Power play

References to Africa as the “dark continent” have always irritated me. There’s so much sunlight, so many vibrant people, so much daily excitement. However, the equatorial sun rises in Lagos at about 6.30am and sets at about 6.30pm. Then it is dark, really dark. Street lights are rare and power blackouts are common. So common, in fact, that selling generators in Nigeria will be a good business for quite some time.

Recently my generator went kaput and it was only after a week of darkness that I was able to have a new one installed. This singular event has taught me what a class in Electricity 101 could never have achieved. Prior to this, I thought that power generation was child’s play. Now I know better.

Manufacturing firms in Nigeria consider inadequate infrastructure, particularly power, as their most severe constraint. There is simply not enough power to go round. The entire energy generation capacity of the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, at 63 gigawatts, is comparable to that of Spain. If South Africa is excluded, sub-Saharan African generation capacity falls to 28 gigawatts, about the same as Argentina's, according to the IMF. That’s why half of the trade between Nigeria and England – £500 million – last year was on generators. Dealing with the inadequate power supply and other infrastructure problems absorbs far more of the management’s attention than any other business problem.

In Nigeria each household is its own municipal council. The success of this council depends on its ability to provide and maintain basic utilities. My municipality has been very efficient; we supply power (with a generator), water (through a borehole), security (with vigilante groups), and refuse disposal (with a waste contractor). We have abandoned conventional telephone networks for cell phones. We have also been very efficient in maintaining the drainage and we may soon start constructing our own roads.

And, of course, I live in a moderately well-off municipal council. Most households cannot afford their own generator and depend upon the eccentricities of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). They have no air-conditioning and cook on stoves fuelled by kerosene or firewood. (Sorry about that, green readers!)

In considering the cost of electricity here in Ibadan, one has to bear in mind that the prices of both publicly and privately provided power are distorted by government subsidies. Publicly provided power produces electricity at a relatively high cost of 11 US cents/KwH compared to an international average of about 5-6 cents/KwH. The company is allowed to charge only 3.5 cents/KwH, and is supposed to receive the rest as a government subsidy. Generating power privately seems more expensive but the hidden costs of publicly generated power -- uncertainty, the long and unending absence, the impossibility of seeking legal redress -- make it a daunting alternative. Hence, it’s preferable to have PHCN as only as a stand-by.

So when our generator packed up, we had to get a replacement. I was naïve to think that as soon as we paid, the generator would be installed within 24 hours as promised by the company. As soon the payment was made, the generator company showed its true colours. First they sent us an installation bill which was half the cost of the generator. When we queried this, we were told that the warranty of the generator would be withdrawn if we didn’t comply. My municipality had to act fast, which meant meeting with the generator company.

The weight and height of Mr Generator were intimidating. We had to stand for some minutes before we were ushered into his office. Mr Generator had to joggle between answering phone calls from his three mobiles and one land line. It was a delight to watch him switch from English to Yoruba and even to Arabic. Each of his sentences was punctuated with a polite “yes, sir”. It took us only 30 minutes to have his attention. Fortunately the matter was resolved and the generator was installed on the same day.

It was a frustrating week. But rather than see it as a glass half empty, I tried to see it as a glass half-full. It was a moment to consider the last things. The first days were hellish: guttering candles, suffocating heat and humidity, no computers, no internet, no refrigeration. Some purgatorial relief came with the hope of getting a replacement. And the joy of hearing the hum of a new generator was like the ante-room of heaven.

Nwachukwu Egbunike is a book editor in Ibadan, Nigeria. He blogs at the Feathers Project.


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