4 Minutes|In Editor's Desk|March 21, 2022|By Chris Bishop

Editor's Desk

Laughing through the dark

Entrepreneurs face losing money in the dark as the continent’s biggest economy plunges into expensive blackouts.

If there were a hall of fame for a country failing to provide power to the people Nigeria would be in it. It has a mere 3,000 MW for its 150 million people in a land where millions have never flicked a switch in their lives; contrast that to the second-largest economy in Africa, South Africa, where its 60 million people are struggling on with 30,000 MW of electricity.

Reports out of Lagos this week said Nigeria’s 3,000 MW capacity dropped to 2,000 MW as 14 power plants shut down.

Cheap and plentiful electricity is the oil of growth. On top of that, it costs your business dearly if you don’t have it. Any entrepreneur in Nigeria, especially the small ones, will tell you.

I saw, with my own eyes, the cost of power cuts in Nigeria in 2008. I was in an internet café, in the capital Abuja, where people paid $10 to surf the net. The power went down and 10 people got up and walked out without paying complaining that they had not completed their surf. It cost the owner $100 in 30 seconds; she told me it happened several times a week. Add to that the thousands of factories shops and offices that stopped work in the same black out and you have a tidy sum of money lost.

Fifteen years ago, I reported on a government attempt to revive the dormant coal mines of Nigeria to generate badly needed power. Didn’t happen.

Nearly 10 years ago, we all celebrated across Africa when private money rode to the rescue. The idea was to privatise the power system with the support of Nigerian banks – not the usual foreign investors and donors –  an African solution to an African problem. Big-name entrepreneurs like Pascal Dozie – the founding father of Diamond Bank  – were in the mix.

Yet, according to reports out of Nigeria, these attempts have collapsed more than a hundred times. Whatever the issues, surely this problem should be top of the agenda for business and government.

The rich have bought their way out of the national power grid. One afternoon I was walking through the suburbs of Lagos with one of my reporters when she stopped and cocked her ear to the sound of grumbling, grinding, generators in the yard of every home.

“Ah! “said the reporter, “The sound of home.”

Yet the majority of people – largely the poor – have no chance of owning a generator in their lifetime.

Nigerians joke about their predicament in that dry and dark way that helps people cope with disaster across the continent. They used to call the Nigerian power authority NEPA – Never Expect Power Anytime. When the government rebranded the authority as a power holding company PHCN the people called it Please Hold Candles Near.

Yet humour often devours desire to do. That is what Nigeria needs now – action and electricity: not words; nor laughter.