Former ONE Global Policy Director Edith Jibunoh shares her experience living in rural Nigeria, where limited access to electricity was both a part of life, and a threat to it, too.
A part of life
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I was used to having only a few hours of reliable electricity every day because while we were on the electricity grid, the power outages were so common that unreliable access to electricity was very much a part of our lives.
Every child that has grown up in Nigeria is familiar with the loud exclamation “NEPA!!” whenever a black out occurred – NEPA was the name for the National Electricity Power Authority, or as we called it, “Never Ever Power Again.”
The major challenge was the fluctuation. The grid would provide power sometimes just for a few minutes and then it would be back to dark. We would turn on the family generator but a few minutes later, the grid would work again – availability and timing were never a certainty. While we always had back up power, the on-again, off-again nature of the electricity supply was disruptive and very expensive.
While I grew up in Lagos, several holidays and many weekends were spent in my father’s home village, Akwukwu-Igbo in Delta State, six hours away from the capital. Akwukwu-Igbo had no electricity because the grid had not yet been extended to this interior part of the country. However, my family was lucky – we had a generator.
We used our generator six to eight hours a day for tasks that are often taken for granted: watching the news, refrigeration, air conditioning and powering the pump for running water. It was just enough time to keep things frozen in the freezer, barely enough to keep things cool in the fridge.
Acutely aware of our blessings, we shared what we could. I remember our neighbors lining up outside our house to get access to running tap water every day. As soon as the generator was turned on, the pumps would start going and the water would start flowing from the taps connected to our water supply. My father, who had originally left his village home on a scholarship to attend university in England, was glad to be able to use his training as a construction engineer and provide infrastructure services to our very large extended family.
While this was very much a part of my life, I didn’t dwell on the impacts of energy poverty – this lack of access to reliable energy sources – or on the impact on development and health. Not until I realized the threat to life.
A threat to life
While many hospitals in Nigeria have generators, small clinics and birthing centers very often aren’t on the grid and don’t even have a generator. This problem is especially bad in rural areas and emergency situations drive home the reality of just how fragile life in Africa can be.
A little girl in a neighboring village was hit by a car, and while our immediate instincts were to help rush her to the hospital, her immediate family was so used to not having access to emergency health care that they had already started mourning her death.
With the knowledge that a hospital visit means you have to bring your own supplies including candles to light up your room or diesel to power the generator - especially if you require services at night – sometimes the need for emergency care for people with very little incomes, is the equivalent of a death sentence.
For this little girl, her accident was in fact a needless death sentence because of the surrender to circumstance that has become a part of life in much of sub-Saharan Africa. This was one of the many experiences that begun to cement the certainty that access to reliable electricity is part of the basic right to life.
It doesn’t matter if you have a car. It doesn’t matter if you have money. If you can’t access emergency health care, that’s the difference between living and dying.
The important thing to understand about energy poverty is that it affects more than the luxuries, like televisions, refrigeration and cell phones. Energy poverty has serious implications for all aspects of development including education, health, safety and access to economic opportunities.
Lack of energy access is standing between Africa and transformative economic development. It’s holding back improved agricultural practices, reliable health care, access to running water, information technology in schools and the ability to leave one’s house safely after dark.
Electricity affects not just every sector, but every aspect of life.