How Africa Can Reap the Fruits of BRI

Published in Addis Fortune May 18 , 2019 By Desta Mebratu (Prof.)

Editor’s note: Desta Mebratu (Prof.) (desta@africaleapfrog.org), CEO of African Transformative Leapfrogging Advisory Service.

The second summit of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), launched by China in 2013, was recently held in Beijing. The BRI is an ambitious effort to improve regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale. The initiative aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade and investment links between China and around 70 other countries that account collectively for over 30pc of global gross domestic product (GDP), 62pc of population and 75pc of known energy reserves.

This makes it one of the major, if not the major, global development initiative. BRI is part of China’s strategic objective of becoming an economic superpower in a couple of decades. While it is strongly anchored in maintaining China’s long-term national interest, it is quite creative in how it has been promoted to get the buy-in of partner countries from different continents, either by convincing or co-opting them.

A number of African countries, including Ethiopia, have joined this initiative, which claims to benefit all participating countries and the global economy. While the economic and geopolitical benefit to China is obvious, some questions are being raised on how much each country will economically benefit from this initiative.

The most critical objective that all participating African countries should focus on, both individually and collectively, is making sure that their participation in this initiative will make a substantial contribution to the fulfillment of their sustainable development goals. The kind of physical infrastructure that is being discussed under the initiative will constitute the backbone of national and regional economies for the coming decades.

Hence, they inherently have the potential of locking in a country’s economy in a given pattern of development.

One of the major lock-in hazards African countries should be watchful of is not to be locked into an extractive economy that is mainly characterised by the supply of cheap natural resources to the global economy. The second lock-in hazard is the potential to be a dumping ground for obsolete and linear industrial production infrastructure that may make the region a global pollution centre under the disguise of economic growth. This will obviously have a great negative consequence on the wellbeing of its people.

The most critical path through which countries can avoid such lock-in scenarios is by taking every part of the initiative, right from the early stages of planning, through a comprehensive strategic environmental and social assessment process before committing to its implementation. Besides maximising the social benefit and reducing the environmental impact, such a process could also significantly contribute to the long-term economic return from the overall investment. This can be achieved by ensuring optimal integration of the projects implemented under this initiative, both horizontally and vertically, with the respective regional and national development goals and plans.

The second important step would be to deploy existing life-cycle management tools and techniques in the planning and development of each infrastructure component of the initiative. This will enable countries to utilise infrastructural connectivity for developing inclusive, low-carbon and resource-efficient economies. It could also ensure the climate resilience of the major infrastructure to be built by applying the relevant climate-proofing techniques.

Given the nature and geographical scope of the initiative, BRI could have significant potential of making a positive contribution to the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals. However, failure to deploy the right set of planning tools and techniques could, at best, lead to insignificant development outcomes and, at worst, result in major socio-economic and socio-ecological disasters.

Both Chinese and African leaders have generational responsibilities in avoiding the long-term negative impacts of this initiative, particularly on Africa. More specifically, the African Union and its international and regional development partners need to provide coordinated capacity building and technical back-up support to countries undertaking strategic environmental and social assessments of the overall programme in the region and in deploying the relevant life cycle management tools in the planning and development of infrastructure projects.


PUBLISHED ON May 18,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 994]

Africa’s Nuclear Energy Ambitions: Leapfrogging into the Unknown

Published in Addis Fortune, May 4 , 2019 . By Desta Mebratu (Prof.) 

Eeditor’s note: Desta Mebratu (Prof.) (desta@africaleapfrog.org), CEO of African Transformative Leapfrogging Advisory Service.

Ethiopia recently joined a group of African countries in signing cooperation agreements for the development of a nuclear industry sector. Most of these agreements consist of the two distinct but inter-related components that require qualitatively different attention.

The first component focuses on building national capacities for the application and use of nuclear science and technology. This is a very positive development that needs to be pursued by any country, as there are multiple benefits that could be gained from the application of nuclear science and technology in health, agriculture and industry sectors. However, the construction of a nuclear power plant for energy generation is also included in these agreements under the disguise of civilian or developmental application of nuclear science and technology.

Experience from other countries has shown that, under all conditions fulfilled, development of a sound nuclear power sector requires a minimum of 10 to 15 years. This could take much longer for most African countries as they lack some of the basic economic, institutional and technological prerequisites. However, the aggressive campaign that is being pursued by the countries that own these technologies and the increasing tendency of some African countries to jump on the bandwagon seems to compromise the acceptable norms and procedures for nuclear safety.

