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Alleviating poverty in Africa demands redoubled energy

To fulfil the Millennium Development Goals, we need a renewed focus on bringing them energy, the master resource for achieving health, education, gender equality, economic development and environmental sustainability.

Mimi is one of the wives of the chief of the village of Bambalang in Cameroon, West Africa. She cooks meals for her children over a wood fire, under the smoke-blackened roof of her hut. Passing along the roads, you see women and children walking long distances with bundles of firewood on their heads. The sun sets early in this tropical country, and there is no electric light for the youngsters to do their schoolwork at night. Down the track, there is a hydroelectric dam, but the electricity goes to the main city, Douala. The village is not connected to the grid. A few of the wealthy people in the village have noisy, expensive petrol generators, to watch television for a few hours.

Without electricity, midwives have to deliver babies by the light of a kerosene lamp. In the absence of refrigeration, vaccines overheat in the warm climate and become useless. Meat and fish has to be sold quickly before it spoils, or charred to preserve it. The land, with its thick volcanic soils and year-round sun, is very fertile, and the people grow cassava, rice, bananas, sweet potatoes and other crops. It could be the breadbasket of West Africa. But during the dry season, they need irrigation pumps to raise the water from the bottom of streams - and those pumps require electricity or costly fuel to run.

A major review summit was held under the auspices of the UN in New York last week, marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals are: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, broadening access to education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating serious diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and creating a global partnership for development.

There are only five years to go until the goals should be achieved, in 2015. Even a small amount of electricity dramatically increases the level of human development. Yet, although the MDGs cannot be achieved without access to modern energy sources, energy itself is not mentioned. This is a surprising omission. When the goals were defined in 2000, energy seemed to be a problem that had been solved. Oil and gas prices were low and stable, and power stations were becoming increasingly efficient, cheap and clean.

Yet things were about to change. The success of China, India and other developing countries in growing their economies rapidly created an emerging middle class made up of hundreds of millions of people. For the first time, these nouveaux riches - still poor by the standards of Western countries or the Gulf - could afford a television, a refrigerator, and a motorcycle or perhaps a car. The consequent surge in energy demand drove oil prices to record highs. As the International Energy Agency noted last week, the worst sufferers were those who had remained in poverty, the great majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

A large part of the world, perhaps 1.5 billion people, still has no access to modern energy. In sub-Saharan Africa, a population of 800 million uses only as much energy as the 8 million inhabitants of New York City. The electricity going to the Burj Khalifa could supply the 16 million population of Burkina Faso. At the same time, it became increasingly apparent that soaring emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation and burning coal, oil and gas, threatens disastrous climate change - again, with the heaviest damage falling on the heads of the world's poor. Tackling global warming is mentioned in the MDGs only as a subsidiary goal.

Bringing about the final wave of modern energy requires a two-pronged strategy. One part has to emulate how the West, and later China, electrified their countries: large power stations and extension of grids to towns, villages and rural households. But although wind power and large dams can be part of this, inevitably fossil fuels will be the dominant fuel for decades to come. This raises a conundrum: how can a country such as India increase its energy supply by six times, while its emissions "only" double?

The second part needs to be small-scale solutions adapted to local needs. Efficient cooking stoves that burn less wood and give off minimal smoke have become a big success in Kenya. They can be manufactured by local artisans, thus creating employment. They reduce deforestation, save women's time and ensure healthier air for their families. Solar ovens are another option. For electricity, small-scale hydroelectric power is appealing. Indeed, just along the road from Mimi's village is a generator powered from a fast-flowing mountain stream, but it serves only the needs of the missionary camp which built it.

In agricultural areas, abundant waste - wood shavings, rice husks, banana peel -can be burnt to generate electricity, increasingly popular in Indian villages. This is complicated work. The best solution is different in every place. New ideas may go against local traditions. They require technical expertise and money - not a lot, but often in short supply in an area where the average income is US$2 per day (Dh7.35).

To fulfil the Millennium Development Goals for people like Mimi, we need a renewed focus on bringing them energy, the master resource for achieving health, education, gender equality, economic development and environmental sustainability.

Robin M Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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