STEEPED IN HISTORY: US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, toured the cell block on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held captive, during their visit in June. Picture: REUTERS
STEEPED IN HISTORY: US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, toured the cell block on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held captive, during their visit in June last year. Picture: REUTERS

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has plans for an initiative to enhance access to electricity across Africa by tapping the continent’s vast energy resources and attracting international investment.

The US administration said the $7bn venture, called Power Africa, will complement an additional $9bn in private funds to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the White House more than two-thirds of the population is without electricity.

Mr Obama unveiled the energy programme at the University of Cape Town on Sunday night.

"We’re looking to provide support and partnership so the lights can turn on and stay on," said Gayle Smith, National Security Council senior director for development and democracy.

Mr Obama arrived in Cape Town on Sunday morning on the second leg of a trip to Africa where he has been promoting trade and investment, pledging sustained US engagement and underscoring the importance of democratic values to economic growth.

The failing health of former president Nelson Mandela has weighed heavily on the trip and Mr Obama has spent his time, especially in the South African icon’s home country, invoking his legacy as a model for the continent’s leaders to earn international respect and credibility.

Mr Obama visited Robben Island, a landmark in Madiba’s life and the antiapartheid movement. Robert F Kennedy delivered his Ripple of Hope speech in 1966 at Cape Town University, shortly after Mr Mandela was jailed.

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped," Mr Kennedy said at the time. "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope," said the senator, then a US presidential candidate.

"And crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Mr Obama also visited a community centre that focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

"The types of countries that are part of Power Africa, for instance, are the ones who are doing the right things on governance," said deputy National Security Council director Ben Rhodes.

"If we’re going to get investment from international development banks, from private-sector partners, they need to have the predictability that comes with the rule of law and governance."

The venture will begin in six countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania — to add more than 10,000MW of cleaner, more efficient electricity-generation capacity and will increase electricity access to at least 20-million new households and commercial entities, according to the US.

General Electric is among the companies that have contributed to the $9bn in private-sector funding for the programme’s first phase and has committed to help bring 5,000MW of new energy to Tanzania and Ghana.

"We are in a situation where poverty is being conquered on this continent at a speed that is unprecedented," said Ms Smith. "It’s much more targeted assistance from us than in the past."

Sunday’s announcement follows criticism that Mr Obama’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind that of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush, creating an opening for countries such as China to tap the region’s resources.

Mr Bush, who took US spending on Africa to new levels, made a six-country visit in 2008 and a three-country stop in 2011 after he left the White House.

His Africa legacy includes the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), a $15bn commitment to prevent and treat AIDS infections, credited with saving or extending millions of lives on the continent.

Mr Clinton signed the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an important trade agreement with countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Obama was largely occupied in his first term with the US financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a foreign policy pivot towards Asia.

A year ago, he issued a policy directive on sub-Saharan Africa calling for expanded economic growth and pressing for stronger democratic institutions.

Mr Obama will travel to Tanzania on Monday for the last stop of his tour and to the country’s fast-growing Dar es Salaam to convene a roundtable of company executives and promote investments in electrification projects.

The US president may meet his Republican predecessor while in Dar es Salaam, who will be there at the same time for a summit to empower Africa’s first ladies, which is sponsored by the George W Bush Institute. First lady Michelle Obama will join Laura Bush at the event.

American companies see a growing economic opportunity in Africa. US merchandise exports to the 49-country region were $21bn in 2011, up 23% from 2010, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa were worth $74bn in 2011, up 14% from 2010. Most of that, about $60bn, was crude oil.

Mr Obama said with Mr Zuma that while the US does not need Africa’s energy because of its own advancements in clean energy production, its interest is in expanding the continent’s role in the global marketplace.

"Our primary interest when it comes to working with African countries on energy issues has to do with how do we power Africa so that it can be an effective market creating jobs and opportunity in Africa," Mr Obama said in Pretoria.