The Power of Power

So as I’m writing this blog, virtually the entire Ghana has plunged into darkness due to power plant failures emanating from the complete shutdown of gas-fired power plants.  Apparently the West Africa Gas Pipeline, an offshore gas pipeline that supplies gas from Nigeria to Benin, Togo and  Ghana was physically damaged in Togo.  But people are not the least bothered by it.  The papers hardly notice this mundane spectacle.  Only a terse press release from the state grid company announced it as a “normal load-shedding exercise”.

The ubiquity of “load-shedding” – planned power outages and brownouts is the way of life.  And this is Ghana.  Not Liberia, Uganda or Togo where most of the population have never been on grid.  On paper, Ghana has 75% electricity access.  These astonishingly high indices for African standards – (also something like 90% primary education access) mask the terrifying chasm between the reliability power of African countries and the rest of the world.  Just because you have a light switch in your home doesn’t mean you can turn it on.

Everybody remembers the Indian power outage that lasted a couple of days.  In Africa’s shining example Ghana, these outages would last weeks (as happened already in March of this year) and every single day (except the day of the President’s funeral), there is load-shedding in some region of the country.

For a lower-middle income African country like Ghana, lack of reliable power is the number one constraint to economic growth.  A lower-middle income country in Latin America or Eastern Europe or Asia’s constraint is usually corruption or political/social stability.  But in Africa it’s undeniably basic infrastructure like power (and to a lesser extent water and roads).  1 billion people in Africa’s combined access to power is equivalent to 10 million people in the US (or each African has access to 1/100th of the power of an American)- and that’s once again just power generation.  Far less people can actually use the power.

So right now entire neighborhoods of Accra are humming with the noise pollution of diesel generators.  I should say, entire wealthy neighborhoods.  The rich/poor chasm has never been so glaring.  People here often have to vote in pitch-dark circumstances.  As illustrated so well in the perennial Earth at night picture – Africa is a continent of darkness.  The lights of Egypt’s Nile, Johannesburg South Africa, and the few oil/gas operations off the west coast of Africa make the whole situation even sadder.

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