What can Barack Obama’s “Power Africa” program achieve?

Seven billion dollars is a lot of money—except when it goes into infrastructure. Then, $7bn, the sum that the US has committed to spend over the next five years on the Obama administration’s newly-announced Power Africa initiative, does not sound like so much at all. Even considering that Power Africa will roll out in only six countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania), the project’s funding feels slender. Power plants are expensive: in Tanzania, for example, a Sumitomo-built 240 MW gas-fired plant that just secured Japanese financing will cost $414m; in Ghana, the 400 MW Bui hydroelectric plant, now under construction with Chinese financing, costs $622m. Transmission and distribution networks are expensive in their own right. Announced by President Obama himself during his current Africa tour, Power Africa arrives with the pomp of a legacy-building initiative; measured against these industrial costs, it risks appearing tentative and small-bore, like much of the administration’s Africa policy.

That said, all infrastructure investment should be considered a good thing unless proven otherwise—especially in Africa, where the need is so great. At present, continent-wide installed capacity and power generation are roughly equivalent to those of Germany or Canada. Remove South Africa and Egypt, and you are left with about 63 GW supplying 260 billion kWh, scarcely more than Australia or Iran. In this context, if the first phase of Power Africa succeeds in its stated goal of adding 10 GW of generation capacity and connecting 20 million new residential and commercial customers, it will represent a major expansion—albeit not near the doubling of access that, according to the White House fact sheet on Power Africa, is the program’s ultimate aim. Indeed, the same fact sheet soberly estimates that it would cost $300bn to secure universal access to power on the continent by 2030.

Bridging this gap is not, nor should it be, the responsibility of an aid program, which is why the second part of Power Africa, which the White House is presenting in more elusive terms, is intriguing and calls for details and scrutiny. The first part—the $7bn commitment—is quite straightforward. Its largest component is up to $5bn in US Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) export support facilities, plus up to $1.5bn in Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) financing and insurance. This is classic bilateral development assistance, US government money that will find its way mostly back to American corporations and consultants. Additional funds are earmarked for technical assistance, institutional capacity development and the like—useful, standard stuff.

But Power Africa also promises to “leverage private sector investments” in power infrastructure, with $9bn in “initial commitments from private sector partners” already in place. These include General Electric, which “commits to help bring online 5,000 MW” in Ghana and Tanzania. Heirs Holdings, which has promised to $2.5bn in investment and financing for 2,000 MW of new capacity, is the vehicle of Tony Elumelu, the Nigerian billionaire and “Africapitalism” proponent. Aldwych International, which plans a 400 MW, $1.1bn wind power project in Kenya, counts as lead investors the Shell Foundation and the Dutch development finance institution FMO. And Symbion Power, which “aims to catalyze $1.8bn in investment to support 1,500 MW” of generation, is a Washington-based company that, aside from two small projects in Tanzania, has had all its experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti; it’s also where former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson (the husband of Valerie Plame) has landed as a company director.

In what ways the US government intends, through Power Africa, to “leverage” these investments will presumably become clear in time; the announcement offers no details. The cast of partners, however, gives a sense of the kinds of associations the US would like to foster and players it would like to involve in major infrastructure investment in Africa. It will be tempting to see this alliance as a kind of “coalition of the willing” that  presents an alternative to Chinese firms and financing, which are increasingly involved in power investment alongside other infrastructure projects on the continent.

It’s also worth noting that Power Africa, as unveiled, puts a strong emphasis on building new generation capacity—which, although expensive and certainly necessary, is in some ways the easy part of power development. It’s also the part where private investors can earn a safe return, backed by international guarantees. The easiest, of course, is to hand over the plant upon commissioning, thus freeing investors from any operating risk. But even if the private partner takes on the operation of the plant for a period of time, rather than handing it over to a local public or private operator, there are ways to structure the contract and provide guarantees that will reassure investors.

But even though the generation capacity shortfall is dire and unambiguous, many of the dysfunctions of power systems in sub-Saharan Africa occur at the level of distribution. They include maintenance issues, power theft, mismanagement, distorted pricing, consumer payment and arrears issues, and more. Although some of the utilities that grapple with these issues are private companies, they operate under complex long-term contracts negotiated with national regulators. Most private investors, local or foreign, will avoid anything to do with power distribution: the levels of operating and political risk are too high, and the returns—constrained by the politics of price-setting—are too low.

Ultimately, however, power infrastructure cannot grow without consumption: new generation is useless if distribution systems don’t work, and it takes effective distribution systems to reach the new and existing customers whose economic activity the new power plants are meant to stimulate. Power Africa, with its array of US supports and private partners, promises an intervention at the generation end that is relatively small by global industry standards, but large enough, in the African context, to be taken seriously. If the five-year vision is achieved, it will deliver some shiny new power plants, modern and efficient, in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania, while making money for a variety of aid-industry players, contractors, and new African capitalists along the way. Making sure those new plants become actual development assets—particularly ones for broad-based development—is the hard part. That task will fall, rightly, to the governments of those countries, held accountable by civic and media scrutiny.

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