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By Mimi Alemayehou, Executive Vice President, OPIC
My grandmother spent her whole life in southern Ethiopia and passed away a few years ago without ever having switched on an electric light. I also spent much of my early life in Africa, where I saw firsthand the obstacles faced by a society without ready access to electricity.
So in the summer of 2013, when President Obama announced the launch of the Power Africa initiative, I knew a rare opportunity and important responsibility had come my way. For starters, it was clear the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) would play a crucial role in supporting the private sector investment needed to significantly increase Africans’ access to power.
But the mission also carries immense personal importance to me. And helping to ensure its success is more than just my job, it’s an obligation to my family, friends and birthplace. I was born in Ethiopia and spent some of my childhood there before my family relocated to Kenya, which saw me through my most impressionable years. I understand how lack of electricity affects almost every aspect of life and work.
I also know the rapid advances that come when people can capitalize on the advantage of power. I still have scores of family members and friends in both of these countries and I visit Africa often, so I associate faces and names with the task of bringing power to the continent. It’s not an esoteric goal for me, but one that carries sensory memories and real-life implications.
As the U.S. Government’s development finance institution, OPIC has a long history of supporting private sector investment in sub-Saharan Africa. In recent years, the region has become our fastest-growing geographical area of support, now comprising 21 percent of OPIC’s $18 billion portfolio. OPIC’s investment in Africa has increased 300 percent in the past four years, with much of this investment going toward power projects.
We provided financing to support the expansion of a major geothermal power plant in Kenya, and more recently agreed to support construction of a photovoltaic solar plant in Tanzania, to list just two examples. This need for investment throughout Africa is drawing the attention of private investors, who see the massive opportunity on this rapidly growing and transforming continent. And at OPIC, we’re poised to facilitate this investment with tools such as financing and political risk insurance. I’m extremely proud of our record so far and optimistic about what’s to come.
While it’s true that I have a unique connection to Power Africa, I know that the effort endeavors beyond illuminating light bulbs in rural homes. The implications of newly electrified areas are tremendous. Small business and industry can grow at an exponential rate with ready access to power. Increasingly-affordable personal communications devices like smartphones and laptops can be charged at home to connect rural residents to global communication. Hospitals and clinics can offer better health care to more people for more hours of the day. Schoolchildren can continue their studies after the sun sets.
These advancements are greater than their collective sum. I’m privileged to be able to contribute something back to the place from where I came, and to the culture of which I’m still a part.
Mimi Alemayehou is executive vice president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Government’s development finance institution and a partner in President Barack Obama’s Power Africa Initiative.
Last updated: April 08, 2014