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Lessons for SA from the ‘Land of the Pharaohs’

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Picture: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE A view of the construction site for the electric train, in Cairo, Egypt. The train will pass through multiple cities on a 90km journey until it reaches the New Administrative Capital east of Cairo. The initial phase of the rail system began operating in July last year. A four-year miracle transition, from having an energy deficiency to an energy surplus, Egypt is a seemingly endless construction site, says the writer.

By Ntsiki Mashimbye

During his 2023 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa described South Africa’s energy crisis as an “existential threat to our economy and social fabric”, and promptly went on to declare a national state of disaster to respond to this debilitating situation.

To the surprise of many, he also announced the appointment of a Minister of Electricity in the Presidency. The term “existential threat” is generally understood to mean that which threatens one’s very existence, survival, or future, and has been commonly used in the context of climate change and nuclear warfare.

More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin cast the Ukraine War, which he regards as an inevitable consequence of the eastwards expansion of Nato, as an “existential threat” to the Russian state and the Russian people. The use of apocalyptic language by President Ramaphosa was nothing short of a remarkable and candid political statement, especially when understood in the context of the president’s acknowledgement in the same speech, that the seeds of the crisis “were planted many years ago”.

Of course, the president may well have been using hyperbole to emphasise the seriousness of the situation and to highlight the extraordinary measures and actions that would be required in the circumstances.

South Africa’s first-ever Minister of Electricity, Dr Kgosientso Ramokgopa, has expressed an interest in exploring solutions and options outside of our borders. I am therefore compelled to share a fascinating and beautiful story of how the Arab Republic of Egypt, a country that was in a situation surprisingly like ours, quickly overcame its energy deficiency and went on to become a net exporter of electricity, in a mere four years.

I should also declare that Egypt is one of the few other countries in the world with a ministry dedicated to electricity. Its Ministry of Electricity and Energy was established in 1964 and later changed its name to the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy. A four-year miracle transition – from an energy deficiency to an energy surplus Egypt is a seemingly endless construction site.

All airports, ports, and transportation networks are being upgraded, new smart cities are being built, and a high-speed train to support industrial expansion and ease the movement of people and goods is being constructed.

The jewel in the crown is a brand new sparkling mini city, the New Administrative Capital, which will house all government ministries and entities, as well as foreign diplomatic missions. All the above would of course be a pipe dream without stable and secure sources of energy.

So how did Egypt get there?

Ten years ago in 2013, Egypt, with a population of 85 million at the time, suffered from a critical power deficiency; the country’s overall power installed capacity was around 30GW, with a power deficiency of about 6GW. The government introduced and applied load shedding that went on for hours (sounds familiar?). Egypt had just come out of what became known as the Arab Spring, a black swan event that saw many Arab leaders, including the late Hosni Mubarak, deposed.

Following his election in 2014, President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi made resolving the energy crisis a priority and shortly thereafter he announced an emergency energy plan which consisted of four power plants that could provide a combined capacity of over 3GW, in addition to other smaller units located in five sites around Egypt. A combination of the technical skills and expertise of reputable global companies, like Siemens and General Electric, with the local know-how and experience of Egyptian companies, such as Orascom Construction and El Sewedy Electric, was critical to achieving unprecedented results in record time.

In one year, all four initial power plants were connected to the national grid (two were connected in just seven months), meeting immediate consumption, and adding a total of 3.6GW. Egypt also signed a mega deal with Siemens in 2015, for 3×4.8GW conventional power plants to be built over three years; the largest single order in the German firm’s 169-year history, and some of the biggest power plants ever built and operated to date.

The projects all included extensive training for Egyptian engineers and technicians throughout the cycle of the project. An all-government approach, supported by innovative funding models and enabling exceptional legislation, akin to our National Disaster Act, allowed the government to fast-track decision-making in appointing contractors and expediting supply chain processes. Parallel to this was the upgrading and expansion of the country’s physical energy infrastructure.

Regulation of energy consumption through replacing old electricity metres with smart pre-paid ones, waste-to-energy programmes and the roll-out of competitive electric vehicles, are all part of a complex, long-term, and integrated approach to securing Egypt’s energy future.

Picture: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE – A motorist charges his electric car at a charging station operated by Revolta in New Cairo, Egypt. The government tries to encourage imports of electric cars by cutting taxes on vehicles coming from Europe and Turkey.

These projects are aligned with the country’s industrialisation efforts, including minimum requirements for local content for renewable energy projects. Today, Egypt has a surplus of about 13GW. The Egyptian grid is currently connected to Sudan, Jordan, Libya and Palestine, and plans to establish interconnectors with Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Greece and Iran being studied. Italy has also expressed an interest in developing an interconnection project with Egypt, to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

Egypt is home to one of the oldest civilisations on earth and is credited with many scientific, religious, technological, and cultural inventions. Its entrenched innovative capacity is reflected once again in what is nothing short of an extraordinary four-year energy revolution.

This is a true African success story. What the Egyptians have achieved in just four years, is no miracle, but simply a stark reminder of what is possible with political will. When bold, decisive and novel decisions are taken, when all hands are (truly) on deck, and when all government departments and institutions are working with a common purpose and intent, any beast can be conquered.

Egypt’s story does not end there, in fact, this sector continues to evolve to achieve a more environmentally sustainable and diverse energy mix under the country’s 2035 Integrated Sustainable Energy Strategy.

Quo Vadis?

Our most immediate priority is to restore South Africa’s energy security and stop the rolling blackouts which are now in their 16th year. Our task is not to replicate any of the methods of other countries, but rather to find a solution – or a combination of solutions– that best meets South Africa’s unique demands, and which makes use of our natural resources, and is ultimately driven by our national interests. Egypt may have an answer, let’s at least hear them out.

After all, is this not what the African Renaissance is truly about?

Ntsiki Mashimbye – Ambassador of South Africa to Egypt. He writes in his personal capacity