Africa needs to promote its academic work internationally: Abel Didier Tella
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Video discussion with Sergey Brilev and Abel Didier Tella, General Director of the Association of Power Utilities of Africa

Sergey Brilev: Hello to all subscribers of the Global Energy Association. Welcome to a new series of chats with people who have just joined our Board of Trustees. I am very glad to say we have internationalised our board of trustees. We have representatives not just from Europe and Latin America but also from Africa. We are joined today by Abel Didier Tella, General Director of the Association of Power Utilities of Africa

Abel Didier Tella: Good morning, how are you Sergey?

Sergey Brilev: I should say warm greetings from Moscow. But it’s -21 in Moscow, So it’s relatively warm, but we’ll be talking about global warming inevitably. Before we start talking, I should explain to our viewers that we met in South Africa. And since we met, I thought it was of paramount importance that you join our trustees. But tell us more about yourself. I’m sure other members are also watching.

Abel Didier Tella: Like you said I am General Director of the Association of Power Utilities of Africa. By training, I am an electrical engineer, I finished my basic training at the Moscow Energy Institute and after that I have a Masters of engineering and another Masters in renewable energy and another Masters in energy business administration. I continued with a Masters in Ultra high voltage installations in France and later on I went to a specialised Master course in 1985 That was fairly early for people to understand. And we created after that the first regional solar energy centre in Bamako in 1986. I graduated in 1983, I left Moscow in 1983 after seven years of life in Moscow and I finished around about 10 years of post-graduate courses.

Sergey Brilev: That’s a very impressive CV but you haven’t started with the essentials. What’s your native country? 

Abel Didier Tella: My country is Benin. I am from Benin. Western Africa. 

Sergey Brilev: And the Association is based in Ivory Coast, Côte d’Ivoire.

Abel Didier Tella: Yes, I worked for 25 years for the Electricity Corporation of Benin, The national electricity utility. After 25 years in Benin, I joined the Association of power Utilities of Africa in 2008.

Sergey Brilev: Yes, and we met in South Africa, in Cape Town.

Abel Didier Tella: I have been head of the Association of Power Utilities for eight years.

Sergey Brilev: Now that you have explained about yourself, let me explain my logic, why I wanted you to be on our Board of Trustees. My logic is rather sad. The Association is proud of all the (Global Energy Prize) winners from the United States, from China these days. But we sadly lack nominations and winners from the developing world. Although quite often the fate of the world is being decided in the developing world, and I say this wholeheartedly as I am someone who was born and grew up in the developing world. Despite my Russian name I grew up in Latin America, in Cuba, Uruguay and Ecuador.

     So I think this must be resolved. But there is a major obstacle. I joined the association a year ago and I have been looking at how it works and there is a major obstacle. When people from the developing world are nominated we have a very transparent, a very good – again I wholeheartedly support this – system of three independent experts who look at the nominations. And the first thing these independent experts look up are Hirsch index publications in the academic journals all over the world. This is (commonplace) for most people from Europe and the United States, but not necessarily so readily available for good specialists in developing countries. Do you face this problem in Africa?

Abel Didier Tella: Yes, many African experts are working in international scientific and industrial associations and at a high academic level. There are some publications made in partnership with Western partners. And they can publish in relevant scientific platforms to be known. Sometimes they are published only in Africa and universities have no partnership with a global well-positioned institution.

Sergey Brilev: Like Scopus or Web of Science for that matter.

Abel Didier Tella: But some work has been done in Africa. We published two years ago in 2019 “The extraction of Energy Resources in Africa”. A huge work covering all 55 countries in Africa. All energy resources. And this was done with the United States Environment Commission and the African Development Bank. And I worked on this with the  University of Washington. We published it in French and English and it has more than 300 pages. It is available on the African Development Bank  energy portal.

   But maybe this is not known, but some work has been done. Ana at my level I participate  in various studies. Now we are working on a African single electricity market. We’re working with a European Union technical team to frame this single electricity market in Africa.

Sergey Brilev: Thank you for your answer. And it also contains a piece of advice. Because we have also been thinking of uniting, combining our efforts with universities in places like Latin America, like Africa, like remote Asia with the corporations of developments and by producing such reports we could firstly encourage scientists to write more and make them instantly recognisable for our independent experts. That’s the way forward. I think our tactical team will be getting in touch with you to learn more about it. 

Now that we have discussed the basics, let us encourage African researchers to get nominated for the prize. I must explain for those watching us that self-nomination is not allowed. They must be appreciated by someone else. But I believe this is totally achievable. If you are a good expert researcher you are always appreciated by your colleagues.

My question is what example of work of scientific breakthroughs in Africa can you mention now that we are talking about nominations. Who could be nominated? Maybe not who. That would not be objective. But what?

