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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 09:38 GMT
Power cuts and candlelight in Madagascar
Tim Cocks
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Jirama head office in Tana, Madagascar
Madagascar's energy company, Jirama, was forced to either cut back or face bankruptcy
Constant power cuts and rising energy prices are a sensitive issue in Madagascar as most are having to make do with candles.

Since last year when the state's ailing energy company, Jirama, was forced to cut back its consumption of diesel for its thermic generators, or face bankruptcy owing to rising fuel costs and huge debts, severe power shortages have become standard.

And they have crippled business and sparked protests - companies have complained loudly and students fed up with doing their homework by candlelight have rioted and heckled President Marc Ravalomanana over the constant blackouts.

Lalaina, an internet cafe owner in downtown Antananarivo, has had to rely on the bar in his cafe to attract customers as often his seven computer screens are lit up by nothing more than candle light.

He explains, "When it [power cut] happens in peak time it really hurts us because 50% of our customers basically come only for the internet. So it's a bit of a drag for us. Plus its killing the atmosphere, obviously."

Rescue

Donors agreed on a rescue package in February to keep Jirama afloat for some months.

Olivier, student
For like a year we didn't have any power. Really, they don't realise how much they are lucky
Olivier
Student from Comoros islands

But the company's future, and the energy supply for the world's fourth biggest island, are far from certain.

Even when the power is on, only 15% of Malagasy have access to it - a figure the government wants to increase but lacks the means to do so.

Power crises are hardly unique though. Many African countries suffer them, and many worse than here.

Comorian student, Olivier, says power cuts have made life tough, but that they need to be kept in perspective.

"Where I come from we used to miss power everyday, I mean for like a year we didn't have any power. Really, they don't realise how lucky they are."

Losses

Madagascar's businesses don't feel quite so lucky though.

Many, like the shrimp fishing business, the island's third biggest export, experienced heavy losses last year on the back of power shortages.

Internet cafe during a black out
Malagasy business owners have complained loudly about being left in the dark

Bertrand Couteaux, the general secretary of Unima, the biggest shrimp export company says: "The impact of the Jirama crisis on the shrimp industry has been that we have to produce our own energy.

"We have no choice, we have generators because we have freezers in a cold chain and we cannot have any shortage of energy supplies. It's a high price for us.

"Our operating cost is increasing with the problem of energy. We face big problems."

Thanks to a recent influx of emergency donor money, the power cuts that hurt business so badly last year are getting rarer.

Subsidies

But what is the origin of Madagascar's power crisis? The answer is shockingly simple.

Hydropower in the long run will also be cheaper
Christian Lempelius
Hydropower project worker

During its flirtation with Marxism that began in the 1970s, the state effectively subsidised electricity prices that it couldn't afford.

As Jirama spokesperson, Dominic Ratsimbazafy, explains: "The problem is financial. Through the years, we have always sold electricity cheaper than the cost of production. The result: the financial situation of the company is in a big deficit.

"It's a question of first redressing our financial situation for two years. And, then we can talk about developing the company."

Light or not

Measures to redress Jirama's long term financial health include hefty price increases, cracking down on electricity thieves who hook themselves up to power lines using dangerous do-it-yourself methods, and a move away from expensive petrol generators to hydroelectric power.

Unsurprisingly, price increases are the least popular. Yet more increases are due soon.

And Olivier probably speaks for most when he says, "No, no, no. People are really crying everywhere. Myself, I'm paying twice the price I used to pay. There are people who are going to make the choice between having light and not to have it - because they can't pay their bill."

Potential

Less controversial but much harder to implement are the plans for hydroelectric power, which has enormous potential but currently serves less than half of Madagascar's needs.

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Christian Lempelius, a sponsored hydropower project worker, outlined the advantages, "It's a local resource. No need to import sophisticated equipment as for, for instance, wind generators. The rest is a channel in the water, from a river, and you just drop it somewhere.

"Hydropower in the long run will also be cheaper."

If this is the case though, why haven't they done this earlier?

Hydropower needs a lot of time, and a massive initial capital investment.

But if the government is to have any hope of meeting current energy demands, let alone bringing power to rural areas and move beyond the current poor 15% rate of access, then it is surely one they will have to make.

Much may also depend on whether donors are ultimately prepared to foot the bill.

Until they do, the Malagasy will have to make do with power cuts and candlelight.


Africa Have Your Say is discussing how the continent can fuel its future. Click on the link below to join the debate.





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