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If We Could Electrify Africa, We Would Eliminate Poverty in a Decade

2007 - Tom Setter, retired Orthopedic Surgeon, Rotarian (39 years) from Anthem, Arizona

I grew up in Minnesota. My grandfather had a farm near Devil’s Lake, and I’d go up there in the summertime.  I would have to chop wood for my grandma so she could cook three meals a day.  If the wind wasn’t blowin’, we’d have to pump water up by hand.  We milked the cows by hand, and we separated the milk by hand. We did everything that way. There was no indoor plumbing. My grandfather would sit and listen to the radio as long as the battery had a change. 

Then, in 1948, the Rural Electrification Association (REA) came through, and that changed everything.  We then had electric milkers for the cows, lights in the barn so we could stay out later and work at night; we had electric separators and refrigeration to keep the milk cold. In the house, we had electricity, a refrigerator, a stove, and indoor plumbing. Going to Africa, all this came back to me.

I went to East Africa in 1997, as an Orthopedic Surgeon.  One time, when I was in the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, they had just gotten a new CAT scanner.  They brought in a boy sitting with his chin on his chest; three of his vertebrae had been eaten away.  I wanted to take a tissue sample under CAT scan control to find out if it was a tumor or if an infection had eaten them away. I sat waiting from 8am until noon – the electricity had gone off a dozen times in the capital city. When we finally got the CAT scanner up and running, I took the specimen, turned around and the technician was gone.  So these are some of the difficulties of working in Africa.  As it turned out, we didn’t get a definitive diagnosis, but we treated him for TB and put him in a brace, and I think he is doing quite well.   

Another experience again brought home to me the critical need for electricity. I had a friend, another orthopedic surgeon, in Kampala, who worked out in the countryside. He lived there, and he would have to sterilize his equipment from 2 – 4 in the morning, because the electricity was off from 6 – 10pm every night in that district. The power plant was down at Jinga and that generates all the electricity for Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda - 220 MW - which isn’t very much, so they had to ration it around the grid.

I went down to Mwanza, in Tanzania and the same thing happened there at Bugando Medical Center.  The electricity would be off sometimes 3 days a week, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. During the week, the electricity frequently went off during the day or in the evening.  They had a generator, but they couldn’t use it, because they didn’t have any diesel fuel. It was hard - we’d have to take the operating table over to the window; hopefully, the sun would give us a little light so we could operate, or sometime, we would use a flashlight.  Those are real, everyday, practical problems with electricity. 

I remember reading this from the World Bank: “Energy access has become not only means to a better life but a key standard-of-living indicator and a necessary asset for full participation in society.”    According to the World Bank, electricity and energy access are crucial to reducing poverty and improving human development indices.  Even the World Health Organization says that improvement of energy access will, in turn, improve incomes, literacy, mortality and life expectancy rates, and overall health status, a crucial requirement for economic development.

Most of the people I talk to would like to have electricity. Africans would like to have it; the countries would like to have it.  I noticed in Jeffrey Sachs book, he lists electricity, but unfortunately, he puts it way down on the list of things you need.  I’d be interested in taking a village, giving them electricity, as much as they could use, and seeing what they could do with it, see how they would develop.  My prediction would be that, just like my grandfather did, once they got electricity, they’d work their way out of poverty themselves.  What I think would happen if everyone had electricity is that we would eliminate poverty within a decade. We would have a lot of happy people, happy children, and happy women.  I’ve seen them walk 15 – 20 km to get clean water and stand in line for 4 hours a day.  I’ve seen the Masaii villagers with no water.  I’ve been to places with no water.  It’s tough to live without water.

The GENI Initiative - the interconnection of electric power networks between regions and continents into a global energy grid, with an emphasis on tapping abundant renewable energy resources - makes sense to me; I can understand how this global grid would promote peace.  That’s Rotary’s big goal – I just spent two days at the Peace Symposium.  The Grid would promote peace.  I see this in East Africa.  Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have to get together because it’s their supply of electricity.  Each country would benefit from that. And they’re peaceful countries amongst themselves. And it would reach over to Ruanda and Burundi.  The key issue is that they need electricity.

I’ve seen tremendous progress in the various projects being done by wonderful people, and electricity is the key to getting all this development accomplished.  Nobody denies this. 

There are Rotarians who want to put in a bore hole or drill a well, put in a school, give books or adopt a village.  That’s all fine, well and good.  I think the bigger vision, like with Rotary’s Polio Plus, is to put up a program that we’re going to electrify the world. We’re going to encourage each country to do the best they can to develop it, to do the best they can to get along as a group and see if they can come to understand how the grid works and get it going across country lines. I know they already do this successfully in East Africa.

In Idaho, when I came back from Africa and presented this to Rotary, they all said the same thing: “the same thing happened here that happened on my grandfather’s farm; until we had the REA come through with electrification, we didn’t have the same living standards”.  So no one, none of the District Governors contests that; it’s just a matter of ‘how do you make it happen.’  I can’t say it often enough: We need to electrify the world.

tjsetter (at)


Updated: 2016/10/20

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