Abel Didier Tella: The work being done now on the promotion and footprint of renewable energy in Africa is noticeable, because the Africans say: “Ok, we have a very huge energy potential but despite this, we do not have good access to energy everywhere. So much work being done now to have a least cost development of energy in many countries. Technologically, a good job is being done to have least cost equipment. This is being done with industry partners and a university partners. So those issuing (reports) are relevant.  Some are not inventions, but readaptations of existing technologies to fit the continent. I think this could be a good point.

We are talking about electrical vehicles. Did you know that recently in Uganda, a new technical team had the first electrical vehicle working already. In Morocco, we have a very good renewable energy laboratory experimenting with new forms of housing to be more efficient in energy, very cheap in construction. We have to look into research and development to capture what we can.

Sergey Brilev: This is conceivable. I should have explained to people who don’t know a lot about our prize. The prize has three nominations – conventional energy, non-conventional energy and new applications of energy. And that is precisely what you are talking about. That would fit in. There are quite a lot people, particularly in the developing world, everywhere complaining that scientists do not get all the money they deserve. The funds from the prize stand at 39 million Russian roubles – roughly USD 550,000. It’s a lot of money, so it’s worth getting nominated. Thanks to that money people can continue their research. So I hope we will see new nominations from Africa. Please, please, please. I ask you as a new board member of our board of trustees. Spread the news and encourage people to nominate their colleagues in the current cycle, which started on 1st December, they have at least three months more to present their work. I am looking very much forward to seeing more and more African nominations. It doesn’t mean, of course, that they will automatically win. We had a very impressive short list last year. To give you an example, one of our winners was someone who had received a Nobel prize. So it’s a high-level thing. 

    Especially as far as the new applications are concerned, I think we have a very good horizon there. And I am looking very much forward to getting more African nominations and, maybe, African winners.

    Now that we have discussed that –  I don’t want our first conversation to be too long here. I just want people here to appreciate our new connection. But I will ask you an additional question. It’s being discussed all the time here. Especially here in Europe. The EU countries – we certainly envy them because they say ‘we want to have clean energy’. Typically, they speak about it because of the CO2 emissions – and ‘god bless’. Yet what they overlook is the fact that electricity produced by new, green technologies is typically more expensive than electricity produced by gas and coal and oil. So even in Europe it is hard to come to an average taxpayer and consumer and say that in order to save the planet you are going to have to pay double or triple your electricity bill.

   I imagine this is even less conceivable in Africa. I am not going to put a cross on renewable energy and I am not going to be a brainless advocate of traditional energy. Things are moving, things are being moved. But where is the golden standard do you think? What is to be done so we have sustainable development, we do not destroy existing jobs in the energy sector and we do create a stable energy that could contribute to sustainable development. Where is the golden standard?

Abel Didier Tella: Thank you for this topic. In fact, before you promote a good policy of renewable energy you may have a base load. If you don’t have base load you can’t go for renewables – a part of hydro and short-term energy, all other energy renewable energy is intermittent. If you don’t have base load you invest, you have your kilowatt hour very expensive and you do not solve your problem. 

    So the approach is Africa is a hybrid approach…we now have clean energy like gas. Gas is a clean energy. We have uranium but we are not yet developing enough nuclear power in any country. We are now putting a hybrid approach… where we have enough solar and wind. Even with some hydro stations, we put solar panels. When you produce in the day for the 6 or 7 hours when you produce solar energy and you put the hydro power in the night shift,  you are coming to a very good kilowatt hour price. And you are (using) your most reliable installations because you don’t have a lot because of intermittency. 

    And also, grid stability. Renewable energy — the idea Is good. But you cannot afford to have an unstable grid. So the combination between some conventional and renewable energy is a good approach that we are developing today. And even in some countries we have now a connection that  is a pre-paid meter, a roof solar panel and a network connection. When the network is good you receive from the network. When you have problems with the network, you are the producer. And you can receive some money at the end of the day from your distributor because you produce more solar to fit the network which has a deficit. This is taking on a commitment in the community. They are feeling part of the business. So to finish the hybrid approach can be our next step for Africa. Don’t go only conventional, don’t go only renewables, stay with a combination. 

Sergey Brilev: We have so many things to talk about. So let’s make a preliminary agreement.  First of al, I promise our subscribers we will continue talking to new members of our board of trustees. We also have Julio Maria Sanguinetti, the former president of Uruguay, representing Latin America. We also have Peter Wilding from the United Kingdom whom a lot of you know because he is the inventor of the word “Brexit”. 

    And I want to say this publicly…Mr. Tella, let us organise sooner, rather than later, a nice webinar – unfortunately you can’t meet in person — with yourself, with several experts from Africa and let’s try to discuss what we ve been discussing and let’s do our best to try to promote our prize so that we see more African nomination because Africa deserves it.

    Thank you so much indeed. Once again, welcome to our association and the board of trustees and let’s talk, let’s continue talking.

Abel Didier Tella: The pleasure is mine. 


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January 2021