A Free-Market Energy Blog

Powering Countries, Empowering People: A Case Study (Part 1 of 3)

By -- September 20, 2016

“Affordable energy brings jobs, improved living standards, and pursuit of happiness. But across the globe, nearly three billion people – almost half the world’s population – still lack regular, reliable electricity. Nearly 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity.”

[Part II and Part III of this series follow.]

For 16 years, in a scene out of pre-industrial America, Thabo Molubi and his partner made furniture in South Africa’s outback, known locally as the “veld.” Lacking even a stream to turn a water wheel and machinery, they depended solely on hand and foot power. But then an electrical line reached the area.

The two installed lights, and power saws, and drills. Their productivity increased fourfold. They hired local workers to make, sell, and ship more tables and chairs, of better quality, at higher prices, to local and far away customers. Workers had more money to spend, thereby benefitting still more families.

Living standards climbed, as families bought lights, refrigerators, televisions, computers, and other technologies that many Americans and Europeans simply take for granted. The community was propelled into the modern era, entrepreneurial spirits were unleashed, new businesses opened, and newly employed and connected families joined the global economy.

People benefited even on the very edge of the newly electrified area. Bheki Vilakazi opened a small shop so people could charge their cell phones before heading into the veld, where rapid communication can mean life or death in the event of an accident, automobile breakdown, or encounter with wild animals.

Two hundred miles away, near Tzaneen, other South African entrepreneurs realized their soil and tropical climate produced superb bananas. After their rural area got electricity, they launched the Du Roi banana cloning laboratory and nursery, where scientists develop superior quality, disease-free seedlings that are placed in gel in sealed containers and shipped all over Africa and to other parts of the world.

Educated in a rural school only through tenth grade, Jane Ramothwala was a hotel maid before becoming a general nursery worker with the company. Over the ensuing decades, she worked hard to learn every facet of business operations, taught herself English, and took adult training and education courses – eventually attaining the position of manager for the company’s plant laboratory.

She now earns five times more than she did previously. During that time, the lab grew from 800,000 plants to 10 million, and today the laboratory, nursery, and shipment center provide employment for several college graduates and 45 workers with limited educations. Their lives have been transformed, many have built modern homes, and their children have far brighter futures than anyone could have dreamed of a mere generation ago. [1]

Access to electricity, Jane says, “has had a huge impact on the quality of life for many families in rural parts of Limpopo Province.” It has improved her and her neighbors’ lifestyles, learning opportunities, and access to information many times over.

These scenes are being repeated all around the world, from Nigeria and Kenya, to Chile, Peru, China, India, Indonesia, and dozens of other countries. Thousands of other communities, millions of other families, want the same opportunities. But for now many must continue to live without electricity, or have it only sporadically and unpredictably a few hours each week.

Half the World Still Does Not Have Electricity

Affordable energy brings jobs, improved living standards, and pursuit of happiness. But across the globe, nearly three billion people – almost half the world’s population – still lack regular, reliable electricity. Nearly 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 600 million people – almost twice the population of the United States, and 70 percent of the region’s population – still have no or only limited, sporadic electricity. More than 80 percent of its inhabitants still rely on wood, dung, and charcoal fires for most or all of their heating and cooking needs, resulting in extensive smoke and pollution in their homes and villages.

In India, more than 300 million people (approximately the population of the United States) still have no electricity at all; tens of millions more have it only a few hours a day. [2]

Countless people in these communities live in abject poverty, often on just a few dollars a day. Sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita income is roughly $1 per day, Zambia-born economist Dambisa Moyo writes, giving it the highest proportion of poor families in the world. [3]

Mothers in these communities spend hours every day bent over open fires, their babies strapped on their backs, breathing poisonous fumes day after day. Many are struck down by debilitating and often fatal lung diseases. Their homes, schools, shops, clinics, and hospitals lack the most rudimentary electricity-based technologies: lights, refrigerators, radios, televisions, computers, and safe running water.

Their mud-and-thatch, cinderblock, and other traditional houses allow flies and mosquitoes to zoom in, feast on human blood, and infect victims with malaria and other killer diseases. Women and children must walk miles, carrying untreated water that swarms with bacteria and parasites that cause cholera, diarrhea, and river blindness. Unrefrigerated food spoils rapidly, causing still more intestinal diseases.

Hundreds of millions get horribly sick and five million die every year from lung and intestinal diseases, because of breathing smoke from open fires and not having refrigeration, clean water and safe food.

When the sun goes down, their lives largely shut down, except to the extent that they can work or study by candlelight, flashlight or kerosene lamp.

The environmental costs are equally high. Rwanda’s gorilla habitats are being turned into charcoal, to fuel cooking fires. In Zambia and elsewhere, entrepreneurs harvest trees by the thousands along highways, turning forest habitats into grasslands, and selling logs to motorists heading back to their non-electrified homes in rural areas and even large sections of cities.

As quickly as rich-country charities hold plant-a-tree fund raisers, people around the world cut trees for essential cooking and heating.

