By: Emmanuelle Adjima Assy*
“Seen from space, Africa at night is unlit—as dark as all-but-empty Siberia”, said the Economist in its article of March 16, 2007, highlighting one of the serious contemporary issues faced by the African continent. Energy production in Africa is insufficient and does not sustain population growth and demand. Indeed, with over a sixth of the world’s population share, Africa produces only 4% of global electricity (The World Bank, 2012). According to A. Thurston, electric power constitutes 40 to 80% of Africa’s infrastructure deficiencies (2011). The lack of maintenance, investments and ageing plants represent major factors that help to explain this alarming situation. This lack of energy sources relentlessly threatens socioeconomic development efforts of both local and international actors. Among the broad ranges of issues identified, public health shortcomings, environment resources depletion and inhibited economic growth appear at the forefront. Rightfully, the correlation between development and energy is recognized by the United Nations. The international agency put it in these terms: “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and an environment that allows the world to thrive. Development is not possible without energy, and sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy” (UN 2011 Sustainable Energy for All initiative Energy). The recognition of equitable access to clean energy resources especially to poor households in Africa as a pivotal element for economic growth (The Environmental Change Institute, 2007), definitely lies at the heart of both national and international agendas.
Paradoxically, despite their high potential for solar energy most African states have failed to implement and develop effective alternative power sources such as windmills and photovoltaic energy. The World Bank evaluates at 93% Africa’s economically viable hydropower potential, about a tenth of the world’s total that remains unexploited (The World Bank, 2012). While it is true that most of the states have started electrification programs, the energy picture in Africa is mostly dominated by traditional fuel use, with biomass (firewood, charcoal and agricultural residues). In Rwanda, for instance, access to electricity is extremely low with overall about 4% of households connected in urban areas, while in the rural areas it is as low as 1%. In the same country, approximately “90% of households are dependent on wood for cooking and kerosene for lighting.” The high reliance on natural resources for energy security also perpetuates poverty and gender inequality since the responsibility for the energy in traditional households lies mainly with women. Africa is also one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change despite its low contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 4%. Consequently, access to energy sources and the predictability of power supply are rendered more puzzling (The Environmental Change Institute, 2007).
Within Africa, power shortages are unequally appreciated. “Three-quarters of energy generated is used by South Africa, Egypt and the other countries along the North African littoral” (The Economist, 2007). It is estimated that “the combined power generation capacity of all of sub-Saharan Africa is 68 Gigawatts (GW) — no more than that of Spain, with South Africa alone accounting for 40GW of this figure” (Thurston, 2011). South Africa, Ghana and Zambia are the biggest net exporters of power on the continent. As East Africa is experiencing one of the most severe droughts of its history, countries like Tanzania and Kenya suffer from severe and frequent blackouts coupled with important rises on electricity bills (Thurston, 2011b). In West Africa, only 16% of the hydroelectric production capacity of 26 000 MW is currently used. Cote d’Ivoire Azito is the largest private sector power plant in Sub-Saharan Africa that now provides over 40 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s electricity generation capacity and has made this country a regional producer and exporter of electricity. In 2002, exports of electricity to neighboring countries totaled 1.6 TWh in Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Togo (Electrical Power In Cote d’Ivoire, 2013). Until recently, electricity cuts in Cote d’Ivoire was at a lesser extent than that experienced in other West African countries. But unfortunately, since 2013 intensive cuts have been recurrent in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan.
Electricity cuts have generated different social responsiveness in Africa. In Niger, Senegal and Nigeria, important riots and protestations were organized by local populations to demonstrate their dissatisfaction of hours or, in some cases, days of blackouts. In Senegal, some political analyst believed that these electricity cuts counted as one of the reasons undermining the popularity of the former President Abdoulaye Wade during the last elections (Thurston, 2011). In Cote d’Ivoire, as for now, the population has opted for the use of social media to speak up against major cross-cutting issues of energy. By creating Delestron, an anti-super hero, whose aims is to “couper courant dans votre vie” which translated literally means “remove the light from your life”, Ivorian Facebook users have created a deliberative discursive space to centralize reactions to this unpleasant phenomenon. In one week, Delestron has had 2,002 likes, unprecedented in Cote d’Ivoire social media life. Indeed, in a country with only 968,000 Internet users as of Dec.31, 2011, which represents about 4.4% of the population, this demonstrates the seriousness of the problem of electricity shortages for the population.
The new star of the Ivorian blogosphere, Delestron, uses local humor and expresses itself in Nouchi, “the Ivorian French.” Those peculiarities, associated to an apolitical content, might explain in part its success, since the dismissal of language and culture barriers favor the participation of a more varied audience. The internet also protects anonymous bloggers who are able to freely voice their opinions. Delestron arguably represents the type of public sphere “formed around the dialogue surrounding issues, rather than the identity of the population that is engaging in the discourse” as presented by Gerard Hauser. In a post-conflict country where religion and ethnicity constitute touchy topics, the Delestron Facebook page arguably offers a free and apolitical space for the Ivorian population, regardless of their origin and social class, to discuss the question of electricity cuts. Though satiric, Delestron touches upon a serious problem rudely felt by a majority of populations in Africa. While it would be too soon to forecast results of this form of social protest, the creation of Electra by The Compangnie Ivoirienne d’Electricite (CIE), jointly owned by Electricite de France (EDF) and Société d’Aménagement Urbain et Rural (SAUR) and the sole supplier of power, to counter Delestron’s popularity is a positive sign that populations’ voices are being heard.
The most renowned case of social media using a detrimental phenomonon in spurring social manifestations as a tool for social change in Africa remains uncontestably the North African revolutions. Perhaps, Delestron adds up to the instrumentality of the internet and social media to fight not only for presidential changes, but for the ills of the society at large. In this way, social media, despite its limitations, vibrantly empowers populations and nurtures a new type of civic engagement.
*Emmanuelle Adjima Assy is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.
The Economist , Aug 16, 2007. Electricity in Africa: The dark continent. http://www.economist.com/node/9660077
The World Bank (2013) Data by Topic. http://data.worldbank.org/topic
Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. 2012. Retrieved from http://www.internetworldstats.com/africa.htm
United Nations. 2011 Sustainable Energy for All initiative Energy. Retrieved from http://www.sustainableenergyforall.org/
Thurston, A. (2011). Electricity Cuts Cause Anger Across Africa. Retrieved from http://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/electricity-cuts-cause-anger-across-africa/
Thurston, A. (2011b). Kenya Goes Dark. Retrieved from http://sahelblog.wordpress.com/author/sahelblog/
The Environmental Change Institute. 2007. Energy Planning in sub-Saharan Africa – facing the challenges of equitable access, secure supply and climate change: Informing the development of a future research programme on energy planning in developing countries. Retrived from http://www.dfid.gov.uk/R4D//PDF/Outputs/Energy/Energy_Planning_Developing_Countries_ESD_FINAL_REPORT.pdf
Electrical Power in Côte d’Ivoire. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.mbendi.com/indy/powr/af/ci/p0005.htm