President Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative, unveiled during his recent trip there, has the potential to make a major impact on a continent where millions of people — including more than two-thirds of those in the sub-Saharan region — live every day without reliable access to affordable electricity. But the outcome depends heavily on how the plan is designed and carried out and whether it is sustained.
In raw numbers, Mr. Obama’s pledge to invest $7 billion over the next five years in eight countries is modest. The International Energy Agency estimates it would cost $300 billion to achieve universal electricity access in the sub-Saharan region by 2030.
Still, the initiative holds promise because it provides a vehicle for leveraging private sector investment and, significantly, anchors the United States firmly in the kind of trade and investment relationship that increasingly will help determine Africa’s future. The White House says that companies have already committed to more than $9 billion in projects. In Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania, the focus will be on electricity; in Uganda and Mozambique, it will be on gas and oil development.
For too long, the international response to poverty, war, famine and dictatorial leaders in Africa has consisted largely of humanitarian aid. Today, there are still many problems, but they are increasingly offset by positive trends; six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. In recent years, China has spent so much on African infrastructure projects and natural resources that it has surpassed the United States as the continent’s main trading partner. America has a lot of catching up to do and ignores these markets, with their growing middle classes, at its peril.
The initiative has been enthusiastically endorsed by Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian whose Heirs Holdings has pledged $2.5 billion to expand a power plant in Nigeria and develop other projects. In an essay, he called power the “single biggest obstacle” to Africa’s development.
Before his trip, Mr. Obama was faulted for not showing enough interest in the continent where his father, a Kenyan, was born. But his administration was central to the independence of South Sudan and has invested heavily in improving Africa’s agriculture production through the program.
Still, he has been overshadowed by two predecessors who left a lasting imprint with signature programs, George W. Bush on H.I.V. and Bill Clinton on health care and reduced trade barriers. Having now raised expectations that he intends to make a difference with “Power Africa,” it is vital for Mr. Obama to follow through.