Stranded power

I googled Stranded Power Nigeria, and discovered that in February 2018, Nigeria had 2000 Megawatts of stranded electricity power. In March 2018, Maikanti Baru, the group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), at a seminar, spoke extensively about Nigeria’s stranded gas as well, which could be used to generate more power but most of which is being flared. We will get to the cost of generating the stranded power in a minute – and the opportunity costs of flaring gas as well – but let us look at another phenomenon. In the Niger Delta today, we have a spreading rash on the face of the mangrove soil, called illegal refineries. The locals, out of a combination of frustration, discontent and ignorance, are despoiling their own environment and poisoning their waters through this crude process of refining crude oil (pun unintended). The process is awful, and continues to claim more and more arable farmlands because there is no way of convincing these locals anymore that there is value in waiting for years to reap from tree crops or fishing, when our leaders and everyone in between are showing them that all that matters is making money immediately. And making lots of it.

To make matters worse for the Niger Delta, in comes the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), or the Navy, government entities that are convinced that the best way to show patriotism is to destroy the end product of these illegal refineries, by emptying tonnes of processed products into the waters! The level of destruction going on in the environment – whether in the waters or in the air in this region – is unimaginable. Residents of Port Harcourt have been complaining of soot lately. The black stuff just overwhelms the town and villages from time to time. One thing about nature is that it takes no crap. Whatever you push to her that is not hers, she returns to you, sometimes angrily. Look at the sea? Every last bit of plastic is washed ashore for that reason. The seas, the oceans, occupying 70 percent of the earth’s surface, remain squeaky clean as it pushes back to man what is not its. Sort yourself out, it seems to be saying.

But the issue is not power today, as much as I wish to make an analogy that underlines the fact that too many things are stranded in Nigeria – especially our most precious resource – human capital.

The issue for today is that Mr. Bill Gates came into Nigeria the other day and gave a frank, though uncomfortable, talk about Nigeria’s human capital. Gates urged Nigerian leaders to invest more in the country’s human capital, saying this could never compete globally in its perennial state of neglect. He also looked at the issue from the angle of health – the core focus of his Bill Gates Foundation, which has spent all of $1.5 billion in Nigeria. Just two months ago, the Foundation was called upon by Nigerian government to help pay a debt of $76 million which Nigeria was owing Japan for efforts towards the eradication of Polio. Most Nigerians believe Gates had earned the right to be frank with our government, and for the first time Nigerians actually saw a foreigner who should be busy making money, actually show genuine concern for us as a people. No one needs a PhD to know that Gates will never be invited by this government to any cocktail party again.

Many Nigerians, in my view, have mistaken Gates’ call for investment in human capital to mean that we should increase budgetary allocations to education and health. I disagree, howbeit slightly. Apart from falling into the trap of inefficiency – by which we increase allocations and watch money disappear into the pockets of the owners of ghost workers, and also into moribund knowledge that is unwilling to transform itself – the critical need is for new spending to radically transform our human capital, because what Gates is saying is that our youth are in serious knowledge and productivity deficit, when compared with the youth elsewhere. From the health angle, Gates described the problem Nigeria has with malnutrition, to the extent that 30 percent of our children are stunted. He said oftentimes their brains will remain small, already damaged and curtailed by poverty.

Like Crude Oil and PHCN, Like Nigerian the Youth

The story of Nigeria’s youth is exactly like the story of Nigeria’s power and oil sector. We have produced graduates of institutions with no work to do, so they are stranded just like power generated by the GenCos, with no transmission systems to take this to the DisCos (distribution companies) who also complain that final consumers don’t like to pay for what they enjoy (just as many businessmen and governors who enjoy the final product that is Nigeria’s human capital [her graduates] simply refuse to pay salaries).
In the same vein, we can draw parallels from the petroleum sector. Just as gas is being flared massively, making Nigeria the highest polluting economy in sub-Saharan Africa, so also are our youth and their energy being wasted; flared away, burnt off and turned into pollution to the global environment, where many have become nuisances and are being despised, sometimes feared, hunted and killed from time to time by xenophobes. We have simply refused to bottle that energy for productive use here. Our youth are being smuggled abroad for prostitution and other menial jobs, just as illegal bunkerers steal our crude (500,000 barrels of it every blessed day). Yet others are washed into the mediterranean sea like the diesel that our civil defence corps pour into our rivers here!

Even there is an illegal intellectual refinery that churns out Nigeria’s youth as products. These are the new digital cheating centres for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams; the miracle centres where students always pass, even if they know nothing; the many forgery centres all over the country, where our youth have been conditioned to believe that honesty and straightforwardness do not pay but that twisting the system is all that matters. Our illegal refineries of the mind extend to the universities where professors issue sexually-transmitted degrees and others brazenly collect money from students in exchange for pass marks. The effects on the lay of the land is the same as the kind of devastation, barrenness, and contamination of the water table that the people of Niger Delta are using their own very hands to foist on their own land and heritage, compounded by government complicity, if not worse. And just as the major oil companies have gone deep-sea where they use new technology to get the same resources aplenty, so also smart countries like Canada are attracting our best brains, plus billions of dollars each year, paid for the education of our privileged youth, most of whom never return. This time, they don’t have to come here. Our own well-trained young people are ready to sell houses and belongings to migrate abroad. No more on-shore foraging for crude oil or trained graduates. Deepsea it is; powered by technology.

