.
I wake up over Libya. I must have fallen asleep somewhere over the vast desert that is Niger. Just as well. I have been spared thoughts of tens of thousands of Africans trekking on foot across the extremely cold, dark and treacherous desert on their way to Europe, in search of jobs. Libya is bathed in lights, the entire desert country seemingly lit by millions of terrestrial stars. We fly over the large shining port city of Tripoli before bidding a fond farewell to Africa.

Soon we are over southern Europe, its hundreds of millions of street lights visible everywhere. Not even the clouds can hide the luminous truth beneath.
But I am still thinking about the trillions of dollars worth of gold and oil and natural gas and rubber and diamonds and copper and uranium and bauxite and silver and water and timber and wildlife and... the list is endless. All that wealth is owned by hundreds of millions of bright Africans at home and in the Diaspora with the potential to transform our great continent.

Notice how everything in Africa always seems to have potential?
But if Europeans can do it, we can do it. Of that I am certain.

Source / The Monitor
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