NILE BASIN INITIATIVE INTERVIEW: “My personal ambition for NELSAP is that we help to light Africa up – from one to a million connections, one connection at a time.”

Grania Rubomboras, Nile Basin Initiative, African Utility WeekCongratulations! You were shortlisted as a finalist in both the Power/Water Woman of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement categories of the African Utility Week Industry Awards for 2016 and 2017.

Let’s start with some background on the Nile Basin Initiative and your role there – in particular, your work at Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program, as head of the power department.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a partnership among the Nile riparian states that seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner; to share its substantial socio-economic benefits and to promote regional peace and security in the Nile Basin area. The NBI began as a dialogue between the riparian states that resulted in a shared vision of achieving sustainable socio-economic development through the benefit and equitable utilisation of the common water resources.

The investment arm of the NBI, Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP), is divided into two broad areas: natural resources management and development with the aim of reversing environmental degradation; as well as power development and trade, where our mission is to help promote economic growth and reduce poverty.

I work with NBI as a program officer for the power projects where I am Head of the Power Development and Trade Department at the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP).

The power department at NELSAP has been responsible for a number of project activities, namely:
•    A feasibility study on the Kenya-Tanzania interconnection, which is now under physical implementation by the countries;
•    Coordinating the implementation of electricity grid interconnections for the countries that are part of the Nile Equatorial Lakes region (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda), as well as a feasibility study thereof;
•    A feasibility study and the development of the Rusumo Hydroelectric Power Plant;
•    A feasibility study on the interconnection between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; 
•    The study of integrating South Sudan into regional interconnection for which we are mobilising funds for the Uganda-South Sudan electricity interconnection; as well as
•    Assessing the feasibility of a proposed interconnection of the Tanzanian grid (recently completed in December 2017) to that of Zambia.

What are the main challenges for the industry right now?
Sub-Saharan Africa is burdened with a complex and persistent electricity gap that is difficult to bridge in the medium- to long-term due to population growth.

What is being done to address the issue?
Cognisance has been made of the current low access levels coupled with the increasing population growth, and development agendas have been formulated to curb the effect. These agendas, namely the UN Agenda 2030; African Union/PIDA 2063 and African Development Bank High 5, have specific targets that need to be realised.

The solution is to ensure that these agendas build national and regional capacity to prepare bankable projects and then to implement them. We need to pursue an approach that fosters cooperation between the four Power Pools through increased regional operationalisation. The regional interconnections will then generate economies of scale in utilising shared resources, which will stimulate electricity market development and trade. 

At the centre of the development agendas for mitigation against the effects of climate change, should be the region’s vulnerability in this regard due to our heavy reliance on hydropower resources. We need to determine how to best deal with droughts and reduced agricultural yields, which puts the water-energy-food nexus at the forefront of discussions.

What is generation planning looking like? Who is making the planning decisions?  How are decisions made?
For the East Africa region, master planning is expected to be done by the Eastern Africa Power Pool. Internally, each country has a lot to do in expanding its electricity network and sub-regional planning is done as well. There is a strong link between the Eastern Africa Power Pool and the Southern African Power Pool rising out of the Zambia-Tanzania-Kenya interconnection (commonly known as the ZTK).

How is the generation market different from last year?
The generation market has not really changed much from last year as most projects are still under implementation such as the Grand Reconnaissance Dam (Ethiopia), the Karuma and Isimba hydropower plants (Uganda), as well as various gas plants in Kenya and geothermal plants in Tanzania. Once the hydro power projects and transmission lines become operational, there will be a huge shift in the market and energy trading.

Where do you see the market going in the near future?
In Africa, there is a lot to do, especially in the power sector. With increased preparation of bankable projects that attract funding, the sector will grow. In turn, the power exchanges will grow from bilateral and cross-border trade to increased regional trading and power pooling.  However, this market development needs to be nurtured hence the importance of operationalising all the power pools.

Electricity tariffs have always been high in Uganda. Are these costs becoming more affordable as Uganda becomes more connected?
Uganda has now implemented two hydropower plants so the costs will decrease this year, with a further drop once the interconnector has been completed.

What are the social aspects of grid interconnection?
Regional projects serve a bigger population. Benefits can be found in cross-border exchange and commercial trade in energy. The regional approach creates a platform for peace building between countries. It brings about better planning when between two or three countries. Some projects have been on the table for years and because of the regional approach, are now entering into implementation (the Rusumo Hydropower project, for example).

Altogether, grid connection is good for the region. Grid interconnection and the creation of the electricity market will facilitate the evacuation of power from various generation sources for national as well as export purposes.

What is the one thing standing in the way of reaching renewable energy potential in southern Africa?
Achieving universal energy access by 2030 requires concerted action by all partners to close identified funding gaps and enable an energy transition. There is unilateral acknowledgement of the importance of renewable energy and decentralised energy access in improving energy access. National governments in the region, however, are still focused on grid extension.

To meet the funding gap more needs to be done to encourage the private sector to provide sustainable solutions to meet demand. Both solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CPS) are being implemented but other renewable energy options should be pursued. Areas with extensive coastlines and high wave energy potential, such as South Africa, should explore the feasibility of wave power.

Who are your key clients?
We work with countries and for countries (coordinating and implementing projects). Our geographic reach covers all countries in the Nile Basin – and beyond, in cases where the development in the country has an impact on the NBI. We focus mainly on regional projects. In some cases, we consider national projects that may impact on the regional ones, such as the Iringa-Mbeya transmission line that was identified as a weak link in the Zambia-Tanzania-Kenya interconnection.

What is your personal ambition for NELSAP?
That through the interconnection and generation projects coordinated or implemented by NELSAP, we help to light Africa up – from one to a million connections, one connection at a time.

More about Grania Rosette Rubomboras:
She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering, a Master’s Degree in Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Science Degree in Project Management (MSPM). She has 25 years of experience in the energy sector at Uganda Electricity Board and Rural Electrification Agency, where she held various positions before rising to the rank of Managing Director at Uganda Electricity Board.

African Utility Week 2018: Ms Rubomboras will present a case study on the status of the Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya (ZTK) power interconnector in the Transmission and Distribution track of the conference.