This will lead to major national, regional and global threats and needs to be debated openly. There are several key issues African countries need to be cautious about when signing up for such package deals in the area of nuclear power generation.

One of the false arguments used for the promotion of nuclear energy is based on the claim that it is the cleanest form of energy and contributes to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from power generation.

It is true that nuclear energy has one of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated. However, the threat from its radioactive waste is of an existential proportion, which will automatically disqualify it from being the cleanest form of energy. For those who claim it to be the safest technology, they only need to reflect on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 to understand the dangerous possibilities.

Even if the technological advances made in recent years have made it much safer technically, the trigger factors from natural and human-made disasters are still high. For several reasons, these triggering factors are more pronounced in regions like the Horn of Africa, where human-made and natural disasters such as earth quakes are still high.

The other misleading justification that is being told by promoters of nuclear energy is that country’s like Ethiopia cannot rely on their huge hydropower generation potential because of the change in rainfall patterns that will be caused by climate change. It is true that climate variation has already become part of our reality and will continue to be a major threat in the coming decades unless appropriate measures are taken by the international community.

However, there is so much that could be done in the area of ecosystem adaptation and catchment rehabilitation to contain and possibly reverse the impact of climate change. Such measures will create multiple economic and social benefits by way of job creation and livelihood provision to local communities besides ensuring the sustainability of hydropower generation.

Development in African countries has been influenced for decades by trends of incidental leapfrogging that is supply-driven by external factors. Most of these developments, which were more of transplanting rather than transforming, resulted in isolated pockets of change that benefited the few at the expense of broad societal benefits.

Ethiopia and other African countries who recently decided to build nuclear power plants need to avoid making such major mistakes, which will result in stranded assets that will incur huge costs for generations to come.



PUBLISHED ON May 04,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 992]

The Need to Rationalise Management of Road infrastructure

Published on Addis Fortune April 26 , 2019 . By Desta Mebratu (Prof.) 

Editor’s note:
Proper development and management of road infrastructure is critical and can be achieved by re-imagining design and development, writes Desta Mebratu (desta@africaleapfrog.org), an extraordinary-professor at Stellenbosch University and head of a regional think tank called ATLAS.

Rational development and management of physical infrastructure, and road infrastructure in particular, is one of the key factors that determine the wellbeing of any community or country. This is because of its direct and indirect economic, social and environmental consequences, which could be either positive or negative depending on how it is developed and managed.

Countries are estimated to lose one to three percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) due to a lack of and mismanagement of their road infrastructure in cities, according to preliminary studies carried out by different institutions in selected African cities. This includes the economic loss associated with time lost due to traffic congestion, costs associated with fuel consumption and spare parts, and health costs associated with pollution and stress.

Most of these societal losses are associated with a combination of a lack of appropriate infrastructure, inefficient routing design and inefficient management of roads including signage. While there is still a lot that needs to be done in terms of road infrastructure coverage, Ethiopia as a country and Addis Abeba as a city stand in a better position in comparison to many Sub-Saharan African countries and cities. And yet, it registers one of the highest per capita traffic accident and fatality rates. This clearly shows that there is much that needs to be done concerning the development and management of our road infrastructure.

One of the key factors to consider from the design and development stage is to significantly reduce the physical contact points between pedestrians and motorists through proper design and management of crossing points. This is not only important to reduce traffic accidents, but it also facilitates a smooth flow of the traffic, thereby reducing economic loss and health hazards from pollution.

The traffic congestion we currently have on some of the major crossing points between the main highways and the light rail system across the main commercial and residential areas in Addis Abeba is a source of major economic, social and environmental costs. Safe and efficient mobility of both cars and pedestrians at these crossing points could be facilitated by building overpass and underpass structures for pedestrians in selected priority areas.

Developing partnerships with business entities, which can use these structures for advertising, and mobilising sponsorship could help to finance such structures. These structures could also serve as a basis for transforming street vendors, which are currently considered a nuisance or even illegal, into recognised traders that provide regulated services.

Besides the proper design and development of the physical infrastructure, a country needs to set and enforce rational speed limits that facilitate the safety of citizens while maintaining efficient socio-economic mobility. In this regard, speed limits by the Roads Authority on major city roads and crossing points within the city need to be strictly enforced by the regulators.

