Power is essential to rural development, argues Joshua J. Omojuwa

I was scrolling through Twitter recently and saw on a man’s bio, ‘Canada Visa Advisor,’ amongst other job titles that often suggest that the person was most likely unemployed. I thought that was interesting because this Canada visa advisor is out in Lagos looking for Canada visa too, whilst he continues to advise others, earning a living from teaching them how to migrate. Elsewhere, it’d be a contradiction that someone who hadn’t found his own way was looking to get paid to show others the path. Not in Nigeria though. We are a country where contradictions often appear to be the norm. Cerebral skit maker/comedian, Isaac Olayiwola Layi Wasabi’s ‘Mr Richard GNCC’ character is especially successful because it is relatable. However, the issue at hand is not for jokes.

One of those contradictions happened during the week. Because of its nationwide strike, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) put the nation in darkness by turning off the national grid. Nigeria’s rural areas who are off grid could not relate to that. For the rest of them whose communities are powered by renewable energy sources, conversations about the national grid breaking down or getting switched off are of no effect. Whilst a contradiction, it is beautiful.

Rural-urban migration in Nigeria and its attendant multi-dimensional effects is at an alarming rate. A World Bank estimate suggests that 53 per cent of Nigerians live in urban areas. If you think the country’s 2.4 per cent population growth rate is astounding, what would you say about its 6 per cent urban growth rate? Whatever pressure you think our runaway population growth is having on our resources, it is twice more on our rural areas. Lagos reflects that pressure because despite its respectable infrastructural development through the years, it must constantly negotiate a population growth rate that’d often render the infrastructure inadequate just a few years after they are constructed.

Nigeria must stem the tide of migration from the rural to urban areas. This of course does not mean government should get in the way of people’s right of movement. It simply means that we must create economic and social incentives for our people to prefer to work and live in rural areas.

Whilst we bear the brunt of food shortage, it was intriguing and concerning to hear the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Park Sangho say, at the Korea-Africa Summit, that India alone supplies 11 MT of rice to Africa. That’s about a third of the rice consumed on the continent. With the demand for rice growing as much as 6 per cent per year according to some estimates, there is here, a problem and an opportunity. West Bengal is the largest producer of rice in India. Some 89 per cent of West Bengal is rural. What we have refused to do with our rural areas, others are doing, and we are literally paying for them — in dollars at least and other socio-economic consequences.

To put it in simple terms, there can be no development without electricity. If that is the case, rural development cannot be isolated from rural electrification. The motivation of the young people looking to migrate from Nigeria is not so different from the young people looking to leave the rural areas for the cities. Each of them is attracted to the opportunities in their target destination. And opportunities will always be moderated by electricity. The President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Dr Akin Adesina said during the bank’s Annual Meetings in Nairobi last week that his greatest concern for Africa is insecurity. You can plot an inverse relationship graph between electricity and insecurity. You get less of one when you get more of the other.

Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency (REA) is in a vantage position to deliver affordable and sustainable electricity supply to Nigeria’s rural communities. This it has done to some respectable degree to this point.  The newly deployed strategy of the REA to institute a Renewable Energy Service Companies (RESCO) will help to open opportunities for the private sector to invest more in alternative power generation in Nigeria’s rural areas.

Access to power in Nigeria, and especially in rural areas requires a paradigm shift. The RESCO idea is a rare one in an industry that is happy to grow gradually. What access to power needs though is scale, on account of the gap that requires bridging. REA’s partnership with Husk Power Systems offers an exciting prospect and the more of such partnerships the agency can secure, the better for access to reliable power in our underserved communities.

 According to the Act, Managing Director and CEO of the REA, Abba Abubakar Aliyu, “RESCOs play a crucial role in complementing Distribution Companies (DISCOs), focusing on utility-scale portfolios ranging from 50 to 100 MW. The partnership between REA and Husk Power will lead to increased renewable energy generation, accelerating Nigeria’s renewable energy sector”. If this scales, it could be one of the most telling ideas in the industry for decades. For a country happy with any form of forward movement, the scale of Nigeria’s challenges requires that the solutions must be capable of being at comparable sizes to the problems.

The most important measure of success when it comes to electricity is whether the people can access it. The whole purpose of generating, transmitting, and distributing power is so we can power our homes and industries. Recent experiences have also shown that the future cannot rely on the national grid, even for our cities. We must explore means and ways that’d sure sustainable solutions from our rural to the urban areas.

We have at times entrusted leadership to people who appear to be working hard, but on the wrong things. With competent hands, priority often meets precision. The renewed efficiency of the REA reflects the essence of its new triple A leadership. Nigeria may yet count its success in megawatts delivered to its rural population. The outcomes of its economic productivity will leave our urban centres reaping the benefits too.

 Omojuwa is chief strategist, Alpha Reach/BGX Publishing

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