The Multi-billion naira business of Generator Importation: Here to stay?

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The business of the importation of generators and diesel into the country must be one of the biggest and most profitable businesses in Nigeria. The nation must be one of the largest importers and markets of generators worldwide. From my last survey many years ago, I found that there over 50 million generators in the country; a statistic that must have risen since then. Despite its popular usage, we do not manufacture this machinery. The same goes for the importation of diesel. Billions of litres of diesel paid for in foreign exchange find its way into the country every year because we also do not refine diesel in any of our refineries.

During my years as the chairman of Costain West Africa, I probably approved the purchase of over 25 generators for different locations over a 20 year period. We had a constant supplier, a Lebanese company whose owner eventually became a good friend. A common occurrence in the business I was in. I recall that one day; he reached out to me with the intention to reward me by making me his business partner since he was aware that I had a few years to retirement. It was soon after Bola Ige, the then Minister of Power under the presidency of Gen Olusegun Obasanjo made the pronouncement that power black-out was going to be a thing of the past. I happen to have known Bola Ige a bit and he was a no-nonsense man and so I was convinced that he was going to carry out the mandate to the letter. He promised the country and I believed he would deliver on his promise. Due to this and another reason I would follow up with, I thanked my Lebanese friend for the invitation but told him that the business of generator importation was going to stop or slow down because the nation was heading towards power sufficiency for everybody. I also added that once I retired fully, I intended to dedicate whatever was left of my life to environmental sustainability and advocacy, as such I did not want to be involved in the selling/buying of generators and diesel because of the harm they do to the environment.

My Lebanese friend laughed for some time before thanking me for my honesty response even if it was a naïve one. Today, I can see why he laughed. You see, within five years after our conversation, he became a multi-billionaire and now going around the world with his private jets still in the business of supplying power. Thinking back to then and now, I have many questions: What happened to the pronouncement that was made by Bola Ige? Did the pronouncement die with him or did he die in part because of the pronouncement? Which country in this whole world would allow this number of generators continue to operate at a time when the global communities are working towards clean and renewable energy, climate change issues?

It is possible that there is something importers of generators know that we the ordinary people do not know. Afterall, I can imagine what it will mean for their business if the country actually has a constant power supply. When Nigeria transited from analog telecommunication to Global system for mobile communication (GSM), we did not experience this kind of gridlock because within a few years, almost everyone in the country, no matter how poor, could afford to own telephones. What I find very strange is that we don’t seem to find the situation of ubiquitous generator sets as strange as it is. We have come to accept the status quo of the average man generating his own power from these devices; a situation that cannot transform Nigeria to the promise land because without stable power supply to the whole country, we cannot have true industrialization; alleviate poverty and address unemployment. We will only keep damaging our health and the environment with polluted air.

As a student way back 50 years ago, what we knew of generators was that they were made as standby power in the event of an outage especially in hospitals or places of essential services that must have power two-four-seven. They weren’t manufactured to replace the electricity supplied by the grid or to be the main power source.

That is the reason the generators that are imported into Nigeria don’t last. In most companies, houses and institutions, you will find three or four generators. The last time I visited a legal firm to see a friend of mine; I discovered that they had four generators. Four! To emphasize our level of complacency with the situation, we have reached a stage where the various planning authorities in many states will not approve your building plan without a proper provision in the design for a generator or generators aka a generator house. For me, this is madness.

Taking an excerpt from an early article I wrote in this column entitled ‘Generators: Killing Us and the environment,’ I described night time in Lagos as a deafening affair where each home competes in a game of whose generator roars the loudest. There is also the issue of colouring the sky grey/black with exhaust fumes depending on the state of the generator. It’s not just Lagos that is affected by the inconvenience caused by generators; the same happens in all the major cities across the country.  Silence and fresh air in urban areas across the country are luxuries many of us have come to learn to do without, albeit grudgingly.

United Nations Statistics Division indicates that Nigeria is the second-largest market for generator driven economy in Africa with manufacturers of generators, the ilk of General Electric; Cummins; Siemens; and other major power firms, bringing into the country different brands of generators worth $51.055 million as at 2014/2015. This figure is projected to hit $450 million by 2020. This is the year 2019 and the figures apparently will keep climbing. Just as the fumes from these generator sets will keep polluting our air with harmful green-house gases that result in effects that the country is ill-equipped to handle. Last year, we experienced the effects of climate change in the shape of flooding in states like Lagos, Anambra and Niger. Who do we speak to? The government? They are the very people who have decided to pretend that the generator sets do not exist while the business enriches the coffers of an elite group’s pocket.

World health organization statistics also show that air pollution has risen in the past few years, primarily as a result of the emission of carbon from fossil fuels. Generator sets emit carbon, dangerously rising into the atmosphere and not only breaking the earth’s covering from the sun but also a large contributor in the causes of lung diseases, cancer, asthmatic triggers and other diseases we cannot begin to state.

Definitely, some individuals are bothered about climate change and the adverse effects the use of generator sets have on the environment and the draining effect it has on the economy of helpless individuals. People have begun to buy solar panels and inverters for their businesses and private use but these are so expensive that the common man cannot always afford it. Permit me to say that the common man makes up 99 % of the country’s population. Tell Uche, Tunde or Ahmed that lives on less than a dollar a day to get a solar panel. Yes, even some people in cars cannot afford solar panels. So, there will continue to be a ‘mass dependency’ on the very thing that kills our air, destroys our lungs, drains our pockets and sanity.

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