Will Trump set back Africa’s energy drive?

The Obama administration’s support for energy projects in Africa could be reversed by the new presidency.


Following the election of real estate mogul Donald Trump as US President in the 2016 general election, Africans are asking what his policy for the continent will be. And in the power sector, where many African countries are struggling to create access to reliable energy and need foreign assistance, stakeholders are showing genuine concern about the impact of the coming administration.

At the centre of their worries is the fate of the US Power Africa Initiative, which President Barack Obama launched in June 2013. It is widely feared that Trump’s antagonism to many of Obama’s domestic and international policies could lead to the decommissioning or deprioritisation of this programme.

Accelerator for investment

Power Africa is designed to rally, streamline and accelerate power investments and deal flows between the US and participating African countries. It provides diverse forms of technical/policy support to public and private sector interests in Africa and creates and facilitates investment opportunities for US power companies in a region with massive and competing investment interests.

“The US administration seems likely to become more insular and internally focused, which seems to indicate that international initiatives such as Power Africa could be deprioritised,” says Arnaud Henin, founder and CEO of Gommyr Power Networks, a London-based renewable energy consulting company with interests in Africa.

But Power Africa is backed by significant institutional and legal frameworks that could prevent a thoughtless and wanton cancellation. While Trump may lack enthusiasm for the initiative, and could summon other political tools to stifle it, Power Africa has been reinforced by a relevant law and an Executive Order.

The US Electrify Africa Act 2015 was passed by the US Congress on 1st February 2016 and signed into law on 8th February. The law provides some strategic backing for the Power Africa Initiative, ensuring its survival beyond the life of the Obama administration.

President Obama’s 3rd November Executive Order, “Advancing the goals of the Power Africa Initiative to expand Access to Electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa through the Establishment of the President’s Power Africa Working Group”, is another strategic support that promises the survival of the Power Africa Initiative.

The Executive Order states: “The Electrify Africa Act […] calls for the development of a strategy to add at least 20,000 MW of electrical power and promote first-time access to power and power services for at least 50m people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020 in both urban and rural areas – an effort that directly supports and complements Power Africa’s goals. This order furthers the purposes of the Act and the work that Power Africa has been undertaking.”

The Electrify Africa Act and the Executive Order should function together to ensure the survival of the Power Africa Initiative. As Rachel Kyte, CEO of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative has put it: “The Electrify Africa Act of 2015, which President Obama signed into law and that essentially codified Power Africa’s efforts, provides an important part of the U.S. commitments not just to the [sustainable development goals], but also to the Paris Agreement, which comes into force on Nov. 4 (2016).”

Powerful blow

However, in spite of these elements that seem to guarantee the life of the programme, Trump’s position on climate change and renewables could deal Africa’s power sectors a powerful blow.  

There is a consensus that Africa’s daunting challenge to provide universal access to energy can only be solved by leveraging renewables, such as solar, by taking advantage of their inherent easy, fast and affordable installation features – especially in the off-grid case.

This argument is the thrust of the so-called “energy leapfrog” that the world is urging Africa towards. If, through US global influence and leadership, Trump succeeds in slowing down or reversing the global movement for clean tech, then lighting up Africa will become an even tougher goal to accomplish.

What can be done if Trump does pull the plug on Power Africa? “A couple of actions that stakeholders can take are either to remain involved and connected with US agencies and organisations or diversify sources of knowledge sharing and support and focus on projects that will bring results.” says Henin.

Africa needs support

In the run-up to the 2016 general election, Trump took controversial positions on a number of issues, from reforming the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to ensure all members meet their spending targets to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and even possible non-cooperation with global climate change efforts, especially the Paris Accord.

In Africa, where many developing countries rely on funding support and other development frameworks crafted by foreign countries/agencies to combat economic challenges, Trump’s nationalist/populist tendencies constitute a real source of worry.

Africa is in a chilling darkness and requires all the support it can muster to rapidly grow access to power and simultaneously unlock economic opportunities. In acknowledgement of this truth President Obama established the Power Africa Initiative in 2013 as a vehicle for driving investments and US support for power projects and policies in the region and many people believe it should be supported by any US administration that has Africa at heart.

Chijioke Mama

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