Experiences from other countries have shown that driving with the proper speed limit is very beneficial not only in terms of ensuring road safety. It also contributes to a reduction in costs to vehicle owners from lower fuel consumption and longer life of brake pads. The recent steps taken on replacing the roundabouts, which have become bottlenecks, with traffic lights is a step in the right direction in terms of improving the routing efficiency.

On the other hand, however, setting lower speed limits of 40Km or 50Km an hour on six-lane outer ring roads that connect the city with the expressway is the most irrational and inefficient measure that needs to be corrected. The recent trend of introducing speed bumps everywhere, including on ring roads, is also an issue that needs to be reconsidered.

All systems and procedures can properly function if they are coupled with the right set of attitudes and mindset. One of the most critical challenges the city is facing is the lack of awareness and discipline on the part of both drivers and pedestrians. Looking at how a significant number of drivers are driving and behaving within the city, one starts to wonder where the system has gone wrong.

Here, besides strictly monitoring the licensing requirement, it may be useful to introduce a topic on the specific social responsibility of being a driver in training. We need a similar level of attitudinal change on the part of pedestrians too.

Interestingly, during my trips to the countryside, I frequently notice people walking on the left side of the street having full visual control of the car driving against them. This clearly shows that we are not socially destined to be uncultured. It just requires the provision of consistent awareness and education on traffic management for all sectors of the society, including in early childhood.

It would require revisiting the driving and traffic regulations and procedures with the purpose of apportioning responsibilities on both parties supported with persistent education and enforcement measures.

Grand Riverside Project, Good intention with Wrong Implementation

Published in Addis Fortune on April 20 , 2019 . By Desta Mebratu (Prof.) 

Editor’s note:
Achieving a sustainable outcome from the Addis Abeba Riverside Revitalisation Project requires coupling the top-down with a bottom-up process, which generates adaptive and emergent solutions, writes Desta Mebratu (desta@africaleapfrog.org), an extraordinary-professor at Stellenbosch University and head of a regional think-tank called ATLAS.

The Addis Ababa City Administration has launched a one billion dollar project to revitalise and convert the city’s riverbanks into public spaces. This is a laudable initiative that is badly needed given the severe lack of public spaces in the city. It could also lead to multiple economic, social and environmental benefits provided that it is developed and implemented correctly.

While the rehabilitation of the river banks to serve as healthy public spaces is the primary objective, it is very critical to look at the immediate and long-term economic and social dividends that could be obtained from the implementation of this project. Such considerations will significantly contribute to establishing a broad sense of ownership of the project by the residents and communities, besides determining the overall sustainability of the project.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of questions that need to be critically considered to have such an outcome.

How does the overall design of the project fit seamlessly with the ecosystems of the river catchments? How can the implementation of the project promote local creativity and capacity building? How many jobs does it create both in the immediate and long-term and maximise the contribution of the project to the local economy over its lifetime? And how could it serve as a basis for broad participation of all stakeholders?

One of the primary reasons why most urban development projects in developing countries fail is due to their selective attention to top-down planning and implementation approaches that are focused on achieving a fixed end-state under a tightly controlled and restrictive process. Such an effort mostly ends up transplanting solutions and structures that are either completely disconnected from the local context or significantly inefficient.

The city administration seems to have decided to implement this project as a mega construction project that is aimed at achieving a fixed end-state. Such an approach will result in a significant number of missed opportunities besides making the sustainability of the project uncertain. While top-down policy guidance that provides the overall developmental framework is necessary, achieving a sustainable outcome from such projects would require coupling the top-down with a bottom-up process that generates adaptive and emergent solutions.

Fortunately, there are some local cases which could be used as a basis for facilitating an effective and efficient planning and implementation process that effectively combines the top-down with the bottom-up process. One such case is the Zoma Museum, which is located in Nefas Silk Lafto district, and which opened its doors to the public recently. This Museum, which was developed from scratch by two Ethiopians, is a microcosm of a sustainable system that combines ecological rehabilitation with social and economic development and artistic creativity.

The Addis Ababa River Bank Project could be instrumental in replicating such local initiatives across the city through a bottom-up process and thereby creating thousands of jobs while sustaining the long-term impact of the project. It could also serve as a practical education platform for a new generation of architects, engineers, ecologists and social scientists who are more creative solution providers.

