Rural electrification lifts African nations out of poverty

In sub-Saharan Africa more than a half a billion people remain trapped in poverty by a widespread lack of electricity. For Africans, just as for rural Americans in the 20th century, electrification has the potential to break down the barriers to economic growth, making new businesses possible and significantly improving the quality of life. Just as for rural 20th-century Americans, an investment in electricity can produce dramatic economic dividends.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed The Electrify Africa Act, a bipartisan legislation to promote the electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, and America’s rural electric co-ops are urging the Senate to follow suit. House leaders from both parties clearly see that the U.S. will benefit from stronger economies in Africa by decreasing dependency on foreign aid and creating new trading partners.

While most Americans have never known –and cannot imagine -- life without electricity, in this region of Africa, seven out of 10 people don’t have access to electricity. Meanwhile, the continent spends $10 billion on kerosene fuel that contributes to myriad health problems. Existing and potential small business owners are hampered by the lack of reliable power to stay open and run basic equipment. Likewise, 90 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are attending primary schools without electricity and 255 million are served by similarly challenged health clinics.

Historical data from research by the World Bank demonstrates that access to electricity is one of the most powerful development multipliers, enabling people to break free from subsistence and prosper.

We have seen the benefits in other African countries. Sudan experienced an increase in student pass rates from 57 percent to 97 percent in one year with the arrival of electric lighting. Health facility access rates in Kenya increased from 62 percent in 2004 to 74 percent in 2010. This significant growth enabled the country to nearly double the number of incubators for newborn babies, and decrease the neonatal mortality rate from 40 to 28 per 1,000 births. 

To realize these benefits, electricity must be reliable, affordable and accessible. Developing sustainable electric distribution systems in Africa requires a balanced approach that combines renewable technologies and conventional and durable electric grid infrastructure that can withstand the test of time and a difficult environment. Experience tells us that a sustainable electric system also requires training local work-force, working with local leaders and strengthening community participation.

Those co-op members who remember life before electricity understand how access to electric service can change lives.  We urge the Senate to act quickly and pass this bill that can bring us a step closer to providing hundreds of millions more people in Africa with this basic tool of economic opportunity we often take for granted in our own country.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s international program—NRECA International – has been working in developing countries since 1962 as a collaborating partner with the US Agency for International Development. Its global commitment has helped provide electricity to more than 110 million people in 42 countries. 

Emerson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.