Ivory Coast industry rues worsening power cuts


For decades Ivory Coast kept the lights on in half a dozen West African countries, but these days the former top power exporter has barely enough electricity for itself. West Africa’s one-time economic giant has been suffering power blackouts since February after its Azito Power Plant, run by a consortium of local and foreign firms, went down.

Officials say power cuts have been scheduled only until May, but local businesses say that is long enough to damage an economy already brought to its knees by a 2002-3 civil war and the political paralysis that has followed it. And unlike most of Africa, where power cuts are the norm and the drone of diesel generators heralds night, Ivory Coast is not used to blackouts: hardly anyone even owns a generator.

That’s a problem for fishmonger Salam Doumbia. “Quite a few boxes of fish are going off,” he said, in the cold room of his seafood wholesale business near the port of Abidjan, as his workers packed fish for sale into boxes. It really damages us to have no power. We’re forced to sell fish at a loss to get them out before they perish.”

Doumbia used to sell 200 to 300 boxes of fish every two or three days. Now he’s lucky if he manages 50 to 60 boxes. The cocoa sector in the world’s top grower, which supplies 40 percent of the world market and is already running below average because of lack of investment and administrative chaos, has also been hit by the power shortages. “Power cuts are tiring us out,” said an exporter in the major cocoa port of San Pedro. “We buy 200 litres of diesel a day just to run the electric drier to properly dry and conserve our cocoa beans. It’s an additional, heavy cost.”

Ivory Coast increased its generating capacity by 110 megawatts in December when CIPREL, a subsidiary of French power firm Bouygues, completed a new thermal plant. The Azito breakdown may temporarily set back efforts to satisfy fast rising demand at home and from neighbours Mali, Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo, which share one network. Exports have not been stopped, but have suffered rationing.

Ivory Coast’s own demand was estimated at 5,500 GWh in 2008 and is projected to reach 5,600 GWh in 2010. Joseph Biley, president of the Ivory Coast National Federation of Industries and Services, (FNISCI) estimates that industry may have lost up to 12 percent of its output since cuts started. The only winners are those selling generators.
“There was a rush to buy big generators since the load shedding was announced,” he said of the power rationing. “There are none left…We really hope that by May the problem will be resolved.”

For many Ivorians, the power cuts are yet another sign the 2002-3 war has cost it its status as West Africa’s shining star, which for years prospered while many of its poorer neighbours stagnated or descended into bloodshed. Anger over outages was one reason thousands of Ivorians took to the streets in protest at further delays to the election timetable last month. The polls are seen as vital to ending years of stalemate and reuniting the country.

In a sign of the times, Ivory Coast is now importing about 25 megawatts of capacity from neighbouring Ghana, officials say. Director general of power Simon Eddy said last week 35 billion Cfa francs ($72.54 million) was needed to fix the problem, but he said it should be rectified by May.

Dressmaker Dembroise Brou N’Guessan is banking on it. “Power is causing problems with my clients: I can’t finish on time,” she said. “What used to take four days takes eight.”