The following was written for Foreign Policy by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
MONROVIA, Liberia — In the developed world, reliable energy is something that can be taken for granted. People pay attention only when something goes wrong, like when the power goes out during the Super Bowl, forcing players and fans to sit uncomfortably in the dark for 34 minutes.
In my country, the West African nation of Liberia, living without power has become a way of life. For the last decade, we’ve been digging out from the aftermath of a 23-year civil war that left our energy infrastructure in shambles. In a country of 4.1 million, only about one per cent of urban residents — and almost no rural residents — have access to electricity. Everyone else depends on unreliable and inefficient sources of energy such as firewood, charcoal, candles, kerosene, battery-powered flashlights, palm oil and small gasoline and diesel generators. Many of these energy sources are toxic and create pollutants that have serious health consequences for our country.
This is why I was delighted when U.S. President Barack Obama put energy poverty at the center of his trip to Africa this summer. His new initiative, called Power Africa, aims to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by responsibly building on the continent’s potential in gas and oil as well as its huge potential to develop clean energy.
Initially focusing on six key partner countries, including my own, Power Africa will mobilize the U.S. private sector to add 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity, while also increasing electricity access by at least 20 million new households and businesses. The White House has pledged $7 billion over the next five years in support of the initiative, most of which will be returned to U.S. taxpayers because of the structure of the plan’s public-private partnerships. In addition, the American private sector has committed an additional $9 billion in direct assistance.
The U.S. Congress is also taking action to address African energy poverty. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member, have introduced the Electrify Africa Act of 2013, a bill that would address some of the limitations of the Power Africa initiative and have the complementary goal of providing electricity access to more than 50 million people by installing 20,000 MW of energy capacity by 2020.
It is heartening to see Obama, Congress, the United Nations and the World Bank focused on increasing energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. They are keenly aware that without a reliable power supply, patients are treated in under-equipped hospitals, vaccines requiring refrigeration can become unusable, students cannot study after dark, and routine business transactions are exceedingly difficult.
As the first female president of an African state, I’m particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact energy poverty has on women and girls. In many places without power, women and girls are forced to spend hours each day in the time-consuming task of hunting for fuel and firewood — often a key reason that girls spend less time in school than boys. Women are also disproportionately affected by respiratory illness as a result of indoor air pollution from open fires and kerosene used for cooking, heating and lighting. Even the simple act of being outdoors becomes fraught with danger for women and girls in some places when the sun goes down and there are no streetlights.
Globally, at least 1.2 billion people — nearly a fifth of the planet — lives without access to electricity, according to the World Bank. The highest concentration is in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 550 million people do not have electricity. Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, Texas, uses more electricity than the total installed capacity of my country. Small businesses in Liberia spend about 57 per cent of their operational costs on power alone. At this rate, it is impossible for them to do much more than break even. And this is representative of the scale of the problem in many countries across the African continent.
African leaders are doing their part, putting in place bold plans to increase energy access for our people and committing to responsibly harness our own energy resources. As president, I signed an executive order establishing Liberia’s Rural and Renewable Energy Agency and a Rural Energy Fund to bring modern energy services to the country’s rural areas. With support from the United States, Norway, the European Union and the World Bank, we are making progress toward getting the lights turned on in Liberia.
My commitment to this task is guided by the knowledge that reliable energy access is a basic precondition for almost all aspects of modern life — from reliable and efficient lighting, heating, and cooking, to manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, and self-sustaining economic growth.
In Liberia, we’ve seen how partnerships with the United States have made enormous differences in people’s lives. Thanks in part to American support, we’re building roads, schools and hospitals. And across the continent, millions of lives have been saved by programs like PEPFAR (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the GAVI Alliance (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization).
Now, the United States has a unique opportunity to partner again with Africans as we work to bring modern energy access to the continent. More than two dozen African states have already committed to support the goal of providing universal energy access by 2030 through the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative. Combining this political will with the tools, expertise, and support of the U.S. government and private sector, we can collectively bring power to millions of people for the first time.