“What did we do before we used candles?”
“We had electricity.”
The joke has been told of various countries in Africa, perhaps none so fittingly as Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fresh from its first free elections in over 40 years, Africa’s third biggest country may finally live up to its name, and is trying to get its chaotic economy back on track after decades of systematic looting and violence.
Harnessing river for power
The most recent war, from 1998-2003, saw rival rebel groups and foreign armies fight a free-for-all over Congo’s rich gold, diamond, coltan and copper mines.
But one of the country’s greatest assets — and one almost sure to outlast any mine — is the eponymous river itself.
With a flow second only to the Amazon, the mighty Congo River spews forth 1.5 million cubic feet into the Atlantic every second.
Experts say it could generate over 40,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity — more than twice the projected capacity of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, and a major step to keeping up with fast-growing demand for electricity in Africa and beyond.
“Grand Inga is one of the major opportunities in the world. It will eventually be developed to become one of the world’s biggest single site power sources,” Pat Naidoo, senior general manager of South African power group Eskom, told Reuters Television.
This kind of grand talk is nothing new.
For decades Africans and foreigners have calculated the river’s awesome power in megawatts and dollars, wondering just how much of Africa and beyond it could supply — given a decent power station and a modern electrical grid.
But decades of mismanagement and corruption under late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire and the devastating 1998-2003 war that followed his overthrow have kept such tantalizing visions out of reach.
With the election in October of President Joseph Kabila, and backing from major partners like Eskom — which produces some of the world’s cheapest electricity and is fast growing its operations across Africa — the Inga plans have acquired new energy.
The output of “Grand Inga” alone would top South Africa’s total electricity production.
At Inga, the Congo river flows majestically through a broad valley, its water skirting a patchwork of rocks and islets to form rapids that glint under the scorching African sun.
At one side, a section of river diverted via a channel carved through solid rock thunders through a row of hydro-electric plants into the valley below, supplying a forest of uniform transformers feeding power lines on pylons stretching up and away over the hillside.
It looks impressive, but after years of neglect, most of the generators are out of order and in need of serious repairs.
“Here we have eight turbines, but only three are working,” said Denis Pandi, who is in charge of the Inga II generating plant, the more modern of Inga’s two power stations.
“What we lack is funding. We need financial resources ... and peace,” he said, as lights flickered on and off on the yellow-painted control panels behind him.
Renovation work underway
A private company, MagEnergy, has already started renovation work under a $9 million contract with Congo’s state power company, SNEL.
The national power firms of Congo, Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana hope to build a third power plant at Inga, generating 3,500 MW and supplying a new power highway stretching south through Angola and Namibia to link up with a southern African grid.
Experts are carrying out a $200 million feasibility study spearheaded by the African Development Bank, which should be completed by late 2007.
The new plant could be a useful precursor to building “Grand Inga” — the huge power plant they say may one day literally light up Africa.
Fixing a hole
It is just the sort of project proponents of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) would like to see fuelling home-grown industry and economic growth on the poorest continent.
Several of Africa’s economies are hamstrung by structural power deficits and chronic blackouts due to low levels in hydropower dams, high fuel costs for thermal power stations or simply as a result of decades of underinvestment.
The crisis could trim 1 to 2 percent off economic growth in affected countries, said Vijay Iyer, an energy specialist at the World Bank.
“Stepping up Africa’s electricity generation and access will need quantum jumps,” Iyer told Reuters in an interview.
For Afande Cesar, who breeds pigs near the Inga plant, change cannot come soon enough.
“Electricity is passing just there, but here in our village, we don’t have electricity,” he says, pointing wistfully at the neat power pylons stretching towards Kinshasa and the rich copper mining province of Katanga to the south.
“It is really amazing for us. We really live in poor conditions.”