Years before burnishing his academic reputation with a string of senior positions at the Rockefeller Foundation, Adesina was one of millions of Nigerian students toiling under the uneven glow of lamplight.
“I went to a village school, I studied for my O Levels using candles and lanterns, and that was 1974. And kids are still doing that today,” he muses.
With a politician’s persistence and an academic’s aptitude for figures, Adesina reels off a list of statistics which reveal how Africa remains stranded with a power generation capacity roughly equal to that of Spain.
“We have to be brutally honest with ourselves on the issue of energy. We have gotten so used to a bad thing that it looks normal. It’s not normal not to have power,” he insists.
The knock-on effect of this shortage – which impacts everything from the education prospects of children to building up a manufacturing base – have led Adesina to place his “new deal for energy” right at the heart of his reformist vision for the continent.
In short: get power right, and the rest will follow.
“Once you have energy working you release the power of the private sector massively. Africa needs to industrialise and the key to solving that is solving Africa’s energy problem and other infrastructural challenges,” he says.
That new deal is rooted in the kind of high-level diplomacy that Adesina intends to make the hallmark of his tenure. The president plans to work with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to rally heads of state to the banner of comprehensive energy reform – a task to which policymakers have previously proved unequal.
The strategy, Adesina says, will be grounded in more than the usual public displays of back-slapping. The AfDB will significantly up its level of investment in the energy sector, while countries themselves will also have to commit to increasing the share of GDP they spend on power.
The support of outside agencies – Adesina cites Barack Obama’s Power Africa and several European bilateral initiatives – will also be crucial. But most importantly, countries will have to finally push through the kind of difficult reforms which they have grown so adept at avoiding.
“It’s very important to now deal with the issue of reforms. Utilities have to be reformed, the subsidy regime has to be changed and there have to be cost-reflected tariffs so that when the private sector invests in the energy sector they know that they can have a high rate of return. There has to be big political will,” he argues.
Adesina insists that countries are finally ready to take that step and make the political sacrifices necessary to push through domestically unpopular reforms. If those conditions are met, he hopes that Africa’s ambition of achieving universal access to energy could be bought forward by five years to 2025.
“When we had a high-level meeting in Abidjan last week, the President of Benin came in just because he wanted to show his political commitment. Everywhere we go they say they are delighted that the AfDB has stepped up to the plate on energy. It’s a unique opportunity to do something transformational and scaled, and my own conviction is that African governments are ready for that.”
This is the second part of a four-part series to be posted. Click here for the first part.