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US Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Promote Access to Electricity in Africa

A shopkeeper counts change by the light of a battery-powered lamp during a load-shedding electricity blackout in Cape Town, South Africa, April 15, 2015.

Four U.S. lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation to promote access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. The bill establishes a U.S. strategy to support affordable and reliable electricity, which they say is a must in order to improve economic growth, health and education in Africa.

Tom Hart, executive director of the nonpartisan, anti-poverty ONE organization in the U.S., applauded the legislation and said improving energy access in Africa was essential.

“Seven out of 10 people in Africa have no access to electricity, and in some rural areas it’s nine out of 10," he said. Imagine what he would be like, he said, to be unable to refrigerate a vaccine or study for an exam after dark, or to have to run a business without a steady energy supply. Also, he said, in order to cook in their homes, many people have to burn wood or other materials that release toxic fumes.

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of a House Africa subcommittee and was one of the sponsors of the bill, said he and many other people often take such activities for granted. His energy bill, he said, would make it more likely that millions of Africans can achieve the modern health and economic benefits of the 21st century.

Hart explained what the legislation aims to achieve.

The first goal, he said, "is to get 50 million people in the continent of Africa access to electricity for the first time. We are also trying to get at least 20,000 megawatts of new power on the continent. And that’s distributed both in the urban and rural areas."

Last summer, President Barack Obama announced Power Africa, an initiative with similar goals. Hart said four lawmakers' bill and Obama's initiative would complement each other.

“The bill will make permanent the president’s initiative," he said. "We don’t want to see this very good initiative from the president go away when he leaves office. Presidential initiatives and leadership are critical, but equally important to making sure that it lasts a long time and is successful is having both Republicans and Democrats on board, and that’s what’s been achieved through the introduction of this legislation.”

Hart said the electricity bill is also a complement to AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

You can’t conduct trade unless products are made, and the lack of electricity is a major impediment to Africa's trade with the world, he said.

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office.