In late January, when President Obama addressed the country, he spoke of our work across Africa “bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty.” I watched, from Nairobi, Kenya, where I had just seen his words brought to life. The day before, I traveled to Baringo—a rural county in midwestern Kenya, where half the population lives in poverty and over 90 percent of people don’t have access to electricity. I was there to commemorate the groundbreaking of a new 12 megawatt power plant, one of the first projects supported by Power Africa, a U.S. Government initiative. The company developing this power project, Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Limited (CCKL), designed a biomass power plant that will take advantage of one resource Baringo has in abundance: the mathenge weed. The weed (known in America as mesquite wood) is an invasive species, introduced decades ago to combat desertification, but now wreaking havoc on farmers’ pastoral lands, livestock, and the natural environment. CCKL plans to train and employ 2,500 locals, mostly women, to harvest the invasive weed. Through biomass gasification technology, the mathenge weed will be converted into locally generated electricity—enough energy to power well over 12,000 homes. New access to energy will create opportunities in this rural county that suffers from severe energy poverty. Electricity means that farmers can increase their yields, and their profits; parents have safe alternatives to cooking over open fires, students can read after the sun sets; families can stay connected through cellphones that are easily charged at night. Ultimately, access to power leads to improvements in income, health, education, and general well-being.
I saw how these improvements take shape later that same week when I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia visiting a local company with a new idea for powering agriculture. Regions like Sidama and Bale Ethiopia, have an untapped reserve of over a million hectares of native highland bamboo. Currently, bamboo is sold at low prices for small construction projects like building fences and for fuel. But one Ethiopian company, African Bamboo, is pioneering a new technology to process native bamboo into high-value, commercial-quality wood panels. In order to minimize the environmental impact of the energy-intensive thermal processing, African Bamboo developed a processing technology powered by organic waste, like the husks of coffee beans. African Bamboo’s innovation won a $1 million dollar energy challenge grant from USAID to support research and enable the company to replicate its model. Through use of this technology, African Bamboo is not only increasing the value of bamboo for small-scale farmers, but creating economic opportunities along the value-chain: cutting, transporting, manufacturing and exporting bamboo to an international market. This translates to increased incomes and improved livelihoods for the 30 farming cooperatives and over 2,000 farmers who are partnering with the company.
These farmers and their families are the reason USAID is partnering with companies like CCKL and African Bamboo. Reliable, affordable electricity is essential for powering growth and lifting millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty. USAID can be the catalyst that encourages this private investment in Africa’s energy future. As President Obama reminded us in the State of the Union last month, our nation’s leadership is defined by the “enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe, to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want.”