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Empowering Africa

Aug 03 , 2015
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China is helping significantly to reduce sub-Saharan Africa’s crippling energy shortages. By constructing myriad hydroelectric production facilities across Africa, by building high-tension transmission lines from north to south, and by helping at least one country to convert sunshine into power, China is playing a major role in relieving a major developmental weakness.

All of sub-Saharan Africa – forty-nine countries with nearly 1 billion people – boasts a daily electrical power generation capacity that is less than Spain’s. A medium-sized midwestern American city produces more power than Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. Even comparatively well-off South Africa, the continent’s most modern and best-equipped state, this summer (winter south of the equator) is experiencing daily blackouts, or purposeful “load shedding” disruptions of normal life. Industry everywhere, even in South Africa, suffers from power weaknesses, as do the daily lives of millions.

That is why the dozens of dams that African countries are building with Chinese construction expertise, and often with Chinese labor, are so important to the future of the continent. The largest of these projects is the 6000 megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile River, double the size of Egypt’s Aswan Dam. It will flood 1700 sq. km of forest along Ethiopia’s border with the Sudan and create a reservoir twice as large as Lake Tana. By its completion next year, the dam’s hydroelectric power-producing potential will multiply Ethiopia’s installed electrical capacity fivefold. Overnight, impoverished Ethiopia will be able to export power to neighboring countries and to Egypt.  Crucially, these new power supplies will enable Ethiopia alone to light large parts of Africa that are now dark.

But doing so depends on being able to transmit this new electricity over long distances, and sub-Saharan Africa lacks a continental-long grid over which power can pass as needed north or south of the equator. That is why it is important news that the China Electric Power and Equipment Technology Company has now contracted to build a $120 million transmission line to connect the Ethiopian and Kenyan power grids.

Financed by the African Development Bank, the Chinese firm will build a 500 volt line for 433 km. from Wolayita Sodo in southern Ethiopia to the border with northern Kenya. In turn, backed by France and the African Development Bank, Kenya will continue the line 612 km from Konso to its junction with existing Kenyan high-voltage facilities.  With necessary connector stations in both countries, the total cost of the grid-linkage project will be about $1.26 billion, covered in this last part by the World Bank.


The head of the Ethiopian Electric Power Company expressed confidence that the entire project would be completed by late 2017, given the Chinese enterprise’s experience world-wide, and its current construction of a light railway in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. China Electric Power is a subsidiary of the state-owned Grid Corporation, which manages power hookups and transmissions throughout China.

When finished, filling in the missing transmission link across wild terrain from Ethiopia to Kenya will close a critical gap. Africa has four regional power consortia that operate in synergy only with great difficulty. The Southern African Power Pool ties together twelve countries from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo southward through Zambia to Mozambique, South Africa, and the smaller contiguous nations. The West African Power Pool joins fourteen countries from Nigeria northward to Senegal and Mali, the Central African Power Pool the eleven Francophone entities from the Republic of Congo to Chad.

The East African Power Pool, with the final completion of the Ethiopian-Kenyan portion, will effectively enable power to pass from Egypt (part of the existing Nile Basin Initiative) to Tanzania, all supplied by abundant power from the waters of the Blue Nile. At some future time, Ethiopian power may also run down Chinese-constructed transmission lines to South Africa.

In addition to hydroelectrically produced power, China is assisting Africa’s search for new sources of energy by helping Kenya experiment with converting the sun’s rays to electricity. In Garissa, near the site of a recent al-Shabaab attack on the local university, China has agreed to build one of Africa’s largest solar plants. Financed by China’s Export-Import Bank, it will add fifty needed megawatts to the Kenyan grid and be completed late next year.

This first solar plant will be joined, according to the administrator of Kenya’s Renewable Energy Association, by eight additional solar plants capable of providing a full 50 percent of the country’s electrical requirements.  Kenya is also planning a wind-farm to generate power near Lake Turkana.

Despite the continent’s abundant sunshine and strong winds, Africa has very few existing alternative energy facilities.  South Africa has an experimental wind-turbine plant and a solar array in its arid northwest, but has had difficulty completing transmission lines from that area to its major cities.

If Chinese, Ethiopian, and Kenyan cooperation succeeds as expected in significantly boosting generating capacity via hydroelectricity and solar technologies, and linking the two grids, African lives and livelihoods will be greatly enriched. Without abundant power, developing Africa has until now been very hard and slow.

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