Let There Be Light

Washington's Ambitious Plan to Help Africa Generate Electricity

A man rides his horse near power lines supplying energy to platinum mines in Marikana, South Africa. (Courtesy Reuters)

In the first week of August, official delegations from 50 African countries came to Washington to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The meeting was typical in its extraordinary pageantry, overzealous security, and relative lack of tangible accomplishments. Washington's primary goal seemed to be to demonstrate that it hadn't forgotten entirely about Africa, and most of the policies under discussion were symbolic. In the end, U.S. companies -- including Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM -- announced some $14 billion in new investments; the White House announced modest new security programs to boost cooperation in counterterrorism and peacekeeping. These were admirable steps, but they are transformational for neither Africa nor U.S. policy toward the region.

Yet there was one outcome with the potential to become much more. U.S. President Barack Obama announced an ambitious expansion of the Power Africa initiative that he first launched during a trip to Tanzania last summer. The program aims to help close the massive gaps in electricity generation and access in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The original goal of the program was to produce 10,000 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity. During the summit, those targets were tripled to 30,000 megawatts. Through this, Power Africa aims to create new power connections for at least 60 million households and businesses. These new goals could mean that up to 300 million people will acquire access to reliable and affordable electricity (assuming a reasonable average household size of five people) for the first time. Put differently, Obama has just committed publicly to help provide power for fully half of those Africans who currently lack it and put Power Africa at the very center of Washington's diplomacy efforts in Africa. That is a good thing. It is also likely to be the Obama administration’s last chance to salvage his legacy in Africa.

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