There are some initial steps the City Administration should consider to facilitate such a process. It can establish a consortium of technical support institutions, including universities, NGOs and consulting companies that could provide professional guidance and input to the planning and implementation process. It can also organise youth groups that could be subcontracted in the implementation of the different components or segments of the river banks rehabilitation project and the subsequent management of the public spaces.

Identifying model cases such as Zoma Museum, which could be used as training and replication facilities for the project implementation, and facilitating their involvement will as well be crucial. The participation of local communities in the planning and implementation of the rehabilitation work in their respective localities should also be facilitated by the City Administration.

Most developing countries like Ethiopia are failing in their development efforts not due to lack of good intentions or finance but from the deployment of the wrong tools and approaches in transforming their plan into reality. I sincerely hope that the Addis Abeba Riverside Revitalisation Project will be saved from such failure.

Distributive energy systems: Best path for poverty reduction

The closing event of the Nelson Mandela International Day for 2018 was marked together with the centenary of the famous South African’s birthday at the Global Citizens Festival held this past weekend. The Nelson Mandela Foundation dedicated this year’s celebration to the fundamentally important issue of the eradication of poverty in Africa.

During this festival, key development partners, including the Gates Foundation and the World Bank, pledged support for Africa with a particular focus on the education and health sector. This will make a major contribution toward building the required social capital for development in the region.

However, if we wish to make any meaningful dent on poverty in the region, such efforts by foundations, governments and international institutions on building social capital need to be coupled with addressing the prevailing energy poverty in the region. More than 600 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity, and approximately 730 million people rely on traditional uses of waste material from plants and animals, according to the International Energy Agency. This is despite Africa being a continent endowed with relatively abundant renewable energy resources that are yet to be developed.

Renewable energy is the oldest form of energy in our planetary system and pre-exists any form of life, including the evolution of homo-sapiens. As such, it was also the source of many sources of energy known to modern society. Until the introduction of coal as a source of energy, the economic and social life of pre-industrial society had been almost wholly dependent on the use of renewable energy sources, including biomass and wind energy.

The global socio-ecological and socio-economic crisis that humanity is currently faced with as a result of climate change and unsustainable consumption and production patterns have once again brought renewable energy resources to the forefront. The transition to a renewable energy system is driven by key techno-economic drivers that lead to an enhanced capacity of competitive renewable energy generation. Significant progress has also been made in recent years in the area of energy storage.

A number of African countries have started investing in developing their renewable energy resources with a primary focus on the provision of light and cooking energy, which is an important first step. This effort should, however, go beyond lighting and cooking and focus more on catalysing broader development at the local level through productive value additions.

Given the dispersed pattern of human settlement in the region, renewable energy can provide multiple benefits if it is developed with the right scale and has strong symbiotic relationships with the local economy. This would require ensuring an optimal mix of grid and off-grid renewable energy development during the planning and development of power infrastructure.

Developing such plans takes into account the specific settlement pattern, resource availability and broad impact at the local level. Beside promoting the fair distribution of energy, such an approach could also result in a cost-efficient utilisation of existing grid-based energy infrastructure through a reduction of transmission loss.

Harmonising the development of distributed energy systems with possible job creation and economic value addition at the local level through integrated planning is key for maximising its distributive impact.

African countries can also make significant progress toward poverty eradication through the development of community-owned renewable energy service cooperatives. Such cooperatives could serve as key vehicles for maximising the productive linkage of distributed renewable energy systems to the local economy and promote distributional justice through an inclusive planning and implementation process. They could also serve as an important platform for empowering women and youth through the creation of jobs and the provision of sustainable livelihoods at the local level, thereby promoting social inclusivity.

Recent progress made in renewable energy technologies and the favourable policy environment at the global and regional level provide unique opportunities for transformational energy transition in Africa. Making the best out of this opportunity though largely depends on having a good understanding of the emerging techno-economic regimes and making informed policy decisions on the optimal mix of scale and renewable energy resources.

Investing in distributed energy systems is key for maximising the return from the investment on human capital and eradicating poverty from the region. It is about time that African governments and development partners consolidate their support to promote distributed energy systems in the region.



By Desta Mebratu (Prof.) (desta@africaleapfrog.org)
Desta Mebratu (Prof.) (desta@africaleapfrog.org), CEO of African Transformative Leapfrogging Advisory Service.

Published on Dec 08,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 971]