Tackling Poverty in Africa: Step Number 1 is Energy Supply

Black out cripples the Cape Town economy! Eskom is under pressure to supply growing economy with power! Eskom had foreknowledge of the power crisis!

In 2007, these headlines would have been very familiar to newspaper readers. It was a time when businesses such as restaurants, supermarkets and cold storage houses were left stranded, with food stocks rotting. South Africa’s business confidence index  dropped and further more hospital services were severly disrupted. Those who could afford to, (such as Sandton Mall) scrambled to Europe for back-up generators. South Africa has one of the cheapest electricity tariff rates in the world. For the first time, it seemed as though the true cost of this power was starting to hit the nation’s pockets. The “power cuts” as they were later called, were as a result of a combination of poor decision making and improper planning. The demand for power by a growing economy could not be met by Eskom’s available supply. Maintenance in the nuclear power station in Koeberg, Cape Town had also gone wrong and some key parts of this plant were out of order. To explain the situation in layman terms, imagine your favourite late night social venue in town on its busiest night having half of the toilets marked “out of order”. Lines to the restroom would go all th way to the entrance. You can only imagine the dissatisfaction and intense convenience this would cause.

At a domestic level individuals could not run their households well. Cooking, running errands, homework and hygiene became expensive and inconvenient. That is what happens when there is a shortage of power in the modern world. Healthcare is compromised, business are in freefall , and life not only becomes inconvenient but expensive and unmanageable. Being short of energy is a big handicap. It places man on a different dimension of poverty. It is a dimension where you have resources but can’t use them. Energy after all is the “ability to do work” and “use your resources”. Sadly 2007 in South Africa was not an anomaly for an African country when it comes to a shortage of energy supply. In an average year we have 50-60 days of power cuts across the continent. That’s two months of no power.

Now only 26% of Africa is electrified. So of the 700 million people about 540 million don’t have readily accessible electricity. That means their ability to effectively use  resources is hindered. 20 years ago it might have been the norm and culturally acceptable to collect wood for energy, it might have been easy to irrigate crops with precipitation dependency, however now it is not. Deforestation has been found to increase the risk of malaria. Changing weather patterns, cholera and industrial water pollution has made those without a purified water supply vulnerable to disease. Having no electrification means not being able to pump water from 5km away, purify it and deliver it to your door step. A lack of energy means that instead of natural gas stoves or LPG gas being used, 1.6 million Africans will die from smoke inhalation caused by indoor fire-cooking every year. This is real poverty and energy is where the poverty problem starts.

Regardless of skills, resources, food and medicine, those without a modern form of energy will remain poor. By “modern form” I don’t mean car batteries, but rather LPG gas for cooking maybe, electricity for light, solar power for hot water and hygiene. Medical procedures can be conducted from miles away via satellite and medical supervision. The doctor does not need to be there to observe patients and diagnose them. This is the relief from poverty that comes with proper energy supply, but without it, it is not possible.

Until we find a solution to the problem of energy, other  effects  and causes of poverty such as: a lack of education, malnutrition, a lack of business information etc will not be solved. Energy supply deficiency is where it all starts. The issue though is money. It could cost up to 30 billion USD per annum to address this.

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