More affordable electricity would transform Africa. Here's how to get there

Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT) October 18, 2018

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Donald Kaberuka was president of the African Development Bank from 2005 to 2015.Todd Moss is executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub, and previously served as deputy assistant secretary for Africa at the US Department of State. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

Perspectives Todd Moss
Perspectives Donald Kaberuka

It's no surprise that economies around the world need electricity for economic growth and job creation — not just for keeping the lights on. But Liberia, a West African nation of 4 million people, has installed electricity of just 126 megawatts. That's less for the whole country than the average capacity of just one of the more than 8,000 power plants in the United States. If this isn't bad enough, Liberians pay more than three times the average rate for electricity than Americans. This lack of affordable energy dooms the country to poverty and unemployment.
Liberia is not alone. Ghana's aluminum industry, which had been the linchpin in the country's industrial strategy since the 1960s, has been running at a fraction of its capacity for more than a decade because of electricity shortages. The lost output from the plant (which turns alumina into aluminum) has killed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Every sizable business in Nigeria, Africa's largest market, is forced to rely on dirty and expensive diesel generators. In fact, systemic power problems are chronic across Africa: Nearly every economy on the continent is constrained by energy gaps and high costs.
This shocking situation demands that we ask: What will it take for Africans to enjoy energy in the same way as others around the world? And, more importantly, when we help the continent build its future energy systems, are we planning for poverty — or for economic transformation?
So far, we've been thinking far too small. Africa's power future has largely been framed around access. People who rely on wood or kerosene for lighting and heat all deserve to have electricity at home, whether it is delivered through the national grid or by new off-grid home systems. But power for lighting and basic appliances is not enough. Ghana, Egypt, Senegal, and others already have high access