From Togo to Benin: Reporting on energy in the dark
Access to Energy Journalism fellow Kossi Balao explains what it’s like to report in a place where having a full phone battery and charged computer isn’t guaranteed.
Welcome to Togo and Benin, two sub-Saharan African countries where residents often don’t have electricity. I grew up in Togo, a small country that’s only 56,600 square kilometres in size. It’s a place where rural communities live in constant fear of power outages — when that happens, no one knows when the lights will come back on.
In Togo and Benin, only about 16 per cent of people living in rural areas have access to electricity. So when the two countries approved a massive hydro project, the Adjarala dam, I had a lot of questions. Will this dam solve Togo and Benin’s energy crisis? How does energy impact the lives of rural people near the dam? What is the project’s environmental impact, especially considering climate change?
I wanted to see for myself. This meant travelling from my country to neighbouring Benin to report on the lack of energy that rural people face. The day before I left, I prayed for reliable electricity.
But my prayers weren’t fulfilled. Power outages occurred the whole time I was getting ready; my camera battery was extremely low, as was my phone’s.
For me, this wasn’t a surprise — I’m accustomed to it. I used a flashlight (we call it a “torch” here) to pack my luggage. Getting everything ready was important, but without a lot of battery remaining, my main worry was connecting with my local interpreter, Marcel Ellah Tchegnon.
With an area of 112,622 square kilometres, Benin is nearly twice the size of Togo. Like most African countries, it’s multilingual, comprised of roughly 50 ethnic groups. Although French is the official language in both Togo and Benin, I knew there’d be a language barrier that would limit who I could speak to, so I needed Marcel’s help to translate.
But when I left Togo, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to reach him. I arrived at the border of Benin and called Marcel several times. There was no answer. I didn’t know what to do; I had never been in Benin before. Finally, I met Marcel hours later. That’s when I learned that his mobile phone had died, and he’d been unable to charge it due to a power outage that affected his neighborhood early that morning.
Once together, Marcel and I travelled 156 kilometres by car on a road that was under construction and full of dust. We arrived in Benin, in a town called Aplahoué, when the sun was about to set. I thought I’d have electricity to charge my equipment at our hotel, but the power was out.
Aplahoué is where the foundation stone for the Adjarala dam is laid, at the Mono River, the border between Togo and Benin. After years of delays, its construction began on Dec. 26, 2015, and is expected to be completed in four years. The dam will have a capacity of 147 megawatts, which is enough to help Togo and Benin meet their energy needs in the short term and limit the need for imported electricity. Around 21,000 people will be impacted by the project’s construction; that’s 12,000 in Togo and 9,000 in Benin, according to a project document.
I chose to investigate the project because I wanted to shed light on how people in rural areas experience energy poverty. So, perhaps it made sense that I started my reporting in complete darkness. I went from house to house, asking people why they didn’t have electricity and how they dealt with that. Most of them seemed indifferent at first, but when I explained my work a bit more, they began telling me their struggles with the lack of energy.
The following day, Marcel took me to meet local authorities to discuss the Adjarala project. Afterwards, we travelled to the project site near the Mono River. I saw a worker digging into the soil and asked him a few questions. As I took notes, the site guard ran over and stopped my interview, saying, ‘‘Gentleman, if you need any information, go back to where the project’s engineering consultants made their base.’’
There, I found another worker standing in front of the entrance gate, but he refused to let me enter and meet the engineering consultants. As I was trying to convince him, I saw a luxury black car passing by; inside, a man looked in our direction. The worker told us it was the boss but the car didn’t stop and went on its way.
Despite this incident, by the end of my trip I found answers to many of the questions I had about the Adjarala project. What stands out most are the people I met along the way, including Donatien Tchogo, a Beninese motorcycle taxi driver living in Aplahoué who’s never had access to electricity in his life. I asked Donatien if he believes that the Adjarala dam will solve the region’s energy crisis. He simply replied, ‘‘Yes.”
Kossi Elom Balao participated in the 2017 Access to Energy Journalism Fellowship. His feature article, "Togo and Benin pin energy hopes on this controversial dam," can be found here. Other stories produced through the fellowship are available here.