Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, six months later

Power lines in South Africa. Photo credit: ForwardM2010 via Flickr

It has been six months since President Obama first introduced the Power Africa Initiative. Here are four areas where the Initiative, which aims to increase electricity access by 20 million households and businesses in six African countries over the next five years, is making some of the best headway. 

1. Providing global leadership. Addressing the African energy deficit requires increased political leadership and support. The good news is that Power Africa has brought more attention to energy poverty than ever before.  In a panel organized by the Center for Global Development late last week, Andrew Herscowitz, Coordinator for the Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives at USAID, highlighted how US engagement is already helping to identify and remove the high barriers and entry costs associated with designing, developing and executing energy projects and programs across the continent – while also raising these issues with key global development champions.

2. Helping African leaders take the lead. National governments in Africa are rightly taking real ownership of their energy needs and are increasingly taking steps to design and implement projects to address these energy requirements. However, all too often, these efforts are hindered by a lack of technical capacity or knowledge.

A major objective of the Power Africa Initiative and Electrify Africa Act is to work with countries to build “host-government capacity to develop, approve, finance and ultimately bring power” to the public. This emphasis isn’t on giving aid, but giving countries the skills to develop their own solutions.  Through partnerships aimed at sharing knowledge and building technical skills and expertise, the US is helping countries lift themselves out of poverty and away from dependency on aid.

Looking towards the future, Herscowitz envisions national governments working directly with investors, without help from US agencies and other intermediaries. Kamran Khan from the Millennium Challenge Corporation reflected on efforts to improve local capacity and training in Africa by noting that “long-term power requires long-term solutions”.

3. Getting support from Congress. The scale of the energy deficit in Africa means that it is not going to be solved overnight. Fortunately, Congress has stepped forward to support the President’s Initiative and its ambitious goals for energy access.

In addition to Power Africa, the House Foreign Affairs Committee  introduced the Electrify Africa Act in June 2013, a bipartisan bill intended to “unlock the potential for economic growth, job creation, improved health and education, and poverty reduction.” This piece of legislation should ensure that political leadership is also sustained in the long-term.

5. Engaging the private sector. Public sector funding isn’t sufficient to meet the energy investment demand across the continent. According to the International Energy Agency, more than $300 billion in global investment is required in order to achieve universal access to basic energy in the region by 2030. Aid can’t, and shouldn’t, pay for this all. As a result, there is a real need for private companies to partner with national governments in order to develop and implement the infrastructure required to provide energy access to those who need it most.

With many of the most experienced energy companies in the world based in the US, it makes sense to utilize their knowledge and expertise in partnership with African companies. The President’s Initiative and the Electrify Africa Act seek to use largely existing sources of public funds to catalyze increased levels of private investment to support expanded electricity access. Within the first 6 months, the President’s Initiative has already secured $9 billion of initial commitments from private sector partners to develop more than 8,000 megawatts of electricity, not to mention the number of smaller projects that are already underway in small and medium-sized firms.

We look forward to checking back in another six months to see what new and exciting progress has been made in Africa’s energy sector. In the meantime, add your name to our energy petition to show your support for Power Africa.