People come to Durban, South Africa, for its beaches, sunny climate and busy nightlife. But visitors interested in the future of Africa come for another reason. A few miles outside the city is the Bisasar Road landfill, Africa’s largest refuse site and a big source of renewable energy. The landfill is using seven Jenbacher engines made by GE to burn biogas produced by the trash and generate enough electricity for the local grid to power 3,500 households. “It’s basically green energy coming from waste,” says Peter Seagreen, who runs the engines at the landfill (see video). “It also makes me think why is this not being expanded across Africa.”
The Bisasar Road project is a big deal when you consider that just three out of 10 Africans have electricity in their homes. “If we can bring distributed energy outside the urban areas, we’ll have better healthcare services, better education and improved quality of life,” says Lorraine Bolsinger, CEO of Distributed Power, GE’s newest business unit designed specifically to solve the global energy shortage using small-scale power generation technology.
But even those in Africa with electricity are having a bumpy ride. The World Bank estimates that manufacturers on the continent face an average of 56 days a year without power. Although Africa as a whole is growing 2 percent faster than the rest of the world, the lack of power acts like a potent brake on Africa’s economic expansion and standards of living. Controlled power outages to avoid overloading the grid shaved an estimated 2 percent on average from the continent’s economic growth. “Lack of infrastructure is the biggest obstacle to faster economic development,” says Marco Annunziata, GE’s chief economist.
Economists, politicians, and business and NGO leaders from the United States and Africa will be discussing the continent’s growth, infrastructure, education and other bedrock issues at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which starts today in Washington, D.C.
GE is hosting a special conference on investment, infrastructure and innovation during the event, the key areas required for producing self-sustain growth on the continent. Annunziata says Africa remains “overly dependent on commodities” and must focus on building out infrastructure and a common market, educating people and supporting innovation. “African businesses are well aware of the opportunity,” he says. “While the challenges are substantial, Africa’s willingness to be an enthusiastic early adopter of new technologies could be a massive advantage.”
GE announced that it would invest more than $2 billion in Africa in new plants, skills training and sustainability projects like Bisasar Road. The company recently announced a multi-billion power generation project in Algeria, a locomotive assembly plant in South Africa and even a challenge for local innovators to come up with new electricity solutions for off-grid communities.
The new commitment will include a $250-million multi-modal manufacturing plant in Nigeria that will create 2,300 local jobs, a power generation project in Ghana and a training center in South Africa. Just in the last year, GE has announced $5.7 billion in business transactions on the continent.
“GE has long been committed to unlocking Africa’s potential, but as our most recent deals in the region show, we believe there is still more that we can do,” says Jay Ireland, president and CEO for GE Africa. “Our investments in infrastructure and people only strengthen our role as a key partner in building Africa’s future.”
But Africa is just one example of GE’s growing footprint. Take a look at our infographic illustrating the company global reach.