Published on Africa Can End Poverty

The key to affordable power in West Africa? Knit together the region’s abundant lower carbon resources with shared planning, policies and trust.

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If you paid some of the highest electricity tariffs in the world, you would expect some of the most reliable electricity services. Unfortunately, this logic does not hold in West Africa, where tariffs are double those of East Africa, but service quality is poor and access is limited. This is the legacy of individual countries relying on their mainly small, inefficient power systems fueled by expensive imported oil. These high tariffs do not even cover the costs, and the gap leads to poorly funded utilities and subsidy requirements that are typically 1% of GDP and, on occasion, higher.

Change is happening as West African countries work together to ‘pool’ their power systems for better use and sharing of cheaper, greener energy resources available right in the neighborhood. The region has significant natural energy resources, namely, hydropower, gas, and wind mostly along the coast and solar power – especially in the Sahel region. The West African Power Pool (WAPP), established in 1999, expects to interconnect the 14 mainland countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by the middle of the decade and bring to fruition a self-reliant regional power market that delivers abundant affordable electricity to all.

The key to affordable power in West Africa? Knit together the region?s abundant lower carbon resources with shared planning, policies and trust.
Note: dark blue lines represent current transmission lines; light blue lines represent those that are close to being made operational, under construction, or for which funding is secured; dotted lines represent future expected transmission lines. Source: The World Bank

Across the region, the economic benefits of the regional power market are evaluated at up to US$665 million per year, with the average cost of electricity generation expected to fall by between a quarter and a third. Over the past 10 years, the World Bank has financed close to US$2.3 billion of investments in transmission infrastructure, and institutional capacity in support of the WAPP.  

But hardware and institutions alone do not make a market. For actual trade to happen, neighbors must have confidence in each other and in the flow of commodities and payments. Despite progress, market confidence remains shaky as some countries balk at the lumpy capital investments and long lead times needed to develop new WAPP-dependent infrastructure. Others suffer from financially distressed national utilities whose creditworthiness and ability to trade may be called into question. These and other factors have caused some would-be importer countries to continue to rely on their own expensive small-scale electricity generation instead of shifting their sights and investment priorities toward least-cost options from neighboring exporter countries.     

The World Bank and other partners are helping countries overcome the financial barriers but changing mindsets and instilling trust in the market have required a new focus on regional cooperation in domestic policies.

An important step forward was the adoption of the ECOWAS Directive on the Securitization of Cross-Border Power Trade in December 2018. This regional reform program aims to increase confidence in the enforcement of commercial agreements, to encourage least-cost investment decisions that promote regional options and competition, and to promote transparency on the creditworthiness of national power utilities and on key investment decisions that may impact demand and supply across the market. It calls for national policies and reforms that, if implemented collectively across the region, will lead to sustained trade and thus investment decisions that lower costs.  

Inter-ministerial meeting to agree on the design of the West Africa Regional Energy Trade Development Policy Financing program, Bamako, Mali, March 2020- © Mustafa Zakir Hussain, World Bank
Inter-ministerial meeting to agree on the design of the West Africa Regional Energy Trade Development Policy Financing program, Bamako, Mali, March 2020- © Mustafa Zakir Hussain, World Bank

Funding from the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) supported the directive’s preparation, and the Bank is now helping to operationalize it through the $300 million West Africa Regional Energy Trade Development Policy Financing (DPF) in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone. Like other DPFs issued by the Bank, this one provides governments with fast general budget support in exchange for a pre-agreed program of institutional and policy reforms referred to as "prior actions." Unlike other DPFs, this one marks the Bank’s first multi-country DPF operation using the Regional IDA window --[IDA is the International Development Association, the branch of the World Bank Group that supports poor countries]-- and a joint matrix of policy and institutional actions. Not surprisingly, there has been a learning curve. Three important lessons have emerged so far:

  1. Start with joint agreements among high-level decision makers. Early in the process (and pre-pandemic), we were able to get all the Ministers of Finance and Ministers of Energy from all six countries in one room to mutually agree on the prior actions needed to build trust in trade. This has meant that sector ministries have found it hard to back out of difficult, but necessary, prior actions required of them.
  2. Design prior actions in a manner that is resilient to events. The structural measures put in place to regularize payments from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire were simple transparent mechanisms designed to limit opportunities for interference, and were unaffected by the August 2020 coup d’état in Mali, even while the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) closed normal flow of funds with Mali.
  3. Remain flexible to keep on track. The COVID-19 pandemic and continuing political instabilities in Mali delayed the DPF’s effectiveness, but we did not let these forces blow us off course. We continued to work with countries bilaterally (and virtually), and the DPF was able to launch in February 2021 with all countries fully on board.

We are encouraged by this initial progress, but deep complexities remain in knitting together the region's power systems. Most recently, unforeseen supply shortages curtailed exports from Côte d'Ivoire to Mali and Burkina Faso. Several interconnectors under construction will eventually alleviate such shortages, as countries will be able to import from different sources in the region. Regulatory reforms backed by the DPF will further increase trade connections and confidence. Transformation at this scale takes time, but as it happens, the West Africa region will be more self-reliant, greener, and more able to cope with shocks. Together, we remain committed to achieving affordable and reliable electricity for all.   


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