From March 2 through 4, the Center for African Studies brought a diverse international cohort of social scientists, activists, engineers, economists, policymakers, and government officials to the Champaign-Urbana campus for the first “Power Africa” conference. With contributors from the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia, the Department of State USAID, the University of Illinois, University of Indiana, Ryerson University (Canada), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), the Illinois Commerce Commission, the African Development Foundation, the Center for Civil Society (South Africa), and the Friends of the Earth foundation (Mozambique), discussants scrutinized the exciting possibilities and potential problems inherent in President Obama’s Power Africa initiative. The Symposium, “Power Africa: Promises, Potentials, Pitfalls, and Possible Alternatives,” moved beyond academic, abstract discussions of Africa to create a complex and nuanced dialogue that wove together the scientific and technical with the very real political, social, and economic challenges endemic to widespread electrification of the continent.
Over the three days of the conference, the exhilarating potential of rural electrification in Africa as described by Professors Tom Overbye, Kiruba Haran, and Tami Bond of the College of Engineering fueled a healthy debate with conservationists, social activists, and reporters. Illinois African Studies alumni, keynote speaker, and USAID Power Africa representative Morgan McClain-McKinney noted a resurgence of investment in Africa’s infrastructure, and new positivity surrounding development projects in the energy sector owing to revolutionary technologies for green and off the grid options. However, not all presenters were as optimistic about new technologies or the kind of public private partnerships USAID promotes. Although the USAID incentivizes use of renewable, green sourcing of energy, Dipti Bhatnagar (of the “Friends the Earth” foundation, Mozambique) outlined the potentially catastrophic consequences to the environment of irresponsible energy production. Boaventura Monjane, a social activist and journalist from Mozambique, described critical human rights violations. With graphic detail Mr. Monjane detailed abuses of eminent domain incumbent upon previous public, private, and hybrid energy ventures on the continent as a caveat to any hasty action in the region.
One conclusion nearly all contributors agreed upon is that there is no quick-fix solution to the energy crisis on the African continent, and that central to the mission of electrifying Africa is the involvement of Africans in every aspect of the process. It was clear the challenge taken on by Power Africa to bring electricity to tens of millions of people will demand what Professor Bond referred to as “systemic thinking.” How that systemic thinking will translate into practical applications was the central question, and the President’s call to action was echoed by Provost Ilesanmi Adesida in his opening remarks. Encouraging engineers to work with social scientists in the best spirit of international engagement, Dr. Merle Bowen (Director of the Center for African Studies) urged collaboration across Green Street for public service to meet the call of USAID at the heart of Illinois’ land grant mission.
Links to Conference: Videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCL50BFflQwWbJ-X9KS0nPkA
By Jeff Friedman, Program Manager, Center for African Studies