Power Africa Conference

How often do you take electricity for granted? For some of us, it’s not even something we think about often. Keeping cell phones charged is as simple as remembering to plug them in overnight. Staying up late at night to do homework is never hindered by a lack of light to read and write by. The wireless Internet router is always on and blinking away, keeping us in touch with friends, family, and coworkers via email and social media.

For many millions of people throughout the world, however, having regular access to electricity – whether at home or in public – is by no means a given. In fact, this is a major issue in terms of the growing disparities between people living in the so-called developed and developing nations.

This past March 2nd to 4th, the University of Illinois hosted a conference focused on electricity, politics, and inequality both on the African continent and in African nations’ relations to others, especially in the context of post-colonialism. “Power Africa: Promises, Potentials, Pitfalls, and Possible Alternatives” convened various expert panelists from Africa, Europe, and North America to discuss issues relating to how “power,” in both of its meanings, affects individuals’ relative quality of life in the Global South, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Several members of the UIUC faculty and staff community were present, including Prosper Panumpabi (originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Electrical Engineering), James J. Overbye (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Kiruba Haran (Sri Lanka/Nigeria; Electrical and Computer Engineering), and Tami Bond (Civil and Environmental Engineering). The event was sponsored by the Center for African Studies along with several co-sponsors and held at the Funk-ACES (Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences) Library on the UIUC campus.


Solar panel used to power hair clippers, Gurue, Mozambique. Photo by Dr. Julia Bello-Bravo (UIUC Center for African Studies).

Guest speakers included Claudia Schwartz of the U.S.African Development Foundation (USADF), James Murombedzi (UN Economic Commission for Africa Coordinator), Lauren MacLean (Department of Political Science, Indiana University), and Boaventura Monjane, a journalist and activist from Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

The overarching tone of the event was one of careful optimism about the ways in which quality of life has risen with greater access to well-managed public utilities for average people, at least in some cases. At the same time, however, all speakers were concerned about the exploitative nature of transnational corporations involved in African countries and their lack of accountability to local populations in the extraction and processing of raw materials into power sources. Such is currently the case of Mozambique, and this issue was addressed in detail by one panelist, the Mozambican journalist and political activist Boaventura Monjane.

Monjane spoke on the event’s third day. In both his talk and its accompanying paper, he stated, “Despite its electricity generation potential, the greater part of [Mozambique] is entirely in darkness and access to electricity is among the lowest in the world. For instance, in rural areas about 1% of the population has access to electricity. Even in urban areas, access to and use of electricity is still very limited due to the high costs and erratic supply” (2015: 1). He also showed a photo of the injuries inflicted by local police on a participant at a recent protest against these discrepancies.

Members of the panel on  the topic "Is Power Africa Sustainable?" L to R: Dipti Bhatnagar, Baruti Amisi, James Murombedzi.

Members of the panel on the topic “Is Power Africa Sustainable?” (March 3rd). L to R: Dipti Bhatnagar, Baruti Amisi, James Murombedzi.

An article from the New York Times in November 2012 investigated these very issues. Specifically, the role of transnational energy corporations is exemplified in the case of the Brazilian coal mining firm Vale do Rio Doce, which is currently active in the Tete province of Mozambique. This company, however, was only one of several transnationals operating in Mozambique mentioned by Monjane in his presentation. Others mentioned were from both the Global North and South, including Chinese and Indian firms.

During the round table discussion Baruti Bahati Amisi (Dem. Republic of the Congo) concluded the conference itself on March 4th with the following words: “The well-being of the poor is not directly linked to technical issues. But it is directly affected if their interests are not kept in mind.”

To see the official program of the event, visit http://powerafrica.afrst.illinois.edu/.


Monjane, Boaventura. (2015). “Mozambique: An Energy-rich Country in the Dark.” Power Africa: Promises, Potentials, Pitfalls, and Possible Alternatives (Conference). 4 March 2015. UIUC Center for African Studies.

Polgreen, Lydia. (2012). “As Coal Boasts Mozambique, the Rural Poor Are Left Behind.” The New York Times. 10 November 2012. Online. Accessed: 19 March 2015.

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Reader’s Advisory: Mexico: The Land and its Conflicts

In the past couple of years, the violence in Mexico and around the U.S. border has increased. Since then, many books and articles have come out about the drug cartels, government corruption, and other issues. We all have work and other hobbies we like to do, and so sometimes we’re not up-to-date on the issues surrounding our neighboring country. The following is a reader’s advisory for books about the topic.

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers by Anabel Hernandez

This book was originally published in Spanish under the title Los Señores Del Narco. The history of the drug cartels goes back many years and Hernandez details how Mexico became the hub for the major cartels in Latin America. Then, Hernandez does something dangerous: she writes about the connection between the cartels and the politicians, judges, and police who collaborated with them.

Hernandez had to have body guards assigned to her for a time, but the Mexican government removed them as recently as last year. However, other governments, such as France’s, intervened, and Hernandez was able to keep her bodyguards.


When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narco-Culture in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands by Shaylih Muehlmann

The author, Shaylih Muehlmann, focuses on the indigenous people and workers living on the border of Mexico and the U.S. Due to poverty and other circumstances, these workers obtain jobs as drug “mules” and traffickers. Muehlmann spent a year researching a community near the border. It’s a sad reality that the people in the community are forced to choose between working with the drug cartels or a corrupted government.

The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America by Ted Carpenter

In 2006, the Mexican government initiated their military campaign against the cartels. Since 2006, about 50,000 people have died due to this conflict. While this has affected Mexico in profound ways, it has also spilled over to the United States. The United States has their own strategy for dealing with these issues, but is it working?


Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado

In 2007, the author, Alfredo Corchado, received a tip that he might be the next victim of the cartels. Any normal person would have probably left the country or gone into hiding, but Cochado decided to go to the countryside to investigate. Why was he being targeted? His parents had left Mexico and went to California to raise their family. Corchado returned to his native country in 1994, hoping that one day Mexico would overcome its corruption, its injustice towards its own indigenous people, and many other hopes. Being a journalist, Corchado was always aware that someone could hurt him. Join him on his journey.


In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico by Michael Deibert

Over the past 6 years, Michael Deibert has been conducting research and interviews in Mexico and its regions. There is a war that has been waged in Mexico, a war between two cartels that were once allies. This drama not only includes the cartel members, but also law enforcement, children, politicians, and migrants. The disappearance of people, mass graves, and violence brings up the question of the future of not only Mexico, but also the United States.