By Sarah Lovejoy
I heard a familiar voice coming from the radio in a small roadside shop where I’d stopped to buy some airtime. It was US President Barack Obama. More exciting than hearing his voice, however, was the knowledge that we were standing on the same continent. I paused to listen, and the shop-owner smiled as he saw me recognize the voice. “He is next door,” he said, reminding me that Obama was on the Tanzania leg of his week-long Africa visit. Marking the first visit of his second term, and his first significant travel in Africa as US President, the trip was long-anticipated. We listened together for a few moments, and I reflected on how unique an experience I was having. Here I was in Africa, listening to the US President speak on what was to him both home and foreign soil, with a man to whom it was entirely native. And yet our interests were linked. It was at once both very Ugandan and very American. I felt as though I was experiencing the event from both sides, which is surely not something many can boast. My friend Claire coined an apt phrase, Ameri(Uganda)ca, which I think applies. It was a pretty AmeriUgandaca moment.
As I read more into the details of Obama’s Africa trip, I realized just how momentous an occasion it was. Of course both heralded and criticized, it is agreed upon by all that the trip was significant and holds great potential. Critics have faulted Obama for not visiting Africa earlier or more extensively, comparing his involvement to the large-scale initiatives of Clinton and Bush (AGOA and PEPFAR, respectively). But others have countered with “better late than never,” and on an even more positive note, that his announced future plans are “well worth the wait.” By far the most notable event was Obama’s announcement of “Power Africa.” An initiative to double access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa and bring power to millions currently living “off the grid,” Power Africa is an ambitious plan. Ambitious, but in all the right ways.
Officially partnered with 8 countries, Power Africa aims to bring 10,000 megawatts of electricity to the countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, and Nigeria in the next five years, and will focus on responsible resource management of oil and gas in Uganda and Mozambique.
This energy push will be supported by both the US government and affiliated organizations and by US private sector companies. Seven billion dollars will come from the US in the next five years, and $9 billion has been promised by various private companies looking to power an additional 8,000 megawatts of power.
Though at first glance this looks like an enormous American good-will mission, such an assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. As President Obama stressed over and over, this is no handout. “We are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid,” he said, “to a new model of partnership.” This is an investment, a partnership, and a step forward and upwards for both the US and the African nations involved.
In a line that would never find a home in a speech about a new foreign assistance plan, President Obama promoted the American benefits of Power Africa: “This is not charity. This is self-interest.” He explained, “Our fortunes are linked like never before, so more growth and opportunity in Africa can mean more growth and opportunity in the United States.” This is not financial aid but financial investment.
As a foreign assistance mission, the focus on power would be significant and substantial. But as a partnership? The most apt term I’ve heard it labeled is catalytic. The focus on power is right on target for sky-rocketing development. Tony Elumelu, head of Heirs Holding, succinctly highlights the genius of the plan: “You can decide to take on everything on earth and do nothing. But to take power alone and give it a strong push means that in the next 5 years this continent can totally transform.” The possible benefits are two-sided, incentivizing each side to hold up their ends, and fostering long-lasting cooperation and success. In their coverage of Obama’s trip, the New York Times explained the significance of increased electricity across Africa; electricity “would mean light for schoolchildren to do their homework after sunset and refrigerators to keep food from spoiling. It would also mean more jobs and more development.” With access to power, education, entrepreneurship, and trade have the potential to surge years ahead of their current state. Power also means access to internet, something BOSCO has seen the value of for years now. Reliance on foreign aid will be a thing of the past, replaced with a bright future of collaboration and business partners.
What are the logistics of this grand new partnership? Where will the billions be going? To give a sampling: the $5 billion from the US Export-Import Bank will support US exports in developing power projects on-site in Africa; another $1 billion from former President George W. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation will aid with start-up power systems; Aldwych International and Harith General Partners go progressive and are investing a combined $1.8 billion in wind power.
Another major stream of funding is being funneled into start up grants. The USADF (U.S. African Development Foundation) will be offering $2 million in grants of up to $100,000 in its “Off-Grid Energy Challenge.” The challenge caters to African-owned and operated enterprises that are using proven technologies for off-grid electricity benefitting rural and marginal populations (read: projects like BOSCO). Again, this move from handouts to start ups and grants promises payback and thus solidifies interest and commitment.
By far the greatest thing about the Off-Grid Energy Challenge, though, is that it puts the solution in African hands. This is no presumptuous White House sweep-in. Washington has, it seems, recognized that Africa most likely holds the best-fitting key to its own future. The competition only awards prizes to fully African-owned and –operated organizations, and seeks to discover “how Africa’s challenges on power can best be solved from an African perspective.”
Tony Elumelu speaks about his company’s investment of $2.5 billion (as of yet the single largest private-sector pledge):
“It’s a partnership. You need American government, African governments, development NGO’s, America and African private sector…We need to work together to make this happen… This is why I believe the president has chosen these six or seven countries – these have shown transformational leadership so others can see ‘if you want your country to improve, put the right policies and environment in place…That also becomes a subtle signal to the political people to make sure their environments are competitive.”
His is not a large-scale donation. It is an investment. Elumelu warns, however, that the hardest part is ahead of us. In order for transformation to take place, serious commitment is crucial: “It’s not the number of [Obama's] visits that make it important; it’s the seriousness with which he engages.” This commitment applies to both the US and the work on the ground. Both sides, it seems, will get what they put in.
As Obama said in one of his last speeches in Tanzania, “The world is investing in Africa like never before. In fact, we’re close to reaching a historic milestone where foreign aid to Africa is surpassed by foreign investment in Africa. And that’s great news.”
I look forward to tracking this initiative in the coming years, and anticipate many new ideas stemming from Africa’s increase in power. To be cheesy, power is power. As BOSCO understands so well, the simple gift of power, of internet access, can open the door for exponential growth. The intersection of information and ideas made possible by connectivity creates avenues for which the possibilities are endless. It is great news, indeed.