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Power Struggle

What’s Canada’s role in ending energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa?

We’re starting an investigation into the deep connections between Canada and power in sub-Saharan Africa and we want your help. What stories do you want us to look into?

Canada is everywhere.

That may sound like the kind of slogan that you would expect to hear at the Canadian pavilion at a Las Vegas trade conference, or perhaps in a weepy commercial for disease prevention in a distant country.

But it happens to be true: Canada is everywhere. Let me explain. As an investigative journalist, born and bred in South Africa, but with a deep connection to Canada, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing life in both the developing and the developed worlds, and appreciate how significant the links often are. On the ground in Africa, where I’ve worked in 20 different countries, the elementary modern conveniences that Canadians take for granted are, more often than not, a pipe dream. I’m writing these words in the dark, with no power, tethered to my phone for internet.

This is why I’m engaging in an investigative deep dive into Canadian efforts to boost the power sector across Africa.

Excluding South Africa, the 800 million people south of the Sahara have access to the same generating capacity as Norway. More than 95 per cent of the 1.2 billion people globally who do not have electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia. In order to develop, sub-Saharan Africa’s 47 nations will require a massive increase in energy generation over the course of the coming decades.

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The most recent United Nations climate change conference was held in Marrakech, Morocco. Thousands of people from around the world attended COP22, dubbed "the COP of Action."

At the major climate change conference, COP21, in Paris, Canada committed $150 million to the issue. “Canada believes that deploying clean energy in Africa is essential to addressing climate change,” said Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, at the time. Then again, in November, 2016, at the most recent conference in Marrakech, Morocco, the Canadian government promised another $2.5 million for “clean technology for developing countries.”

But where is all the money going? What is really happening on the ground?

Over the course of the coming months, these are the questions that I’ll be exploring. At the same time, four journalists in four sub-Saharan countries are working on stories about the reality of energy poverty in their particular regions. I’m channeling this into a larger piece detailing the vast ambitions of Canada’s own initiatives. We’re still in the early stages of this reporting, and here’s the thing: we want your help.

While we have five reporters on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa (myself included), there is still way more ground — roughly 23 million square kilometres, or so — to cover. We cannot be everywhere, and so we’re asking for those with experience in and around either power generation, or African development aid, to get in touch. Let us know what questions you have about what’s going on, or what is it you think we should be looking into. Great journalism relies on great sources — it always has. And we know that you’re out there.

What do you want to know about Canada’s connection to energy in sub-Saharan Africa?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Here’s what I know in the meantime. The Canadian government says that it is serious about contributing both expertise and financing in order to close the development gap in the region. And while aid is certainly the professed objective, the solutions proposed are very much market-based.

There are hundreds of Canadian-linked mining operations on the African continent. All of them require access to reliable energy supplies, often in places so remote that the industrial revolution has yet to reach them. How do these miners access power? Who builds the power generating facilities? Where does the financing come from? What happens to local communities?

Given the political and economic situations in many African countries, the answers to these questions are not so simple. Often, Canadian development agencies team up with Canadian private sector operators and with African governments that by no means share Ottawa’s economic or humanitarian values. Sometimes, these projects are built under the premise of disbursing development aid to beleaguered regions. Dig a little deeper, however, and there often appears to be only a degree or two of separation between aid disbursement and large-scale mining operations. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign of nefarious corporate or government collusion — as far as successive Canadian governments and policymakers have been concerned, development is impossible without the exploitation of a country’s natural resources. It’s the shibboleth on which Canada was built.

That said, power grids in Africa have a history of becoming weaponized. The distribution of electricity often falls into the hands of miners or regional leaders, and if there exists a conflict with the surrounding communities, access to electricity becomes a cudgel. This is the nexus point around which good intentions can cede to corporate tyranny, enabled by the largesse of the Canadian government and its various aid disbursement bodies.

Catherine McKenna at the Climate and Clean Air High Level Assembly on the sidelines of COP22. Rwanda was officially welcomed as the newest member to the coalition. Ministry of Natural Resources - Rwanda
Catherine McKenna at the Climate and Clean Air High Level Assembly on the sidelines of COP22. Rwanda was officially welcomed as the newest member to the coalition.

As far as Ottawa’s future involvement is concerned, the sharp end of the spear is the Canada Africa Power Alliance, which describes itself as “a group of likeminded Canadian firms committed to providing world-leading services to the power sector throughout Africa.” In consort with international financing institutions — the U.S. government has made an effort to serve the African power sector (the future of which is uncertain under the Trump administration) and the African Development Bank — the idea is to help kick-start around $40 billion worth of energy infrastructure projects across the continent.

Will the people of Africa benefit? That is not always so clear. Liberalization means that those partnering in these initiatives will require some form of private sector linkage, and historically, Canada tends to privilege the extractive sector. On the upside, millions more people could be brought onto the grid. Clinics, schools, factories, airports, wireless hotspots — all would be integrated into burgeoning, resource-based economies with muscular, functioning power supplies. If those ambitions are realized, sub-Saharan African growth, already among the highest in the world, would only increase.

This would certainly help me make my deadlines, to say nothing of my dinner. More important, it would mean the lights stay on during medical procedures and aircraft landings, and on highways and city streets.   

We want to provide the most detailed picture yet on how — but more important, why — Canada is helping the African power grid morph in the future. These are difficult stories to tell, precisely because of the country’s burgeoning reach.

Canada, after all, is everywhere.


Power Struggle is administered and produced by Discourse Media through funding from the Waterloo Global Science Initiative. WGSI’s support of the project does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

What do you want to know about Canada’s connection to energy in sub-Saharan Africa?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.