Power problems widen the digital divide

The success of many African countries in addressing the digital divide masks a large, yawning hole into which many are about to fall. The more successful they are at addressing the digital divide, the more it turns into the power divide.

The shortage of electricity access and poor quality of supply will begin to undermine what has been achieved. Russell Southwood looks at the next big challenge facing Sub-Saharan Africa.

The future for a successful Africa is easy to see and the trends are very clear. Consumer devices like smart and feature phones and tablets will continue to increase in number. These will encourage the use of screen-based apps that need to be hosted remotely.

Taking advantage of increasing levels of bandwidth, the enterprise market will up its use of things like SaaS and external continuity for their data. All of this will require power-hungry data centres capable of running cloud based services.

The implementation of 4G/LTE will encourage much higher levels of video use which again will require local server based access for local content.

Each and every one of these services will increase the burden on the power grid. Mobile operators have begun to explore renewable energy to power base stations but they have yet to make anything more than a small dent in their need for diesel-based generators.

Not only is the diesel fuel extremely expensive but a significant proportion is being siphoned off, increasing their operating costs.

There is no country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is not affected by the shortage of access to reliable electricity, whether simply generation capacity or where the power exists, transmission infrastructure issues.

Countries like Ghana and Senegal are at the better end of this spectrum. Urban areas in Senegal have 57% access to electricity but there is only 10% access in rural areas.

Ghana has nearly 100% access to electricity in Greater Accra but only 40% access in Upper West. By contrast, Kenya has only 18% access to electricity. The same urban/rural disparities exist as in the other countries.

However, even these figures are misleading. Anyone familiar with somewhere like Accra knows that the electricity supply is extremely unreliable with more than occasional power cuts and spiky, uneven levels of power supply.

The overall result is that each time there is a blackout or a surge, large amounts of equipment has to be reset before it will work again. ICT equipment lasts less long even when surge protectors are in place and often they are not.

Everyone’s answer to this problem – whether a household or a company – is to have generators using expensive and environmentally unfriendly diesel to cover for the outages on the power grid. So Sub-Saharan Africa has three difficult power issues to deal with:

  1. The overall shortfall in power supply in the face of rapidly growing demand.
  2. The absence of effective national transmission systems to distribute the power, in particular to rural areas.
  3. A low quality of power infrastructure leading to unreliable supply even when the grid is functioning.

Let’s take Kenya, the poster child of the ICT revolution in Africa as an example. According to its 2030 vision, it wants to turn itself into a medium sized industrial country by that date.

It generates 1,300 MW but has a shortfall of around 700MW. 70% of electricity comes from hydro-electricity but the shortfall during periods of drought and for evening peak time demand is made up from diesel-generated power.

This is both extremely costly and environmentally unfriendly. Fuel costs fluctuate with the world price for oil, making it hard for businesses to plan their future expenditure.

So what plans are in place to address this problem? The country is exploring geothermal which could be the answer to all of these problems but which is no quick fix. It has paper plans to connect to its energy-richer neighbours Ethiopia and Uganda but there is almost no political will to make this happen and certainly no current budget.

The kind of political focus that has been bought to bear on the digital divide just does not exist to address this problem. Kenya was the country that built an international fibre cable in a little under two years and rolled out a national fibre network. It continues to have ambitious plans to give each school student their own laptop with curriculum materials.

But on the power issue, Kenya, as with many other African countries, appears to be asleep at the wheel. Why? In ICT development terms, much of what had to be done could achieved by investment from the private sector. Energy is dominated by Governments that set long-term prices for electricity and control the utilities that are supposed to deliver it.

Speak to anyone in the business of raising finance to address the energy shortfall and it quickly becomes clear that the timetable for the gargantuan task of meeting the shortfall is being held up by the snail’s pace of work by African Governments.

With the digital divide, there were brave pioneers at the World Bank who supported African governments to address ICT infrastructure investments by using their money to help change the policy framework and overcome these obstacles. They crafted public private partnerships to address the shortfall in both infrastructure and government capacity.

The same drive and commitment does not seem to exist in international organisations to address these power supply issues. Energy policy seems to be in the dark ages rather than crafted to address the scale of a shortfall that will undermine all other efforts on the road to greater prosperity.

So what is to be done? Nothing in the energy sector in Africa is simple and we offer these ideas as a point of discussion but something has to happen and quickly. So let’s focus on three things:

1. Accelerating large-scale power generation projects

Governments need to focus on 1-2 projects that will fill a large part of the shortfall in the next 5-7 years. These projects need to have the enabling environment that was crafted for telecoms.

Government’s role is to resolve the policy questions quickly and set an energy price that will encourage the private sector into the market. An emphasis needs to be laid on renewable energy where it is as cheap as other forms of power.

2. Getting better transmission coverage

As has already happened in Uganda, the generation and transmission functions need to be separated out.

Private investors need to be encouraged to put money into purely private or public private partnerships to develop power transmission infrastructure, particularly to population centres where coverage is poor and to mobile base station sites.

3. Supplying electricity in rural areas

For rural areas without power supply, Governments need to encourage anyone who will come and create micro-generating capacity.

This could be a mobile operator selling its surplus energy in a village to a small micro-energy company offering wind and solar to anchor tenants like schools and clinics, with villagers also benefiting from the supply.

The Government needs to sign cheques on the demand side (paying for school supply) so that micro-generation operators can see how their business model can be underwritten.

The mobile phone sector was energised by the existence of competition. The sleepy and sometimes corrupt incumbents found they had to emerge from their slumbers if they were to survive.

The power sector needs to find a way of energising the slumbering state giants of electricity supply. Perhaps the idea of micro generation companies might be also extended to urban areas?

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Power problems widen the digital divide