electric avenues

Can Tshisekedi bring power to the DRC?

By Bilal Mousjid

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Posted on June 29, 2023 08:53

jad20230626-eco-rdc-centrale-hydroelectrique-01-1256×628-1687796325 © Aerial photo of the hydroelectric power station in the Virunga National Park at 
Matebe, in Rutshuru territory, north of Goma, in the east of the DRC, on 1 April 2022. ALEXIS 
Aerial photo of the hydroelectric power station in the Virunga National Park at Matebe, in Rutshuru territory, north of Goma, in the east of the DRC, on 1 April 2022. ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP

Nearly 10 years after liberalising the sector, the country still has one of the lowest rates on the continent.

The second largest country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has one of the lowest electrification rates on the continent: 15% nationally, with major disparities between cities (35%), rural areas (1%), and peri-urban areas (less than 5%).

Yet this immense territory – 4.5 times the size of France – alone represents 8% of the world’s hydroelectric potential, a source of energy that makes up 95% of the country’s electricity mix.

Home to the largest river on the continent (and the second largest in the world after the Amazon in terms of average inter-annual flow), the DRC nevertheless suffers from the low installed capacity (less than 3,000MW, half of which is unused due to lack of maintenance) and the absence of a nationwide integrated distribution network.

Nevertheless, the Félix Tshisekedi-led country is not giving up. By 2021, the government had set itself the goal of increasing the electrification rate to 30%, an objective that “will inevitably require a ten-fold increase in efforts aimed at rural and peri-urban areas, where large pockets of the population have no access to electricity,” according to the Agence nationale de l’électrification et des services énergétiques en milieux rural et périurbain (Anser) in a document we were able to obtain for this report.

Realistic solutions

“For a long time, the country has focused its energy policy on large dams, such as Inga, which require a lot of funding and a large market because the planned output [more than 40,000MW] cannot be consumed in the DRC,” explained Anser Director General Idesbald Chinamula. Announced in 2014 by the World Bank, which suspended its funding for the project two years later, the giant Inga III dam seems to have been shelved in favour of other, more “realistic” solutions.

These include the grant-based Mwinda Fund, which was set up in 2020 to help connect two million new households and “promote access to clean cooking solutions.” It has received a contribution of $63m from the World Bank, with preliminary disbursements scheduled for this year, according to our information.

The public still has a negative image of solar energy, as it is being associated with something that doesn’t work.

In addition to allocating nearly €150m to the 2023 mini-grid electrification programme, the government has also provided Anser with an investment budget (€13m) to finance around 10 solar-photovoltaic and hydro mini-grid projects, which should be delivered from July onwards.

“We need decentralised solutions with small-scale technologies and a local approach,” said Chinamula, who boasted his resistance to “old school” ways of thinking, in order to introduce solar and biomass energy into the country’s electricity mix.

“The public still has a negative image of solar energy, associated with something that doesn’t work. For them, it’s only hydroelectricity that counts, because that’s what you cook with, that’s what you use to run your restaurants…I went to a lot of trouble to get solar and biomass with hydroelectricity into the mix,” says the former coordinator of the inclusive growth and sustainable development pillar for the UNDP.

‘Country risk too high’

However, these ambitions are hampered by the difficulty of accessing finance. Since the enactment in 2014 of a law ending the Société nationale de l’électricité (Snel)’s monopoly, the DRC has been banking on public-private partnerships (PPPs), but these have been slow to materialise. Although several private companies are already involved in energy projects, the “country risk” is still “perceived as too high by companies,” which “inhibits the commitment of private operators despite the liberalised framework,” said a note from the economic department of the French embassy in Kinshasa dated November 2019.

Nevertheless, Anser is pleased to note “the enthusiasm of operators involved in the supply of renewable and decentralised energy on the Congolese market.” As evidence of this, the agency points to the number of companies registered with the Congolese Association of Renewable and Decentralised Energies, which rose from “21 to 43” in 2022.

Rapid urban development

What is certain is that PPPs are now at the heart of the government’s strategy. “We have liberalised the sector because the State realised that it could not finance all the investments on its own, which is all the more as the needs are ever-greater, and the population is increasing rapidly with the rapid development of towns and cities outstripping forecasts,” said Anser’s CEO.

It costs a lot of money to clear a path.

“In Europe, the State carries out development work to prepare residential areas. In the DRC, it’s the opposite: the infrastructure goes where the communities are, in neighbourhoods with no facilities. Following the population to supply them with electricity involves very high costs in terms of clearing paths. Liberalisation has opened the way to private investment, which is now taking place thanks to certain levers such as taxation and the environment,” he said.

Is this enough to achieve the 30% target by 2025? In the meantime, Snel continues to arouse public anger. After being questioned on 10 April by 51 MPs, Fabrice Lusinde was suspended from his post as Managing Director of the national company before being rehabilitated by a ministerial order dated 22 June.

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