One day not so long ago, I woke up and there was no power in my home. That meant no water for a bath and no way to cook breakfast.
My building in Lusaka, Zambia, does not have a generator, and the landlord has not yet been convinced of the value of solar panels.
I figured when I arrived at my shared office space, where I run a small business that consults with investors entering Africa, at least I’d be able to plug in and get to work.
I was wrong. When I got there at 8:30 a.m. there was no power. I spent the day running errands and attempting to work in cafes and got very little done. When I decided to return home at 4:30 p.m., there was still no power.
Africa was dubbed “the dark continent” in the 1800s because, according to some explanations, so little was known about its interior. Today it’s still the dark continent because only one in five people has access to electricity and more than 30 countries experience power shortages and regular rolling blackouts. One recent month I traveled off the continent most days, but of the 13 days I was home, I did not have power for at least eight hours every single day.
Nevertheless, work must continue! So I improvise. I may have to type long responses to my clients by mobile phone because my computer cannot connect to the power outlet or Wi-Fi. That makes it hard to read, edit or attach documents.
And when I connect to the Internet from my phone, my phone battery depletes even faster. I regularly charge electronic devices in other people’s offices, off of my computer when it has a charge, from my Waka Waka solar charger and wherever else I can find an available outlet, usually at restaurants and cafes. This takes a lot of extra planning and mental energy.
I can only imagine how debilitating it is for business owners in manufacturing, catering and health. Their businesses require uninterrupted power supplies.
Women are uniquely affected by the lack of power. In many developing countries, like Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, there is not a consistent source of power. Women often spend 1 to 4 hours a day collecting firewood for fuel. This gives them less time for other activities, including those that could generate income. The alternative of charcoal is at the whim of opportunistic business people, who increase the price based on demand. The cost of a 45-pound sack is about $7-$10.
According to U.N. Women, African women are more likely than men to work in informal employment — a term for self-employed folks who earn a little money. Often, they rely on barter or rental of services; for instance, one person who owns a fridge will store food for another person who has a market stall at which the fridge owner can sell goods. These jobs are made even harder when there’s no electricity.
It is everyone’s role to find solutions to the crisis. There are efforts by power entrepreneurs, African governments and development institutions, like the Africa Energy Leaders Group and Akon Lighting Africa, to generate more consistent power sources. There also is Power Africa, which was created by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013 to add more than 30,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity and increase the electricity access of 60 million homes and businesses.
Power Africa includes a new Women in African Power group that focuses on women’s power needs. Having advised on power deals in East Africa and served on the board of Helvetic Group, a renewable energy group in East Africa, I know there are few women in the power and utilities sector. We need more to help lead these initiatives.
Improved technology also has a role to play. Solar lighting was for years considered too expensive, but now there are more cost-effective products.
Although I recall a childhood with food shortages, I do not recall power outages as bad as the ones today. A reliable source of energy would ensure that women do not spend hours collecting water or fuel. It would allow them to work in the informal sector more efficiently. And on a very personal level, I would be able to start my mornings with a hot breakfast and a shower.
Jacqueline Musiitwa is the founder of Hoja Law Group, a law consultancy in East Africa that advises on power issues and infrastructure. She is a 2014 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow.