If completed, the Grand Inga Dam on the River Congo will be the largest hydroelectric power-generating facility in the world, and a leading US company looks set to take a critical role in a project that could bring electricity to millions of people across Central Africa.
“Inga II is part of the planned Grand Inga hydropower scheme, which, at 40 GW [gigawatts], would be the world’s largest and would be almost twice the size of Three Gorges in China. GE is helping to power the DRC now with Inga II and possibly much of Africa with Grand Inga,” reads a statement on the website of GE Renewable Energy, a division of General Electric.
On a continent where nations are starved for electricity to power their emerging economies, the Grand Inga will play a vital role. The construction of the multiple dams and transmission infrastructure needed for Grand Inga is estimated to cost about US$80 billion. Last month, GE South Africa Pty. Ltd. and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) signed a memorandum of understanding on the project relating to some US$1.8 billion worth of projects. The arrangement between GE and the DRC includes US$1 billion for upgrading Inga I and II dams, and US$800 million for health infrastructure projects.
Raila Odinga, who is the African Union’s special envoy for infrastructure development in Africa and a former prime minister of Kenya, will attend a meeting in Kinshasa on April 28, 2020, that will include representatives from neighboring countries’ governments.
"The Grand Inga Dam alone could provide 40,000 megawatts, and the entire Congo River has the potential to generate 100,000 megawatts"
Estimates suggest that all of sub-Saharan Africa has an installed capacity of less than 140,000 megawatts. The Grand Inga Dam alone could provide 40,000 megawatts, and the entire Congo River has the potential to generate 100,000 megawatts using existing technology. At present, the GE deal is focused on increasing by 650 megawatts the electrical capacity of the two existing Inga dams, with an eye to playing a role in the Grand Inga project as it develops.
This isn’t the first time plans have been announced to build a massive hydroelectric project on what is, measured in volume of water, the world’s second-largest river. The potential of Inga Falls on the Congo River to provide hydroelectricity to Africa was envisioned by early colonial explorers and dreamed of by the Congo’s leaders after independence from Belgium in 1960, but has never been realized.
The retrofitting project, in which GE is set to play a critical role, will also include the two existing dams, Inga I and Inga II, which are in disrepair. The two dams, which have a combined capacity of 1,778 megawatts, were built during the era of former president Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1972 and 1982, respectively.
Old and New Players in Africa
"Political and security risks in the DRC may have kept many companies and investors away from the country, but China saw an opportunity."
General Electric’s contribution to improving energy production in the DRC is significant, given the limited engagement of US companies in addressing Africa’s huge infrastructure deficit. In recent years, while US companies have stepped back from such projects, China has moved assertively into Africa to help build dams in the Nile Basin countries Uganda and Sudan, and most recently the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a source of geopolitical tension between Egypt and Ethiopia.
The DRC has experienced some terrible times in its recent history, most notably serving as theater for what has been referred to as “Africa’s World War”, which plunged nine African countries and multiple rebel groups in years-long fighting in the DRC. That war ended only in 2013, with the defeat of the rebel group the March 23 Movement. Political and security risks in the DRC may have kept many companies and investors away from the country, but China saw an opportunity. In 2007, China gained extensive mining rights in the DRC in exchange for agreeing to build much-needed infrastructure for the war-ravaged country. It was called the “contract of the century”. Yet, things have not always worked out for the DRC in some of its deals with China. A review of the project last year suggested that deal produced little tangible benefit. Elsewhere, Chinese investments in the DRC have been more beneficial.
The Trump administration has centered its Africa policy on countering Chinese and Russian influence. Conversely, most African governments have welcomed investments from all comers, and would be happy to see the world’s leading economies work together in expanding the continent's infrastructural network.