Dying for Electricity

Published: 05-NOV-04

The world over, an estimated 928 million people live in slums. Most of these are in developing nations. The challenges are immense, as the slum world brings with it massive poverty, unemployment and degradation. The figure is expected to grow at an accelerated rate over the next few years, thanks to the rapid climb in urbanisation and rural-urban migration. But there’s another problem facing city managers in Africa: it is providing electricity to the poor to aid development. But there seems to be no coherent plan in the works, writes Amina Accram

Electrifi cation is one of the fundamental challenges facing governments in developing nations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, urbanisation is moving at a faster pace than any other region. By 2010, the region is expected have at least 33 cities of more than one million inhabitants. Lagos in Nigeria is leading the pack - it is expected to 13 million inhabitants by 2010.

In 2001, only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Mauritania and South Africa had urban majorities.

Today, urban poor households in most cities of the region make up more than 50% of the total households. The trend is not unique to Sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, citizens tend to migrate to a single city that is often the nation’s economic capital.

What seems to be lacking in Africa is a comprehensive urban planning strategy that includes electrifi cation.

A report by the African Energy Policy Research Network (AFREPREN) suggests that 80% of Africans live in urban poverty and slums. Of the estimated one-third of Africa’s population who live in urban areas, only about 25% have access to electricity. Urban household electrification levels are generally below 30%.

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of urban inhabitants that were not electrifi ed increased from slightly fewer than 40 million to close to 100 million. The report suggests that this is the equivalent of having the whole of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, not being electrified.

In addition, poverty in urban cities across the continent has been growing at an alarming annual average rate of 4.49 %, about 2% more than the total population growth. This rapid growth has placed a huge strain on urban energy consumption, which has increased rapidly in many countries. In Malawi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Niger, where the majority of the population live in slum conditions, the governments are facing a huge infrastructure and sanitation challenge.

Hence electricity is expensive and hard to come by for a poor urban dweller in those countries. A study of 45 cities in 12 developing countries quoted in the Afrepren report shows that the lowest earners (US$ 7-11 per person per month) spend about 22% of their income on energy, while the highest (US$ 107-216 per person per month) used a paltry 9% of their income.

This is despite the fact that energy demand patterns of the urban poor are largely confi ned to household use. The trend is disturbing when one considers that low-income households are usually within proximity to major electricity transmissions and switching stations.

Leaders attending this year’s Eskom African Business Leadership Forum, in Johannesburg, argued that the shortage of power is stifling growth and development in Africa. Energy supply has been cited as one of the key development priorities in the NEPAD initiative.

In Ghana, the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) made a net loss of 470bn Cedis last year alone, due mainly to power thefts and illegal service connections. Customers of ECG in the Central Region owe about 30bn Cedis in unpaid electricity bills.

In South Africa, power utility Eskom is sitting on over ZAR2,2bn in unpaid electricity accounts.

In Lagos, the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) says it is being owed N2.4bn in unpaid electricity bills and the level of illegal connections has risen. In 1999, Kenya arrested over 600 people for illegally connecting electricity. Now the country has put in place legislation for higher penalties against offenders.

Siles Zimu, vice-president at Johannesburg’s City Power, said it has introduced new services to deal with the never-ending problem of illegal power connections in the peripheral townships of Johannesburg.

In a paper delivered at the Power Africa Conference earlier this year, he said: “We have created awareness of customer responsibility and shred general information about electricity. We are also trying to get pre-paid electrifi cation into the households to solve the demand problem.”

But that could seem like a shortterm solution. AFREPREN says there is evidence suggesting that a larger portion of government financing subsidies and international development aid is aimed at propping up modern energy infrastructure. But this is largely serving the needs of the urban-based formal, commercial and industrial sectors in medium and high-income urban households. An energy service for the urban poor is not yet on the social and political agenda of African leaders.

Recently, the Kasoa District of the Central Region in Ghana recorded fresh illegal connections. But David Alhassan Jangu, Central Regional Director of ECG, says in the fi rst quarter of this year they recovered a total unit of 38 150 KW/h valued at 30bn Cedis.

The government has since been coaxed into action. About 3.8bn Cedis has been spent on expansion and quality supply of power. 753m Cedis was spent on maintenance of equipment, clearing of bush along overhead lines and mending of cut wires, all aimed at ensuring reduction in power interruptions.

Recently, John Kufuor, the President of Ghana, called for new investment in electricity generation to boost industrial development. He warned that unless pumps money into power generation, it would lag behind in industrial development.

In August 2002, the government mandated the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission (PURC) to come up with new tariffs for electricity. The aim was to bail out the government from its everincreasing expenses on power supply to the population. The tariffs were again upped in 2003.

ECG offi cers frequently organise educational programmes for the country’s the urban poor on energy conservation and demand side management. But the results are yet to be evident.

Joseph Coleman, divisional manager of operations at ECG, explains says there is enough power to service entire communities, but most of it is being negated by illegal power connections. Now, the government wants to take a tough stance against those illegally connecting electricity.

“Those who fall foul to these illegal electric connections will be given a fi ne not exceeding 5m Cedi or could face imprisonment, and in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine.”

He reveals that because of this package, people are reporting to their offices and giving information on those involved in illegal electric connections.

It appears that African governments need to catch up quickly that their main challenge over the next 20 years is manage the development of human settlements, such that they satisfy the social, economic and environmental goals of sustainable development.

This will all begin when the continent’s major cities are lit up at minimum costs to the poor.

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