By Lenin Ndebele
THERE’S a lot of talk about what could lead Africa’s economic turnaround, from information technology, agriculture as well as mining and tourism. But all the above can happen only and if the continent solves its power generation woes.
The continent-wide electricity crisis is dampening investor confidence and making ordinary lives difficult, especially in low-income earning communities.
“Blackouts have led to loss of life at birth, during critical medical operations and even loss of production in industries across Africa generally. Lives and opportunities are at stake because of erratic power supply. Everyone in Africa can relate to that hence all nations see the importance of electricity. It’s like how colonialism was viewed by everyone and the fight shared by neighbours,” said economist, Stevenson Dhlamini, from the University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo.
Dhlamini was speaking after the 48th Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) meeting in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, last week which was evidence enough that unity and shared predicaments in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are the key drivers for member states’ planned goals in electricity power generation by year 2022.
Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe were represented at the meeting that brought together power generation companies from Operating Members (OP), Non-Operating Members (NP), Independent Transmission Companies (ITC) and Independent Power Producers (IPP).
SAPP was formed in August 1995 in South Africa and since then it has been the only and first formally advanced power pool in Africa.
Coming into the meeting, all member states had progress reports on how they have advanced in terms of commissioning new power plants in line with the 2022 set deadline.
However, while there are many problems, the biggest hurdle is transmission across the region because there are some member states that are not active on the universal power grid.
As such, a lot of power goes to waste. Power generation experts say SADC produces enough electricity to reduce power shortages but the distribution side of the business lags behind.
Countries such as Angola, Malawi and Tanzania are not connected to the SAPP grid hence the short comings in transmission because they can’t share surplus energy with the rest of the region.
“In 2016, 66 percent of the energy that was matched and available for trading on the competitive market could not be traded due to transmission constraints,” said Zimbabwe’s energy and power development minister, Samuel Undenge at the meeting.
The 2015 African Progress report on electricity access underpins the importance of countries working together for power generation but at the moment, any new power generation capacity projects in Tanzania, Malawi and Angola won’t be accessible to the rest of the SAPP member states and this is a big let-down.
“While there is no single pathway to the high-energy systems that undergird development, universal access to affordable energy in sufficient quantities should be at the centre of any agenda for economic transformation, human development, justice and dignity,” says the report.
Another issue is the need for strong political will because there are numerous power generation projects that have taken a lot of time at planning stage because they involve two or more countries.
For instance, the DRC’s Inga 3 Hydroelectric scheme and a treaty between South Africa and DRC on the construction of a hydro dam to be finished in 2021 by the latter with South Africa as a financier is already off track.
There’ also the Zizabona regional electricity transmission interconnector expected to be finished next year. Zizabona will facilitate power trade across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, easing congestion on the existing north-south transmission corridor from South Africa to Zimbabwe. This project recently received a major boost from the African Development Bank (AfDB) in the form of a US$33 million grant.
“When you deal with a project that is implemented in four countries it takes time to harmonise issues, requirements and legislation and agree on the way forward,” said Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution and Transmission Company systems development manager, Engineer Ikhupuleng Dube. It is against this background that the region continues to be a “dark part of the continent”.