Obama Promises Billions To Double Africa's Electricity Access

On Monday evening in Tanzania, President announced a broad sweeping new policy for U.S. engagement in Africa. It's not like PEPFAR or the Millennium Challenge or other sweeping "aid-based" pronouncements of past presidencies. Rather it will be a set of incentives to encourage American businesses to get in the business of making electricity for Africans. Africans have enormous gas deposits and need a reliable source of power.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A big welcome to President Obama as he arrived in Tanzania today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

SIEGEL: Bleachers full of dancers in blue skirts bearing the president's image lined a street that has been newly named for him. The president also addressed African business leaders. He played up the initiative of this trip, an effort dubbed Power Africa. It's a $7 billion investment plan to bring Africans more access to electricity.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Unleashing Africa's economic potential demands more access to electricity. That's how businesses keep the light on. That's how communities can literally connect to the global economy.

SIEGEL: NPR's Gregory Warner joins us now from Johannesburg, South Africa, the city the president just left. Gregory, why this big initiative on electricity?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Sure. Well, I think three reasons. I mean, first, obviously, the tremendous need in Africa. If you consider everything we use power for, from keeping medicines cold to turning on street lights, only a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to power. The second reason has more to do with the U.S. economy.

The administration sees this as an area where American companies can have an advantage and go head to head with China on a continent where, for the most part, U.S. companies have been reluctant to tread. And then, finally, third reason, climate change. As Africa gets on the grid, then this initiative is intended to encourage those green technologies to be tried and implemented for clean power.

SIEGEL: Now, there's been criticism that this trip doesn't measure up to visits from previous U.S. presidents. How does this plan measure up to, say, PEPFAR, the proposal of President Bush, which is credited with saving millions of lives from HIV/AIDS.

WARNER: I mean, dollar for dollar, it's not even a contest. President Bush handed out much more money to Africa. But these days, America's finances are in a different place, but so are Africa's. In his speech today at a business forum in Tanzania, the president talked about this shift from an aid model, a foreign assistance model, to a new partnership model with Africa.

OBAMA: Our fortunes are linked like never before, so more growth and opportunity in Africa can mean more growth and opportunity in the United States. This is not charity. This is self-interest.

WARNER: So speaking of self-interest, Power Africa is actually an example of that because it pledges $7 billion from the U.S. government, as you said, but it pledges 9 billion coming from the private sector. And the hope is that more money will come from smaller U.S. companies who, you know, maybe they're still hanging back from Africa, but they'll conclude, you know, hey, if the U.S. government is there, if General Electric is there, then they, too, can make money by investing in Africa's rise.

SIEGEL: Gregory, the president's power initiative intends to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. How realistic is that?

WARNER: Well, it's a massive undertaking. I mean, if you can imagine, most Africans have never paid a utility bill, but there is a lot of hope that Africa will do the same thing with electric power that they've done with telephones. So with telephones, Africa never got the chance to put copper wires in the ground. They just skipped right past that stage and built cell phone towers.

And now, there are more cell phones in Africa than in the United States and Canada combined. And with power, you can see this phenomena taking place on a small scale. On Friday, I met a guy who was building what he claims is South Africa's methane gas digester, you know. You meet people like this who are taking advantage of technologies that are out there.

And in Tanzania where President Obama is, you know, it's sitting on one of the largest gas deposits in the world. So the president sees a role for U.S. technology to step in and turn that gas into power for Africans.

SIEGEL: Okay. Gregory Warner, thank you very much.

WARNER: Thanks.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Warner, speaking to us from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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