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It's time to launch a new era in Africa

By Cyril Boynes, Jr.
web posted January 23, 2012

While on extended leave in New York, I often pondered conditions in this huge city, versus in Uganda and most of Africa. Perhaps most of all, I reflected on electricity and the economic activity, modern living standards and improved health that this amazing technology makes possible. I thought about that as I read articles about climate change "reparations" and other foreign aid, oil and gas discoveries in Africa, and impediments to African electricity and economic development.

Several European and US energy companies recently announced major natural gas discoveries in East Africa, both onshore and offshore. Other companies are using hydraulic fracturing to unlock natural gas from the continent's shale rock formations.

There is a lot of talk about building LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals to ship gas overseas. "I'm convinced that in 10 years' time Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya will together form a major gas hub for Asian and Far Eastern markets," Cove Energy CEO John Craven told the Wall Street Journal.

There is a lot of gas in West Africa too, especially in Angola and Nigeria, and companies are often criticized for "flaring" gas – burning it off at the wellhead, instead of using it for something productive.  (The same thing happened in the United States, until people figured our how to use this previously unwanted byproduct of oil production to heat homes, generate electricity, and make fertilizers, plastics and chemicals.)

Why should this valuable energy resource be flared? In fact, why should we just talk about sending it to Asia, the Far East and other markets? Why aren't we talking more about using it right here in Africa?

East African gas could easily be used all over the Great Lakes region to generate electricity for homes and businesses, hospitals and schools, jobs and economic growth – turning dreams into reality. All we'd need to do is provide legal, tax and other incentives to attract investors who could build a few gas-fired generating plants and pipelines to connect them to gas fields.

There would still be plenty of gas for export, but the reliable, affordable electricity would launch an economic boom unlike anything we have ever seen.

That's what happened in the southeastern United States, when the Tennessee Valley Authority began building hydroelectric dams and other projects. One of America's poorest regions was transformed into an economic powerhouse. Dams built in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest regions of the USA during the Great Depression did the same thing.

Recognizing the immense value of electricity, South Africa is racing to build the Medupi coal-fired power plant and many other generators and transmission lines. In just one example, when an electrical line finally reached a remote area of the country, two furniture makers were able to install power equipment, hire local workers, sell far more furniture of much higher quality – and help launch a local economic revolution that has enabled families to improve their living standards greatly.

Meanwhile, Ghana is building a 130-MW gas-fired power plant, even though the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation refused to support the $185-million project. Other investors stepped forward, the plant is being built, the country will send some of its abundant natural gas to the plant, and numerous Ghanaians will finally enjoy the blessings of modern living through electricity.

Just imagine what could happen if people all over Africa could have access to affordable electricity, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!

As Zambian Dambisa Moyo and South African Leon Louw have often said, foreign aid causes more harm than good – whether it is traditional aid or new-fangled "climate reparation" aid. Most of it ends up in just a few hands. Poor families see little or no improvement in their lives. And people have few incentives and little money to make investments, launch businesses or improve their homes and communities.

Foreign aid keeps people alive, but barely. It ties them to international welfare, in perpetual poverty, with little or no chance to become middle class.

Access to electricity changes everything. It puts people in charge of their future. It unleashes the human spirit, and people's innovative and entrepreneurial instincts. It gives people one of the most important tools they need: affordable, reliable energy for lights, refrigerators, computers and machinery – along with good jobs, so that they can afford electricity, more nutritious food, healthcare and other basics.

Some say putting more carbon dioxide into the air from burning natural gas will affect the climate. However, many scientists say CO2 plays only a minor role in climate change – and Africans already put millions of tons into the air by burning wood, grass and dung, which are far less efficient fuel sources and cannot generate electricity.

The rest of the world – especially Europeans, Americans, Chinese and Indians – are burning enormous amounts of coal and natural gas to generate the electricity that runs their countries. Why shouldn't Africa? Besides, carbon dioxide makes plants grow better, even in droughts, and companies like General Electric are developing cleaner, more efficient gas turbine technologies that African nations could purchase.

Kenya, Uganda and other African countries would not need extensive gas pipeline systems. They just need to build a few pipelines to carry gas to large generating units that would provide electricity for homes, hospitals, schools, shops, factories and water treatment plants. Miracles would happen.  

As my wife, businesswoman and fellow malaria and economic development activist Fiona Kobusingye, has pointed out, "Not having electricity means millions of Africans die every year from lung infections, because they have to cook and heat with open fires; from intestinal diseases caused by spoiled food and unsafe drinking water; from malaria and other diseases that we could prevent or treat if we had proper medical facilities."

All that would change if our countries had electricity.

The modern world runs on electricity. It's time for Africa to take its rightful place among the healthy and prosperous nations of the world. Our growing supplies of natural gas could help make that happen. ESR

Cyril Boynes, Jr. is co-chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality – Uganda.

 

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