In May, Global technology group Voith announced the opening of its new East Africa Hub hydropower centre in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The company claims the hub is indicative of the contribution and commitment it is making to the broader hydropower sector across East Africa.

622.6 million Africans do not have access to electricity, with the distribution being extremely uneven between the many countries across the continent. The majority of power generation occurs in Northern and Southern Africa, so a commitment to the development of electricity generation plants in East Africa could have life changing implications for millions.

Still, changing the prospects of the African population isn’t as simple as building a few more power facilities – there are complex ecological and political considerations that need to be taken into account that could well affect the effectiveness of Voith’s hydro hub.

Providing local expertise in East Africa

“The range of services for our Voith Hydro East Africa Hub covers the consulting and supporting of large and small hydropower projects for nine countries in the east of the continent,” explains Voith Hydro East Africa managing director Mark Claessen. “We will provide local expertise for governmental organisations, developers, consultants and general contractors. In the medium-term, we are going to optimise our offering by incorporating local requirements like local supply chain, regional optimised supply of Voith Hydro products and technology transfer.”

Voith says the hydro hub will allow it to plan and coordinate projects across the region, with the company choosing the Addis Ababa site because of the phenomenal hydropower potential of the Ethiopian nation. For the last decade, Ethiopia has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a new African centre for innovation, industry and infrastructure. In recent years the country has been investing significantly in renewables, aiming to become East Africa’s energy powerhouse.

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Due to Ethiopia’s rich water resources, Voith has stated that the country has an exploitable hydropower potential of 45,000MW, of which around 6,000MW will come from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), currently nearing completion. And the existing Gilgel Gibe I and Gilgel Gibe II stations both utilise Voith technology. “Before Gilgel Gibe II was operational, only 15% of Ethiopian villages had electricity. Nowadays, half of all rural communities are connected to the grid,” says Voith.

As part of the company’s commitment to East African hydropower, Voith will be coordinating sustainable energy training courses to ‘pass on the company’s extensive expertise in hydropower to local experts’. While the bulk of these courses will be carried out in the Addis Ababa facilities, Claessen has described how the team eventually wants to diversify throughout the East Africa region: “In the medium term, we hope to integrate some of our training programmes with the local universities. Voith Hydro has already local training programmes with partner companies and the hub will help to intensify this cooperation.”

Potential political and ecological upset

Alongside the benefits of basing the hydro hub in Ethiopia, Voith needs to be aware of the potential upset its investment could stir up. While the company has said it will be supporting hydropower projects throughout the whole of East Africa, political tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, specifically related to hydropower, need to be factored in.

Much of Ethiopia’s planned development in the hydropower space relies on the damming of the Blue Nile, the source of the majority of the water reaching Egypt. Egypt has relied on the Nile for millennia, and to this day the river is integral to the country’s welfare. In 1929, a treaty was signed between Egypt and several Nile basin colonies, giving Egypt the right to veto any project it deemed threatening to its water supply, but Ethiopia’s Government still plans to go ahead with the construction of the GERD dam, alongside other developments. Ethiopia has stressed that it was not party to the 1929 treaty, and that the country was not consulted in the 1959 accord between Egypt and Sudan.

So, does Voith hold any responsibility in this area, considering its investment in Addis Ababa in the form of a hydropower hub? Claessen believes the answer is not so simple, saying, “companies like us cannot manage these relationships. Instead, it needs to be handled on governmental level through open discussions and existing frameworks.

“In general, we do, however, have a role to play in providing technical support to identify impacts and find mitigations for concerns.”

Referring to recent political news, including a meeting of the two country’s leaders, where Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed swore not to ‘harm’ Egypt’s share of the Nile, Claessen said: “Recent political developments in Egypt and Ethiopia have intensified the efforts to ensure all parties benefit from the hydropower developments and we are confident that this will continue.”

While Claessen’s response is unsurprising, the impact large multinationals such as Voith could have on the broader political climate, especially on a continent where 90% of the people still do not have access to electricity, can’t be ignored. Asked whether Voith will take into account the concerns raised over the damming of the Nile and the effect this will have on Northern Africa, Claessen replied: “The first responsibility for sustainable development is with governments and the people in the various countries. Voith is committed to a sustainable development, and will do its part.

“There is damming in the Nile currently already, so the question is how to continue using the great resources of the Nile for the benefit of the people living in the area. Clean, reliable power is critical for the development of these countries and is an important factor for helping the countries to develop further, and thereby reduce poverty.”

The danger of reliance

It is also important to note that a reliance on hydropower in a region where power generation facilities themselves are still rare could open countries up potential devastation, should ecological factors such as prolonged drought and rising temperatures align.

Declan Conway, professional research fellow at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, says that “82% of the new hydropower capacity in Eastern Africa is planned for the Nile basin, and 89% of Southern Africa’s for the Zambezi basin.

“Within each basin these plants would be vulnerable to the same climatic variations as their locations as river basins share similar patterns of rainfall…This exposure could lead to impacts on the generation performance of multiple plants at the same time, with concurrent and potentially significant knock-on effects through domestic and regional power systems.”

While Voith as an investor in hydropower systems can hardly control the weather and its effect on the region, it is vitally important that the company takes into account the impact of such events, and the reliance East African countries may have on the power generated by hydropower facilities in the area when the company offers its support.