Flicking the switch on growth

Mention the word “electricity” to Cameroonians and the chances are that they will laugh ruefully. For several years now, power cuts have been a fact of life in this West African country — crippling businesses and eating into economic growth.

Outages cost him “about 85-million CFA francs [more than $160 000] between December 2002 and June 2003”, says Joseph Kamden, the manager of a metal manufacturing company in Bonaberi — an industrial zone in the economic hub of Douala.

Two-thirds of the country’s factories are based in Douala, the city most affected by shortages.

A joint study by the Inter-Employers Group of Cameroon (Groupement Inter Patronal du Cameroun, Gicam) and the Manufacturers’ Association of Cameroon (Syndicat des Industriels du Cameroun, Syndustricam) predicts 4% growth in the country in 2004. This is lower than the 4,2% and 4,8% recorded in 2003 and 2002 respectively — something that has been blamed on erratic electricity supplies.

Martin Abega, executive secretary of Gicam, says the effect of the outages can also be seen in lower rates of employment.

“At the end of June 2004, the drop in employees was estimated at nearly 3,7% in all sectors. But in the forestry sector, after some production units were halted, the loss of jobs was at least 23,1%,” he notes.

Jacques Nlend, operating director of the African Wood Company, says losses incurred through power cuts forced his firm to lay off 33 employees.

In certain instances, the power cuts have even had fatal consequences.

“In March last year while we were in surgery, we lost a … patient because there was a sudden electricity blackout,” says Paul Owona, a doctor at Laquintinie hospital in Douala. The cut could not be compensated for by emergency generators, he added, as these had “been out of service for years”.

Officials at the National Electricity Company (Société Nationale d’Électricité, Sonel) say the cause of the power cuts is twofold.

On one hand, the dilapidated equipment used in power plants simply is not up to the job any longer. On the other, low water levels are preventing the two hydroelectric dams that provide electricity to seven of Cameroon’s 10 provinces from functioning properly.

These dams, one in Edea and another in Song-Loulou, are located along the 918km Sanaga river. During the past decade, the length of the dry season has increased, reducing the water level of the two dams considerably. Officials say silting-up of the dams has further compromised output.

At present, 83% of Cameroon’s power (or 752,42 megawatts) should come from the country’s hydroelectric dams — and 17% (or 148,58MW) from thermal power sources. But, drought has caused the installations to fall short of their total yield of 901MW.

Some also lay the blame for outages at the door of the United States-based AES-Sirocco Corporation, which bought Sonel in July 2001 — even though Cameroon’s energy problems pre-date the arrival of the American investors. (After the purchase, the company changed its name to AES-Sonel.)

The government’s sale of Sonel was met with opposition from local groups, which claimed that this key part of Cameroonian infrastructure should not be placed in foreign hands.

Certain citizens have since accused AES-Sirocco of failing to make the necessary investments in electricity infrastructure to ensure regular supplies of power in Cameroon. This is despite the fact that at the beginning of the year, AES-Sonel started construction of a 90MW, oil-fuelled power station, at a cost of nearly $89-million.

The plant is located in the coastal city of Limbe. But even with the power generated by this station, electricity supply will still fall short of demand.

“I have the impression that they [AES-Sonel] don’t want to do anything long-lasting,” says Seidou Njoya, a professor of economics at the University of Douala.

“If someone really wanted to help Cameroon … a sustainable supply-demand balance [would need] to be re-established — and renewable energies have to be promoted, like solar … and wind [technologies].”

Njoya, who further advocates the generation of power through use of waste products, believes the government is also at fault for its failure to provide incentives for the use of renewable energy.

AES-Sonel spokesperson Pierre Maga Ekoule rejects allegations that the firm is simply in search of easy profits.

“We respect the concession contract we signed with the government of Cameroon, which stipulates that AES-Sirocco will produce, transport and distribute electricity during a 20-year period. This contract requires us to increase the number of customers from its present level of 400 000 to 13-million. That’s what we’re doing,” he says.

Christian Penda Ekoka, an economic consultant based in the capital, Yaounde, says the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had urged privatisation of Sonel because they believed the company was not being properly managed.

AES-Sirocco subsequently bought a 56% share in the state-run company for $7,5-million. The remaining 44% was split between the government, local entities and employees of the company.

Several months later came the country’s first serious blackouts.

“The problem we’re experiencing is a function of the long dry seasons we’ve had in this country for several years,” says Francois Maze, AES-Sonel’s director of development.

Certain individuals have pointed an accusing finger at the World Bank for its apparent reluctance to finance the construction of more hydroelectric dams in Cameroon — notably at the Natchigal Falls. Although another plant that will use natural gas to generate electricity is planned for the port city of Kribi, it may only be operational by 2007.

Mohammadou Diop, a World Bank economist in Yaounde, sees things differently.

“We never refused to finance any big dams,” he says. “We insisted on environmental-impact studies, without which the project could not be viable.”

During a visit to Cameroon in May 2003, World Bank vice-president for Africa Callisto Madavo noted: “The Limbe thermal power station and the gas one at Kribi are of capital importance and better for development than hydroelectric stations, despite the latter’s higher production potential.”

Hydroelectric stations may only come online after a decade-long process of construction, Madavo added.

“We cannot allow ourselves such a long wait.”

Henry Kibuh Tume, Cameroon’s Minister of Mines, Water and Energy, also claims that the government has not been derelict in its responsibility on the matter of electricity.

“The government took on its responsibility to find a definitive solution to the electricity crisis by [planning to build] the Lom-Pangar, Natchigal and Memveele dams in the near future,” he says.

Ministry officials and AES-Sonel claim that once these dams are built, Cameroon’s electricity woes will be over.

For the moment, however, there is no word on when construction of the dams will begin — or their likely cost. — IPS

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