Unless reliable, affordable electricity comes, it will be like this for decades to come. Little by little, acre by acre, forest habitats will become grasslands, or simply be swept away by rains and winds. And people will remain trapped by poverty, misery, disease and premature death.

That unsustainable human and ecological destruction can be reversed, just as it was in the United States. A vital part of the solution is power plants that come equipped with steadily improving pollution controls – and burn coal or natural gas that packs hundreds of times more energy per pound than wood or dung or plant-based biofuels.

“Access to the benefits that come with ample energy trumps concerns about their tiny contribution of greenhouse gas emissions,” New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin observed in his DotEarth blog. Africa sits on vast deposits of coal, natural gas and liquid condensates that are largely ignored or simply burned as unwanted byproducts, as companies produce crude oil. Can someone find a business model that can lead to capturing, instead of flaring, those “orphan fuels,” he wondered. [4] 

Putting Fossil Fuels to Work

Those “orphan fuels” could and should be put to work, instead of wasted. However, it is not just the byproducts of crude oil production that should be put to work. Indeed, they are a tiny fraction of energy resources poor nations have but rarely used. Byproducts in one case are primary products in many others.

“Over 90% of Ugandans cannot really use their education, skills and desire to improve their lives,” Cyril Boynes, the late director of the Congress of Racial Equality Uganda, told me.

“They can only do what is possible with wood, charcoal, paraffin and muscle power. How is that different from what our ancestors could do 100 years ago?” he asked. Or from what Americans did before their Civil War, or even Revolutionary War? How has their progress been held back for so long?

Africa has numerous oil, gas, coal, and shale gas deposits, most of which have barely been delineated, much less produced, Boynes pointed out. All across the underdeveloped world – from Eastern Europe to Asia and Latin America – countries have energy riches that could be harnessed to electrify and modernize communities and entire nations. Africa’s natural gas alone “could fuel several big power plants that would generate enough electricity to turn lights on all over Uganda and the [African] Great Lakes region,” he noted.

Developing these hydrocarbon resources would generate electricity, jobs, prosperity, and improved health for decades to come. Though the deposits would eventually run out, Africa and other poor regions would improve dramatically in the meantime – by which date human ingenuity will have devised amazing new energy generation and efficiency equipment, if technological advances over the past 50 years are any guide.

Hydroelectric projects in Chile’s Patagonia region and many other countries around the globe could bring similar benefits to the people in those nations.

Wind and solar can be a temporary measure for small remote communities, but cannot meet the needs of modern communities, South African energy and nuclear consultant Kelvin Kemm notes, because their electricity is too expensive and unreliable.

It takes years to build expensive rail lines to haul coal from Africa’s few big coal deposits, and transmission lines to carry power hundreds of miles. Some African countries have natural gas, but developing this resource and building the necessary pipelines is in its infancy. Hydroelectric has enormous potential in some areas, but building dams faces many obstacles and also takes many years.

But the projects need to be launched, Kemm says, to ensure power for future generations.

Kemm believes countries should also build generators where electricity is needed. In some cases, that can mean coal- or gas-fired turbines – if the fuels have been discovered and can be delivered easily and economically to electrical generators near cities. In other instances, he says, it may be “better to build small thorium or pebble bed nuclear power plants. It is easy to bring nuclear fuel to these small power stations, because so little fuel is used.”

The bottom line, Boynes told me, is that reliable, affordable electricity would mean people “wouldn’t have to continue living in poverty and darkness, without the jobs and other blessings that electricity can bring. We could provide it to hundreds of villages and cities in a few years, if environmentalists would stop fighting” almost every energy project that is proposed.

“It’s a good thing Uganda already has the Nulubaala Power Station,” he added. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have any electricity.” Beyond Kampala and Jinja, however, few Ugandans have electricity – an untenable situation that is repeated all over Africa and in many other countries.

Simply put, to empower families and communities – and provide them with modern technologies that improve, enhance and safeguard lives – you first need to empower them with plentiful, reliable, affordable electricity. And to become electrified, poor nations need more than a business plan.

They need fewer restrictions on electricity generation projects – and less foreign aid, Dambisa Moyo emphasizes. They need more foreign trade and investment, more business, agricultural, property rights, and banking expertise, and greater encouragement to develop economically.

They need legal and regulatory systems that enable investors, entrepreneurs, and markets to flourish, while safeguarding honest businesses and families against dishonest and corrupt practices, businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats.


[1] The stories of Thabo Molubi, Bheki Vilakazi and Jane Ramothwala were provided courtesy of nuclear engineer and consultant Kelvin Kemm of Pretoria, South Africa. DuRoi Nursery provided further information.

[2] Todd Lindeman, “1.3 billion are living in the dark,” Washington Post, November 10, 2015; International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook, 2015 Electricity Access Database.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/world-without-power/

[3] Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux (2009), page 5 (citing World Bank World Development Indicators).

[4] Andrew C. Revkin, “Stop energy poverty. Great slogan. So how?” DotEarth.blogs.NYTimes.com, January 4, 2011; http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/stop-energy-poverty-great-slogan-so-how/?_r=0


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