Africa is losing its forest cover at double the global rate, and the growing desert is a threat to both people and wildlife. But a Nigerian neurosurgeon says there is little hope of change unless the continent goes through an economic boom.
Countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania will lose their remaining forest in the next few decades unless there is a mammoth jump in jobs and electricity generation.
This is the view of Nigerian neurosurgeon Dr Sylvanus Adetokunboh Ayeni, whose book on aid and the problems of Africa is making news across the USA where he has made a home.
The book is called, Rescue Thyself and subtitled Change in sub-Saharan Africa must come from within.
Dr Ayeni’s logic runs like this: South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Kenya produce around 60 per cent of all the electricity in Africa.
Together, the other 51 countries, with a population of more than a billion, generate less than Taiwan, home to just 23 million on an island half the size of Lake Victoria.
Alternately, the US, for example, consumes more power in 12 hours than Tanzania and Ghana generate in a year.
“That leaves millions of people with no chance of work of a decent standard of living,“ Dr Ayeni told The EastAfrican. “Then they cut down forests for firewood, kill animals for meat or poach to make money because there is no other choice.”
Ayeni slams into corruption and incompetence across Africa, repeatedly asking why countries with virtually no natural resources like Singapore that gained independence in 1965 rank among the world’s best economies, “while oil-rich Angola manufacturers almost nothing and, under president Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has gone from breadbasket to a beggar state.”
But a key challenge he says for countries with a rapidly growing population like Kenya, Uganda or Nigeria is getting people on the grid.
“When there is no power, or it goes off at a moment’s notice, it is hard to grow an economy,” he said. “You can not start a factory, run computers, do homework, keep medicine chilled, or cater for tourists in any sort of comfort.”
“You can not employ people in numbers and this condemns whole regions to poverty,” Dr Ayen said.
“Hungry people or those relying on subsistence crops because there’s nothing else to do can’t be expected to ignore meat in the wild, respect the boundaries of our game reserves or leave trees standing when they need wood.”
In 1963, one-tenth of Kenya was covered in forest, but today it is below two per cent.
Africa is losing its forest at twice the world rate, according to the Unep which estimates that 90 per cent of the population relies to some extent on firewood.
Poaching in national parks has become a growing problem in Tanzania, and a challenge for Kenya and Uganda.
And to combat the loss of wildlife, several donor groups and NGOs specialising in conservation have their headquarters in Nairobi.
“We hear endlessly how a gift of money can put things right, but more than a trillion dollars in aid to Africa since 1960 has done little to help.
We need solutions from the leaders of Africa, things that work locally, not wafty notions from aid junkies and NGOs who, when they get it wrong, run back to the comfort of London or Los Angeles.
“What is the point of spending scarce foreign exchange to import solar panels or wind turbines for oil-rich countries like Angola or Nigeria? Or to Mozambique with natural gas, or Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa with billions of tonnes of coal in the ground.”
Whatever the source, Dr Ayeni’s point about a lack of electricity is hard to challenge. Nigeria, with more than three times more people than South Africa produces one tenth as much power.
India has more than 300 million people, close to the population of USA, still off the grid. Africa has double that number.
Even Kenya which, over the past two years, has expanded its grid faster than any other country in Africa, still has outages.
Experts say the problem often lies in last-mile technology, lines from substations to homes and factories, even to whole towns.
Nigel Lawson was Finance minister under Margaret Thatcher and today sits in the House of Lords. In London, he also chairs a non-partisan think tank, Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), with a board of leading business people and academics.
The GWPF director, Dr Bennie Peiser, agrees with Dr Ayeni: “If you worry about Africans in poverty and people drowning on the Mediterranean, or the rise of militia and criminal networks, do something about it. Begin with providing electricity.”
Dr Peiser said it was, “an outrage that, in 2017, some African states produce less power than a mid-size town in Europe or America.”
This, Dr Peiser agreed, was a threat to the environment. “People need to cook and stay warm, so they cut down trees. The loss of forest is much more immediate than predictions that temperatures may rise significantly over the next century. By then Africa’s forests will have been cut down.”
And he said that supply of power had to be done quickly and in a way that works for Africa.
“China has 1.4 billion people, roughly the same as Africa, but it generates 12 times more electricity. And you can only get those numbers from hydro plants on rivers and, for the most part, from coal and gas.
“For all the love affair with wind and solar, they produce tiny amounts of power, even in the US and Europe, and storing it at night or when the weather doesn’t work remains an unsolved problem.”