Grant Shapps is Minister of State at the Department for International Development and Member of Parliament for Welwyn Hatfield.
During my first week at International Development, officials whisked me off to Tanzania. Six months later, and I’ve made many such visits across Africa. Yet it was this first visit that had the most profound effect on me. As those around me predicted, I got the “Africa Bug” quickly – and in a good way!
As we travelled to distant Mwanza in northern Tanzania – a 16 hour drive from the capital Dar es Salaam – I struggled to imagine what I’d have in common with an African living in such a remote region. Entering the home of 62-year-old Elizabeth Mkwimba, I certainly didn’t expect to discover a kindred spirit.
Yet despite the language barrier (my Swahili still isn’t that good), Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for what I was about to see was quite simply infectious. This is a story about much more than international aid.
Elizabeth is a grandmother with two children and 16 grandchildren. A farmer, living in this remote place, she didn’t have any access to electricity at home. That’s something she shares in common with 93 per cent of other rural Tanzanians and two out of three Africans.
Elizabeth is one of the world’s extreme poor, living on around $1.25 per day. Yet despite being one of the poorest people in the world, the price she previously paid for energy was many times higher than for you or me. Elizabeth used toxic Kerosene, supplemented by batteries and candlelight, to meet her energy needs. Like many, she owns a mobile phone to keep in touch with her family across Tanzania, but she paid through the roof to charge it up in her village.
Yet something big had changed for Elizabeth and she was keen to show me. Her life has been transformed thanks to solar power, surprisingly combined with mobile text payments. Now, with a tiny solar panel on her roof, Elizabeth is able to light her home and charge her mobile phone – all for a fraction of what it used to cost to buy dirty, life-threatening Kerosene. With the money she has saved, she has been able to replace her roof with tin and buy better food.
Electricity at home means children being able to do their homework in the evenings. It means being able to care for them when they’re sick without burning dangerous Kerosene, and – for women and girls in particular – it means safety after dark. But the opportunities flowing from electricity don’t stop there. It’s the chance to start a small business from home, perhaps powering up other people’s phones, whilst being able to do the accounts without candlelight in the evening. For farmers who make up a huge proportion of rural dwellers in Africa, power enables access to market information on farm prices and crucial weather services.
There are good reasons why Elizabeth has benefited from this technology right now: the cost of solar panels has crashed, making them affordable to all; modern lithium batteries mean that it’s straightforward to store the power during the day for use at night; LED lights and low-power devices like fridges need far less power, and – most significantly of all – a British-inspired mobile payment system called M-PESA has taken off in Africa. Now, even the least well-off can make micro-payments via text to pay for their electricity. And where people are actually paying for something, a market can quickly follow. So this isn’t about direct aid, it’s about using savvy technology to dramatically improve lives.
Standing in Elizabeth’s home, I was shocked to recall that two out of three Africans live without power at home. No country can develop without electricity. I resolved to do something about it.
Back in London, I launched the UK’s Energy Africa campaign. I want to fast-track affordable, reliable and clean energy to the whole of Africa by 2030. That means helping to bring power to the homes of 600 million Africans who currently have none. This initiative is so vital that I was joined by Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and head of the African Progress Panel, for the launch, and by Sir Bob Geldof, and gained the support of many others including Sir Richard Branson.
This project isn’t about traditional aid, it’s about introducing life-changing technology and making markets work. Taking advantage of the last few months, when I was also Minister of State at the Foreign Office (I was covering for James Duddridge MP, who is now back fit and well), I was able to discuss the problem with numerous African leaders and sign Partnership Agreements with them to remove the barriers that prevent this technology working everywhere – removing import tariffs, changing the rules that limit mobile money payments and so on.
For industrial growth in Africa we’ll also need large-scale solutions and grid connections, but rather than have communities wait (often beyond their own lifetimes) for that grid to reach them, there is a solution that can provide power right now. I believe that off-grid household solar can deliver at a massive scale for millions of people. And British technology and ingenuity is at the forefront of this revolution.
This is our Energy Africa campaign, and with it hundreds of millions of Africans will no longer need to live in the dark. So watch this space.
This stunning image of earth by night show that when the sun goes down, our world still shines. Or at least it sparkles for most of us. What struck me about this image was not the twinkling lights from the electricity that covers our planet, but the vast unlit spaces that remain. Africa, about three times the size of Europe, is in almost complete darkness.