Africa Power Firms Join to Light Up Dark Continent

The latest scheme to spread electric light in Africa may sound familiar, but this time African leaders say they have the will, and financial backing, to succeed.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The latest scheme to spread electric light in Africa may sound familiar, but this time African leaders say they have the will, and financial backing, to succeed.

If so, the campaign to link Africa's disparate and often unreliable power grids could be the first big achievement for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which some critics dismiss as empty rhetoric.

What everyone agrees on is that a much-talked-of economic renaissance will not happen unless African countries can repair and expand transport and power networks shattered in many parts by decades of war or neglect.

"In Africa there are 800 million people, 200 million in southern Africa, and less than 15 percent of those people have access to electricity. That is a damning statistic," said Morgan Sithole, who worked on southwestern Africa's Western Power Corridor, dubbed "Westcor," for South African energy firm Eskom.

"In the (Democratic Republic of) Congo there are 65 million people, and less than 10 percent have access to electricity. Why, in Africa, where we have sustainable hydropower resources? Can't we change that?" Sithole asked?


It is the mighty Congo River, which bisects the eponymous country as well as the continent, that is the driving force behind plans to extend a power grid from the Inga hydropower project at the river mouth to the tip of Africa.

Inga, one of the few lasting investments made in the vast country under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, has for years provided vital power to Congo's southern mining center Lubumbashi, as well as to Zambia and as far south as South Africa. But years of neglect mean many of its turbines are out of action.

The Westcor project, signed by Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo on Oct. 22, aims to put a third hydro plant with 3,500 MW capacity, Inga III, on a branch of the Congo River and build a new power line through oil-rich Angola and Namibia at a total cost of some US$5 billion.

Spider's Web

Following on from the Westcor project are ambitious plans for a continental power grid with high-capacity power lines spreading out from Inga like a giant spider's web reaching to South Africa in the south and Egypt in the north.

To the north one line would stretch to Lagos in Nigeria via the Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon, while another line would stretch all the way to Cairo through Sudan and either Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another would follow the outdated interconnector from Inga to South Africa via Lubumbashi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Energy trade is nothing new in southern Africa. South Africa buys in most output from Mozambique's 1,250 MW Cahora Bassa generator, majority owned by its former colonial power Portugal, and in turn exports power, notably to Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Zambia plans to install interconnectors to supply power to Kenya and Tanzania by 2012.

The proposed African Energy Grid, if it becomes reality, would be the modern equivalent of the "Cape to Cairo" railway line dreamed of by Cecil Rhodes, who amassed a vast fortune from mining and business across Britain's African colonies.

Rhodes' railway was never built.

As well as Inga, the Westcor project will pave the way for a number of proposed hydro and gas-fired generating stations along the transmission route, especially in Namibia and Angola.

But they are all dwarfed by the potential of "Grand Inga," a proposal to site a generating station in the main channel of the Congo River that Eskom estimates could generate 40,000 MW — more than Eskom's total current output in South Africa.

Eskom, which produces some of the world's cheapest power, says Grand Inga would not need the massive dam-building or flooding that have given such projects a bad name with environmentalists and human rights campaigners the world over.

The Congo's flow is second only to the Amazon and reliable year-round thanks to its 1.5 million-square-mile basin straddling the Equator, ensuring constant supply as seasonal rains come and go north and south of the line.

Thirst Grows as Power Drought Looms

Exploiting more of the vast power potential of the Congo River has been on the cards for decades. But the project has taken on increased urgency as southern Africa steadily increases its power usage, creeping ever closer to capacity.

South African demand is expected to exceed current supply by 2007, and the country is spending $3 billion to build three new power stations in the next five years.

Source: Reuters