Electricity comes to an impoverished Mozambican island

By Anya Schiffrin
July 26, 2012

Antiquated electricity generator on island of Ibo, Mozambique

On a recent visit to the remote Ibo Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique, we were struck by the island’s stunning views and the soft white-sand beaches, the mangrove swamps and the wooden dhows that have plied in the Indian Ocean for decades. Beautiful though it is, the island is poor, and few people live there. The island has been abandoned many times throughout history, and cries out for more development and for businesses to come and turn the crumbling colonial-era buildings into boutique hotels, cafés and craft shops. Some are optimistic that recently discovered energy reserves will boost the island’s fortunes, but our timing was perfect to witness a smaller revolution: the arrival this spring of electricity.

We dropped by the spanking new Pasteleria Bela Horizonte on the main street to buy the fritters known locally as mandaze and find out how the arrival of electricity had affected the bakery’s business. Owner Assina Nmnuarkha surveyed the tidy seating area of plastic chairs and tables in her café with pride. She pointed to the refrigerator in the corner filled with soft drinks and then, pointing behind the counter, she broke into a wide smile: “Now we can watch television!”

“When the government came to make the announcement, we assumed it was the usual lies and promises,” said shopkeeper Abdel Ismail Musa, speaking in Portuguese through a translator. “But they put it in quickly, and we were so happy.” Leaning on the counter of his little shop, which stocks an array of speakers as well as skin creams, machine-washable diapers and hair ties, Musa said he had recently sold a large television set.

There is still the decrepit-looking generator that has sat in the main street of Ibo’s colonial, or “cement,” town for decades. According to the town elder and de facto local historian, João Baptista, the administrator governing the island had been given enough money from the government to buy a new one but instead kept half of it and bought a generator “from the colonial times” from another Cabo Delgado district. “It worked well only for three days, and then it malfunctioned,” he said.

Baptista, clad in sunglasses and a navy blue pajama top from British Airways’ first class (possibly donated by a passing visitor), sat on his porch one afternoon and told us a bit about the history of the island. He joked that in the Portuguese language, IBO stands for “Well Organized Island”. It was a port for the slave trade, and other trading, along the Indian Ocean coast and then run by the Nyassa Company during the days of colonialism.

Because the generator barely worked, the town’s administrator only turned it on for special occasions. Mozambican novelist João Paulo Borges Coelho, whose grandparents lived on Ibo, remembers that the generator was only turned on once a year for the Dia de São João, the patron saint of the island. Others remember the clunky old machine was turned on to light some houses and the town’s unpaved streets during Ibo Island Day on June 24 and Mozambique’s independence day on June 25.

Lack of electricity is a theme in New Yorker writer William Finnegan’s classic work about the Mozambique war between Frelimo and Renamo that was supported by South Africa and lasted from about 1975 to 1994. In one of the more memorable passages about his visit to the town of Beira (about halfway down the long coast of Mozambique) Finnegan wrote:

The Hotel Dom Carlos had its own generator, but that failed sometimes too. In the elevator, the thick glass panels on the doors had been smashed by desperate passengers trapped by power failures. When I mentioned this eerie sight to a Beiran, he said I was crazy to get in an elevator anywhere in the city. Even aging asthmatics who worked on the tenth floor in one of the downtown high rises that still had a working elevator used the stairs.

Since Ibo was not on the grid, some businesses bought generators, and some people had battery-powered radios and used solar power to charge their cellphones. The few that had televisions might charge neighbors a few pennies to watch sports, and the local disco was also known for letting local children and some others (mostly men) watch Kung Fu movies free of charge in the afternoon.

Apart from the opportunities afforded to a few local entrepreneurs with television, not having electricity was a sorry state of affairs. The administrator who was in charge of electricity reportedly had her own generator and a thriving sideline selling fresh fish, as she was the one person on the island who could keep it cool and transport it to the mainland. The local fishermen couldn’t afford to get to the mainland, so they had to sell her their fish to reach the larger markets outside of Ibo.

Given Ibo’s history it’s not surprising that it would be among the late entrants to the modern world. Ibo had been part of the Swahili-speaking coasts that included East Africa and, though much less developed than Zanzibar or the Kenyan island of Lamu, the port of Ibo was a center of slave trade. When the Portuguese expanded their hold in the late 19th century, the Portuguese government was too poor to fund its own colonial ventures, so it outsourced its exploitation to the Companhia de Moçambique and some small regional companies.

The public-private model of imperialism is not dissimilar to the British model that originally gave the East India company the right to dominate India. The Companhia de Moçambique essentially enslaved the locals, forcing them to sign spurious contracts and work in the local mines and plantations. The Portuguese were terrible farmers who failed to clear the land properly and did nothing to help Mozambique improve agricultural productivity or introduce modern farming techniques. Although neglected, Ibo was, luckily, too far out to be caught up in the war that ravaged Mozambique for decades.

With this colonial legacy and years of civil war followed by a socialist planned economy, it’s not surprising that today Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. But the country is optimistic about the discovery of new natural gas and coal reserves.

As always, the question is whether the new riches will be shared with the people or stolen by the few. It’s not clear what jobs the new gas development will create for the locals of Ibo. The island has had development projects over the years, including support for schools, restoration of colonial-era buildings, help for traditional silver craftsmen and some scholarships. Some Portuguese have bought and restored a few houses on the island. But the most visible impact comes from the few hotels that create jobs for the locals – island men who work as waiters and also as guides for the many cultural and historical walking tours around the island, the dhow trips and an unforgettable hike we did at low tide through the mangrove swamps to eat fresh fish on a neighboring island. These efforts are not enough, but the arrival of electricity is a start.

The effects this spring were immediate. More bars and restaurants began to open. With the fish monopoly broken, traders could keep their catch cool and sell it for higher prices. Shops now stock ice lollies for the children, and the dilapidated schools have three shifts a day and stay open till 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Routines are also slowly changing. Ibo islanders used to get up at 4 a.m. and go to bed early. Now they stay up later, socializing and watching television. Another benefit is more dancing, explained our tour guide Cosmo: “Disco means a lot to the people of Mozambique.”

We flew to Ibo from Pemba, which is already starting to feel a bit like a frontier boomtown as oil workers and engineers mingle with the usual NGO types and honeymooners at the hotels and restaurants (“It’s like a Graham Greene novel,” my London-based nephew said). At the airport, the Italian oil and gas company ENI has its own check-in counter, which was in full use the day we were there.

The extractive sector is notoriously bad at creating jobs, but at least the foreign oil workers are spending money and locally by staying in hotels in Pemba and eating at restaurants there. What the environmental impact of the increased gas production will be is not clear.

Getting solid information about the impact of the energy boom is not easy. Meeting with journalists in Maputo we talked about the role of the media in keeping government and business honest. Many of the journalists in Mozambique face the usual problems: lack of understanding of technical subjects such as tax regimes and production-sharing agreements; little funding, which means they cannot afford to visit the areas affected by the gas and coal extraction; and pressure from government, advertisers and owners not to report on sensitive subjects.

The press and the NGO community, including the Maputo-based Center for Public Integrity, will have to keep up the pressure to make sure the government gets a good deal from foreign companies and that the resulting wealth is used wisely and shared fairly. For its own sake, Mozambique needs to get it right and avoid the example of neighboring Angola. For a start, jobs, new roads and better schools and hospitals would help the people of Ibo Island.

PHOTO: Anya Schiffrin

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