Thinking Off-Grid – What To Do With Stranded Youth Power

I have suggested elsewhere that given the issues we have in our power sector, it is counterproductive to continue to throw money at a problem which is better reimagined. The other day, a new power plant (Azura) was commissioned. The investment is $900 million, just shy of a billion dollars. The entire input into the national grid is 453MW. In spite of that investment – which will eventually translate into an increase in the debt burden around Nigeria’s neck (the necks of our unborn children), even though it is procured privately, very few Nigerians can claim to have seen an increase in power supply. And indeed electricity tariff in Nigeria under the new regime of privatised DisCos and GenCos, is becoming more expensive than in countries that work and where per capita income is considerable; because all the inefficiencies of the market are passed down to the final consumer.

So, the solution to our power challenges lie in going back to our youth – in universities and polytechnics, in a way that kills two birds with one stone – to ensure that their stranded energy and imaginations are used to eradicate the problem of stranded power. In other words, the only way to solve our energy problems, like every other problem that we now have, is to do it ourselves. And the youth have the energy, the imagination, the passion, the innocence, the clear-mindedness. The youth have the power in short. The $1 billion I mentioned above could as well have been invested in the youth across Nigeria, to challenge them to think, and to solve problems. Our higher institutions should strictly be places where the youth think solutions, solutions, solutions, because Nigeria is indeed theirs to take care of. On the streets we will say Nigeria is their corpse to bury. We should quit deceiving ourselves that foreign investors will come and solve our problems here. We have been through too many decades of that self-deception, where we courted these so called ‘angel’ investors and ended up with the short end of the stick. This is the time to depart and try something new.

What Bill Gates was saying about human capital development is not that we should learn how to speak better English in schools. It is not that all of us must attend universities. It is not even merely about pumping more money into education and health… It is about understanding the sheer importance of our youth to the emancipation of Nigeria. It is about inverting the process; wherein a larger percentage of our investment of the commonwealth will go to the vulnerable below – children unborn and children today – rather than what obtains today where senators and fat cat politicians, plus their big friends in the civil service and private sector, cream off 90 percent of the commonwealth and leave the vast majority to fight like wild dogs for the crumbs. What Gates is saying is that we should show a whole lot more respect for the power of our children and youth, and of course the power IN them. What Gates is saying is that we have recklessly allowed too many people to wither and pine, when they should be lifting our country higher.

So just as we must do any and everything to end gas flaring, we must do everything to ensure we stop wasting our youth power! Just as we need to do everything about stranded power – electricity generated and lost to nothingness, we must ensure that our brains are not lost to nothingness, or even poached by those countries that are way smarter than we are. Just as we must stop borrowing unnecessarily from elsewhere and jeopardising the future of our young ones, we must also realise that indeed we have everything we need here. Just as we should stop importing experts to solve every little problem for us – like those waste managers that were imported from the U.K. through Dubai to come and keep Lagos clean, or the Malaysian consultants trying to solve our poverty problems – we should understand that now is the time to start creating our own experts. Just as we should stop expecting immediate results and building any and everything around election cycles just to shine, we should start thinking long term, for that is how experts are created. We should have a lot more youth locked up in incubation centres all around the country – eggheads, brilliant folks, whose chief duty is to think, think, think, and create, create and innovate and experiment solutions for all our problems.

In 2015 I wrote a small book titled Change is Going to Come. In it I detailed a simple strategy for the then new national government. I saw the vision that our quest for economic emancipation was never going to gain traction except we incorporate a plan that includes our youthful power. I recommended that the government should launch a programme titled ‘CLEANEST, SAFEST AND MOST ORGANISED COUNTRY IN AFRICA’, and put our youth power behind that. This programme would have harnessed youth power and created millions of sustainable jobs in the environmental, security and logistics sectors, while at the same time giving the youth the ownership of the country in the way it should be. More importantly, the programme would have led to a situation where money will have been put in the hands of the youth – for work done – making them more responsible early, thereby encouraging financial inclusion. Of course my suggestion was never bought, not even acknowledged. It is therefore to my considerable chagrin to see that a similar strategy was adopted by India four years ago, to build 75 million new toilets, thereby banishing open defecation, cleaning up the environment and boosting local economies with the construction of millions of bathrooms in rural areas. The youth of India are the ones employed to enforce that project in every village, naturally. Meanwhile here in Nigeria, we are more interested in borrowing from abroad to build projects that are heading absolutely nowhere; projects we cannot maintain. If only a few of the decisions we had taken in the past had had any depth of thinking, we would not be here today. Gates said something about the folly of building physical projects we cannot maintain, rather than building the people who will build the projects and maintain them.

Finally, the imperative of harnessing the investment in the youth and in our human capital in general is underlined by the fact that the top five companies by valuation today, are products of intellectual capital – brain work. Talk about Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook (which toggles the fifth place with Berkshire Hathaway). Some of these companies were created by mere teenagers in school dormitories but have grown to trillion dollar levels today. That tells us that what matters more than the crude oil and gold in the ground, is what our young and old people have between their ears. This resource is certainly impossible to quantify, because in value, it tends towards infinity.

The great thing about this strategy is that this is not another vacuous talk. This is not another highfalutin jive. Indeed, we can start now. Nothing stops us at all. And what is more? I can bet my last one naira that anything else we do in our quest for development is in vain, if we don’t take this route.

But first things first. Dear Nigerian youth, whatever you do, make sure you don’t end up being flared away, washed into the river, abandoned and stranded. You’ve got the power in you!

Written by ‘Tope Fasua; an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur. He can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.