The Skype call dropped. Seven minutes later we were back on the line with our local associate in Uganda, connected this time via cell phone. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “the power just went out.” For donors funding in Africa, occurrences like this are common and act as reminders of how unreliable electricity access affects the long-term health and wellbeing of those they seek to help. Power Africa, President Obama’s recently released development initiative for Africa, hopes to change that by investing $7 billion over the next five years to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. This initiative alone will not be enough to achieve the long-term development and livelihood outcomes many in the sector seek. By building on US government funding and more than $9 million in resources that the private sector has already pledged, Power Africa represents a major opportunity to expand donor impact.
If provided in an equitable way, improving access to a consistent supply of inexpensive electricity creates enormous opportunity to support economic growth and reduce poverty in Africa. Funders and impact investors can play a vital role in the initiative in three ways:
1. Build on the Momentum Created by the Government and Private Partners. Initially, donors can explore how the goals of Power Africa intersect with their existing strategy and take advantage of the ongoing conversations about this issue to convene colleagues. Donors can identify opportunities for co-investing with peers and piggyback on the government’s investments in a way that can accelerate or deepen its impact.
2. Fill Gaps. Even with the Power Africa investments, it will still be difficult to reach some of the most vulnerable communities in rural Africa, where nearly 85 percent people lack access to electricity. Donors and impact investors can support efforts to improve these communities’ livelihoods by funding efforts that the US government and private investors are less likely to address. For example, through their grantees, funders can ensure the voices of the rural or disenfranchised are elevated in conversations about electricity generation and distribution. Second, impact investors and donors can ensure that rural Africans benefit from the government’s investments, whether by providing incentives to extend transmission lines or scaling off-grid solutions. Finally, philanthropists can invest in efforts to expand similar initiatives to countries where Power Africa will not be implemented. Not surprisingly, the Power Africa initiative targets countries of key national security and natural resource interest, leaving behind a number of deserving and under-resourced countries.
3. Plan for the Future. Donors are also well positioned to invest in monitoring and evaluation research to identify the successes and failures of programs designed to increase equitable access to electricity. Funding assessments that measure the impact of investments in this space will be critical to expanding understanding about and interest in what can be scaled and adapted elsewhere.
We will continue to write about internationally-focused philanthropy in the months to come and invite you to join in the conversation in the comments below.
Rachel Reichenbach is an associate director at Arabella, where she manages projects and advises clients on strategy development, project evaluation, and implementation. Rachel has lived and worked in East and Central Africa and is interested in how philanthropists can play a catalytic role in a wide range of issues facing the continent.
Whitney Mayer is a director at Arabella, where she provides guidance on strategy, evaluation, and implementation projects. Whitney has lived and worked in Latin America, Africa, China, and India. She is interested in the linkages between evaluation and strategy as well as how philanthropists can partner with companies and governments to promote economic development and livelihood opportunities around the world.